BRIAN Cowen's negotiating style in hammering out Fianna Fail's alliance with the Greens to form a government has acquired the whiff of myth. The story goes how, on day one of the talks, the finance minister, flanked by his sidekicks Noel Dempsey and Seamus Brennan, pulls out a chair, plonks down at the table, flips open a ledger and proceeds: 'Right, lads, let's work through this alphabetically . . . starting with 'A' for Agriculture.
Well, that's off the table, anyway.'
'What?' bleat the ashen-faced Green trio of Messrs Dan Boyle, John Gormley and then general secretary Donal Geoghegan.
'Look, lads, your haul of votes would barely register on an abacus, ' Fianna Fail's deputy leader explains patiently, or, at least, in words to that effect, 'and we got a great big heft of the farmers' vote. So, no contest. Next . . . 'A' for Arts, Sport & Tourism. . ."
And so on it went until, despite the Greens walking out at the eleventh hour and declaring the entire exercise redundant, the programme for government was agreed. "We thought we'd wangled a great deal out of Cowen with extra spending for education, " recalls a Green source with undisguised esteem for the erstwhile enemy. "We'd flagged it as one of the really big concessions we'd eked out of them and then we discovered afterwards that there was already an allowance made for the extra expenditure."
When agnostics question, on the grounds of unconvincing evidence, the consensus that Cowen is the towering genius of Irish politics, they simply have not searched hard enough for proof. At 47 and lumbered with a grumpy public persona that makes Victor Meldrew appear effervescent, he is the second most senior politician in the country and poised to become the top dog. All this, despite scarcely leaving a footprint in the five high-powered government departments he has occupied on his way up the ladder. To add to his myriad job titles, he is now officially known as The Anointed One, though Cowen-watchers wonder if, deep down, he really, really wants to be Fianna Fail leader and, ergo, Taoiseach.
Last June, Bertie Ahern gave his deputy his official blessing as heir-select in a radio interview on the News At One. Cowen was the obvious choice: bright, popular with the backbenchers, the quintessential Fianna Fail scion, youngish and with destiny forever hovering on his shoulder. In the corridors of Leinster House, he is regarded as the saviour of an election campaign almost annihilated by Bertiegate.
On the other hand, Cowen is rural-based in an increasingly urbanised Ireland, old-style, intransigent, surly, not slick like Ahern, and lacking the charisma to attract the all-important floating voters. More and more, too, he is coming across as ambivalent about payments to politicians, despite being whistle-clean himself. The poisoned chalice of being Ahern's chosen one means he must wait uncomplainingly for his moment until his patron chooses to go and, in the meantime, defend him to the hilt. Biffo's blind loyalty in this regard has been unstinting. A Dail-watcher wonders if "Bertie has embraced his closest rival and locked him to his hip so that Cowen will never move against him."
In September 2006, Cowen adjudged that Ahern "was not incorrect" to accept £8,000 from businessmen at a Manchester dinner. Paying homage to "the exceptional leadership of Bertie Ahern" in a speech at the Humbert Summer School in August, he insisted: "No person should have to go through what Bertie Ahern endured in those weeksf After 10 years, the public were not going to be rushed into making a judgement on the Taoiseach. They know him pretty well by now and they understand that he is not motivated by personal gain."
Passionate supporter Only theSunday Independent, the Taoiseach's most passionate supporter outside the Fianna Fail organisation, remains steadfastly unimpressed with the finance minister, even after he conceded stamp-duty reform following a sustained campaign by the newspaper. "Timid TDs are cowed by cantankerous Brian's bite", went one headline.
"When going gets tough, Cowen starts spinning", went another. Last week's lead story was: "Cowen plays politics with the economy." According to a friend, the finance minister is, though puzzled by the paper's animosity to him, unperturbed by it most of the time. One exception was an exhortation to him in August to return home from his holidays in Portugal and rescue the ailing economy.
"His wife, Mary, was upset about that one but it doesn't worry Brian . . . all that stuff about the 'Guinness-stained tie'. The way he sees it, the people who go to Croke Park aren't going to be guided by the Sunday Indo, " says a constituency source.
"He, along with Seamus Brennan, Martin Cullen and Noel Dempsey, were the ones who pushed for a privacy bill when McDowell was reforming the defamation law. He strongly believes politicians and their families have the right to privacy. That's been there with him since Youth Defence picketed his home when he was minister for health.
The Mail ran a story one time with copies of receipts showing that he'd been in Foley's pub in Merrion Row after-hours the night of a budget and people around him were indignant about that and he was frustrated about it. He knows journalists and he knows they don't always acquire the Guinness stains on their ties during pub opening hours."
That he had been in the company of cabinet colleague Willie O'Dea the night the latter got embroiled in a scene in a Limerick pub was taken as licence by some newspapers to expose the Tanaiste's sociable side. He likes a drink and enjoys bar-room conviviality but, it must be said, there has never been a suggestion that it impinges on his ability to do his job. He once recorded Phil Coulter's 'The Town I Loved So Well' for a charity CD in The Tap pub in Tullamore and, during the recent World Fleadh, he gave a rendition of Jimmy Crowley's 'The Pool Song' in the Irish National Foresters' Club.
Biffo, as he dislikes to be known, was profoundly unhappy in the Department of Health . . . his first posting under Ahern's leadership. He was accused by the Irish Haemophilia Society of being "inept and uninterested" and of "taking two-and-a-half years to finalise a two-and-a-half-page document" because of tardiness in setting up the Lindsay tribunal. When he left Hawkins House, the place was on the precipice of freefall into chaos.
When Bertie Ahern gave his attorney general, David Byrne, the EU Commissioner's job in 1999, in the wake of Pee Flynn, it was reported that the Taoiseach assuaged Cowen's disappointment at not getting the Brussels' gift with the promise that he would succeed him as party leader. After that, even Ian Paisley's lampooning of Cowen's "thick lips" failed to discombobulate the Clara solicitor, whose friends claim what was actually getting up the DUP leader's perfectly aligned nose was the burgeoning regard for Cowen among hardman loyalist leaders like Billy Hutchinson.
"The main unionist parties didn't want the loyalist politicians tagging along to the White House with them for Paddy's Day, " a friend of Cowen recounts, "and, when they got to Washington, they found that they had been left off all the guest lists. Brian said to them, 'Come on along with us.
We'll get you in.' At the same time, they saw him being tough with Sinn Fein. Whenever a proposal was made in the peace talks and Martin McGuinness would say, 'We'll have to consult the [IRA] army council on this, ' Brian would say, 'Yeah, well, there's a mirror in the toilet if you want to go in there and talk to them.'" Prophet of doom As he prepares for his fourth budget on 5 December . . . the first niggardly one since he became finance minister in 2004 . . . he is in the firing line as the prophet of doom. Unlike his leader, however, Cowen seems unconcerned with being universally loved. At a Dublin Economics Workshop in Kenmare earlier this month, he risked alienating the entire economist class by telling the following joke. The late Soviet president, Leonid Brezhnev, was reviewing the May Day parade in Red Square and basking in his army's awesome military might.
First came the soldiers, goose-stepping with wondrous precision past the VIP stand. Next came the gleaming tanks and artillery. And, bringing up the rear in a shuffling jumble of disarray, came a group of shabbily dressed, sour-faced men. "Comrade secretary, my apologies, " gasped an aide. "I do not know who these people are or how they got into our parade." "Do not be concerned, comrade, " replied Brezhnev. "I am responsible for putting them there. These are our economists.
There is nothing more dangerous than these."
Asked if Brian Cowen will ever become leader of Fianna Fail, his predecessor as deputy leader, Mary O'Rourke, replies: "I think he will. Among the parliamentary party, I've never heard a bad word said about him. He's comfortable in his own skin.
In that regard, he's entirely uncomplicated."