BY midnight on Wednesday, assuming he doesn't fall under a bus, Brian Cowen will have succeeded in avoiding one unwanted distinction. Regardless of what happens between now and the next general election, whenever it might be, Brian Cowen will not go down in history as the shortest-serving Taoiseach.
Thursday will be Cowen's 926th day as Taoiseach. That is a long way shy of his predecessor, Bertie Ahern – who was just 31 days short of 4,000 days in office when he stepped down. And it is less than 12% of the extraordinary 7,738 days Eamon de Valera spent as head of government over 27 years.
Cowen certainly won't threaten either of these records – indeed even Albert Reynolds' more modest 1,039 days as Taoiseach looks far from assured. But by Thursday he will have overtaken the 925 served by John Bruton in the mid-1990s – the shortest-ever spell in office by a Taoiseach in the history of the state.
And given the turbulent two-and-a-half years Cowen has had to endure in the top job, that in itself is something of a minor triumph.
So as he overtakes Bruton in the Taoiseach's 'league table', what better time to assess his tenure as head of government? Here we critique Brian Cowen's term in office – the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
There's simply no denying Cowen's unpopularity with the electorate – an 11% approval rate speaks volumes – but there is a strong case to be made that history will be a lot a kinder to his spell as Taoiseach.
One of the most common charges thrown at Cowen is that he puts party before country. The facts suggest otherwise. Almost as soon as he came to office, the economy and the public finances went into freefall.
Since then, the government he has presided over has taken the kind of decisions that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago: cutting welfare payments, twice reducing public-sector pay, taking on the pharmacists – the list goes on and on. Savings of €15bn have already been made to date with a commitment to making another €15bn over the next four years.
Contrast that decisive approach with the last recession in the 1980s, when it took the guts of 10 years and five changes of administration before a government took the kind of tough decisions that were so clearly required.
The current crisis is somewhat worse – not least because of the banking meltdown – but this time around there has been immediate action to address the situation. Cowen is no fool, he knew making those decisions would cost Fianna Fáil, and him personally, dearly in the polls and so it has proved. But despite the fact that he effectively was signing his own political death warrant, he has the guts to keep doing the right thing.
The Taoiseach is consistently accused of failing to show leadership but, while he undoubtedly has problems with communication, leadership is surely about action rather than words. Cowen has walked the walk even if he has been poor at talking the talk.
Two of the biggest decisions that he (or indeed any other Taoiseach) has overseen in his two-and-a-half years was the introduction of the banking guarantee and the establishment of Nama. There has been no shortage of commentators willing to dump on those moves but the reality is that it will be some time before we can properly judge who is right. And at least they were decisions. For better or worse, leadership was shown.
And after the Bertie Ahern approach of government-by-focus-group, there has been something refreshing about Cowen's very obvious distaste for the politics of perception. It hasn't helped him politically but his lack of interest in soundbites, courting the media and populism is admirable.
While some of his cabinet appointments have been surprising, his decision to appoint Brian Lenihan to Finance has been inspired. Lenihan hasn't got everything right but he has done the best possible job in virtually impossible conditions. Cowen has also shown considerable political skill in keeping his government afloat despite the almost permanent sense of crisis that has enveloped the country. His government's majority has been dwindling away but given the extent of the cutbacks, it's a minor miracle that Cowen's coalition has been able to bring three really tough budgets to date with a fourth to come next month.
There have been other positives in his time as Taoiseach: the ending of the Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway races, the willingness to accepting the Greens' move to end corporate donations, the rescuing of the Lisbon treaty when Ireland's relationship with the EU looked almost irreparably damaged, the tough and decisive position he took over Ivor Callely and Cowen's essential decency and obvious probity.
Ultimately though, it will be on the economy Cowen will be judged. During his time as Minister for Finance, he was seen as highly successful; it was only retrospectively that a far more damning assessment of his time in that department emerged. Don't rule out the reverse being the case in relation to his job as Taoiseach.
Where do we start? As has already been mentioned, there is something appealing about Cowen's eschewing of populism and refusal to play the media game. But the reality is that a modern political leader has to be concerned about perception, about communicating the message; about image.
Cowen may well have walked the walk when it comes to taking the tough decisions but, by failing to talk the talk, it has meant that he has not been able to bring people with him – and that includes TDs in his own party.
He can point to concrete steps he has taken to address the fiscal and banking crisis but the public 'perception' is that there is an absence of leadership and that perception is as important as the reality.
Nobody expects Franklin D Roosevelt and his fireside chats, but in these extraordinary times, the nation does need reassurance. Too often, in his oratory, Cowen has woefully failed to provide that reassurance. When he has been good – his address to the Dublin Chamber of Commerce last year – he has been very good, but when he has been bad – like many of his performances in the Dáil – he can be dire.
It is quite proper that the Taoiseach of the day doesn't rush to judgement and run with the hounds and allows for due process. But the perception often is that Cowen is out of sync with the rest of the country – remember his hopelessly out-of-touch defence of the Vatican's dealings with the Commission of Investigation after the publication of the Murphy report last December and the timidity of his approach on issues such as pensions for retired politicians.
His, at times, tortured, jargon-filled and very technical use of language – "going forward in conjunction with our EU allies" – doesn't help. It's almost his default mode, like when he was on the 2FM roadcaster earlier this year, fondly recalling a folk club from his days growing up in Tullamore. The young people of Ireland were told that, unfortunately, "it wasn't a commercially viable proposition in the long term".
And while Cowen has presided over some genuinely tough decisions, he is frustratingly cautious and something of a prevaricator. The disastrous decision to keep putting off the Donegal South-West by-election is the classic example of that and one which has backfired seriously on the government.
A lot of the really big calls – a property tax, third-level fees, public-service reform, the commission on taxation report – have been long-fingered. The perception – that word again – at times is that Cowen is only doing just as much as he has to and no more. Time will tell whether he should have been bold and gone to the country a couple of months ago, calling the bluff of the opposition in the process. It would have been a risky strategy, but it might ultimately prove to have been better than the government simply running out of numbers, as is likely to happen in the new year. It might also have been better for the country.
His cabinet appointments are another example of this cautious approach. Why for example did he appoint Martin Cullen to his first cabinet? And why didn't he opt for a far more radical shake-up of ministers earlier this year? There is genuine talent on the Fianna Fáil backbenches and Cowen could and should have been far bolder in his approach.
One decision he certainly did not prevaricate over was the introduction of the bank guarantee on that now infamous night in September, 2008. It's hard to be too critical of any choices made that night, given that the alternative was truly horrendous, but it seems clear that while a guarantee was necessary, the extent of that guarantee was too wide and was a mistake.
The Taoiseach's problems originated a few months before that with the first Lisbon referendum. The shocking lack of party discipline shown in that campaign has been replicated on many occasions with a number of TDs notably failing to go with the party line. At times, Cowen should have been tougher with those who stepped out of line and there is a feeling among some in the party that his failure to do so only served to encourage others.
Cowen has also needlessly given ammunition to those critics who claim he is too tribal a leader. His appointment of Maire Geoghegan-Quinn as European Commissioner, rather than selecting a Pat Cox, a John Bruton or a Ruairí Quinn, was an obvious example of this.
It is true to say that any politician would have struggled to cope with the economic tsunami that has engulfed the country. Look at Obama, two years into office – best summed up by Sarah Palin's acerbic "How's that hopey, changey thing working out for ya?" line. But Cowen too often gives the impression that he never really wanted the job of Taoiseach in the first place.
And The Ugly
No prizes for guessing the low point of Brian Cowen's tenure – it has to be the now infamous interview with Morning Ireland in Galway during the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party think-in, which led to newspaper headlines around the world and a (particularly nasty) mention on the popular Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Cowen and those around him have always emphatically denied any suggestion that he was under the influence when he did the interview, but it was a PR disaster and hugely damaged him in the eyes of an already unimpressed electorate. The damage was such that it's difficult to see him coming back from it, even allowing for short memories. What went on the night before, while hardly a crime, raised serious questions about Cowen's judgement. Even leaving aside the fact that he had an important interview to do the following morning, the Taoiseach shouldn't have been doing his party piece in a bar filled with journalists.
In terms of the awful opinion polls, the rot really set in with the October 2008 budget and the decision to end the automatic right of pensioners to a medical card. The move was correct and looks somewhat tame compared to the kind of cuts that have happened since. But it was communicated badly, allowing fear and panic to set in. The decision to bring forward the budget was taken to counter the accusations that nobody was in charge but it meant decisions were rushed and not politically proofed. The government spent the next few days backpeddling as angry pensioners took to the streets. Arguably, it – and Cowen himself – has never really recovered.