Brian Cowen: Leader of the first majority Irish government in 30 years.
Of the two million people who voted in the Irish general election of May 2007, if twenty five thousand had voted a different way, Bertie Ahern could have been re-elected Taoiseach, if he could have convinced both the Progressive Democrats and the Greens to form a coalition. But he never got the chance, with Enda Kenny managing to take Fine Gael from a humiliating defeat in 2002 into government and coalition with Labour and the Greens. that day was to be the high point of Kenny’s political career.
As the global economy nose dived in 2007, Kenny struggled to keep the government together, especially as Labour struggled to keep its deputies onboard in the face of unexpected cutbacks in public spending, and higher taxes. Then came the night of the banking guarantee.
Kenny, his finance minister Ruairi Quinn, and Tanaiste Pat Rabbitte listened in silence as the banks outlined their need for massive state support. Rabbitte summoned the Labour ministers to an emergency meeting at 2am, where the options were laid out. He then returned to the Taoiseach to inform him that Labour would support the immediate nationalisation of AIB and the Bank of Ireland, and that it was Labour’s opinion that Anglo Irish Bank was not vital to the national banking system and so, with safeguards for deposits under €100,000, should be permitted to fail. Fine Gael ministers, who had arrived, immediately attacked the Labour proposal as reckless, declaring the nationalisation of the banks to be knee-jerk and unacceptable, and pointing out that there was no information to advise as to what the collapse of Anglo Irish would do to Irish pensions or credit unions.
Labour, however, were adamant, and at 4:40am the Labour ministers resigned. The Taoiseach immediately dispatched Gardai to collect Brian Cowen, the leader of the opposition, and his finance spokesperson. The two Fianna Fail deputies listened to the Taoiseach and his acting finance minister, Michael Noonan explain the situation, and ask for Fianna Fail support for a minority Fine Gael government. Cowen agreed to a public commitment to support the government in issuing a guarantee for all the banks, in return for announcing an early general election within two months.
Kenny had no choice but to agree. As the meeting broke up, one of Kenny’s highly paid advisers suddenly blurted out: “Jesus, has anyone woken up Sargent?”
The Taoiseach addressed the country the following day, explaining the guarantee and announcing the general election. Labour attacked the proposals, but as the election campaign took off, Fianna Fail went for the jugular with the two former coalition partners, with a poster of bundles of money on fire. The slogan, “You just can’t trust them with your money” caught the imagination.
In the party leaders debates, Brian Cowen devastated the squabbling FG and Labour leaders with an assurance that “unlike these two, Fianna Fail will never, never take the country to the stage that we have to go cap in hand to the IMF or anyone else for a bailout.” Although it returned Fianna Fail to its first overall majority in Dail since 1977, it was a clip that would haunt Cowen for the rest of his life.