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Irish electorate wonders, does its prime minister like the Guinness a little too much?

DUBLIN, Ireland — A former taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland, Albert Reynolds, once famously declared, after being forced to resign over an administrative blunder, “It’s the small things that trip you up.” 

The same fate may await Ireland’s current leader, Brian Cowen, after a night of merriment at a Fianna Fail Party conference turned into a personal nightmare the next day over allegations that he had taken too much drink. 

The tripwire for Cowen was a breakfast interview he gave to Irish radio, RTE, during which he spoke hoarsely and slurred his words. As calls flooded in from incredulous listeners asking about his condition, an opposition spokesman, Simon Coveney, tweeted that the prime minister “sounded half way between drunk and hung-over” in the RTE radio interview. This comment was picked up and reported widely at home and abroad, making the taoiseach a laughing stock and questioning his competence to handle Ireland’s grave banking crisis. 

For Irish journalists the controversy over the 13-minute interview provided an opportunity to raise an issue they had tip-toed around before — did the prime minister have too great a fondness for Guinness. It was conducted the morning after a September 12-13 party think-in at the Ardilaun Hotel in Galway.

Following a dinner in the hotel ballroom, many of the delegates retired to the bar for a sing-song. A Fianna Fail Senator Donie Cassidy played the piano and European Parliament member Brian Crowley encouraged everyone to sing. 

The taoiseach obliged with a rendition of the Irish emmigrant ballad, "The Lakes of Pontchartrain," which contained lines appropriate to his current budget dilemma: “I cursed all foreign money, no credit could I gain/ Which filled my heart with longin’ for the Lakes of Pontchartain.” 

He was also prevailed upon to do some of his famous impersonations, and brought the house down with his impersonations of a well-known Irish sports commentator and some Ryder Cup golfers — during which he swung an imaginary golf club. By the time Cowen retired to bed at 3.30 a.m. he had enjoyed, as witness, Miriam Lord of The Irish Times, put it, a “few slow pints,” though he did not give the appearance of someone under the influence of drink. 

Until the disastrous interview on Irish radio a few hours later, Cowen’s bar-room performance would not have attracted much attention. 

The conference was partly designed to allow politicians from the ruling party to let their hair down before parliament resumes next month, and most Irish political gatherings end with boisterous late-night socializing. 

Any expectations however that the conference would result in clarity on government policy were dashed by Cowen’s interview. In a thick voice he delivered a number of banal statements on RTE such as: “What will get us out of this situation is preparedness by a government to do what’s necessary to get this country back on track ... We all have to get in behind it and make sure we do it because it’s exactly about that by the way, it’s about how we secure our kids’ future.” 

For an Irish public desperately looking for the government to lead the country out of its crippling economic and financial crisis, this was a tipping point. 

Cowen, whose approval rating stands at a mere 18 percent, is no longer considered up to the job. His future as party leader is in serious doubt and pressure is growing for a general election before the government’s term expires in two years. 

The inept performance on radio comes at a time when Ireland's international standing has been damaged by revelations of the billions required to capitalize its financial institutions and wind down its rogue bank, Anglo Irish Bank. The total cost is still unknown and Cowen’s vagueness only added to a perception of government bungling. 

Humiliated at home and abroad, the Irish prime minister seemed unaware of the damage to his reputation by the interview until a reporter asked him, “Taoiseach, are you worried about your drinking, do you ever think you drink too much?” 

He replied, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” 

But the question had at last been asked and Cowen’s fitness to rule had been seriously, and probably fatally, undermined.