Cowen: We dealt with the financial crisis to the very best of our ability

Brian Cowen on the way into Leinster House this morning
Brian Cowen on the way into Leinster House this morning

The former Minister for Finance and Taoiseach was speaking at the Banking Inquiry today where he addressed his period as Minister for Finance.

Cowen began with an apology.

"I want to say to the Irish people that the government I led dealt with the financial crisis to the very best of its ability," he said.

"I know the crisis brought with it difficulties and problems of all kinds to many people throughout the country, and as head of the country I accept full and complete responsibility for my role and our response to that crisis.

"I'm sorry that the policies we felt necessary to put in place in responding to the national crisis brought with it hardship and distress to many people.

"The human cost of dealing with this crisis, which we sought to mitigate as best we could, was the most difficult aspect of the decision we had to make."

Mr Cowen added: "While there was an international context to our difficulties there is no doubt there were failures on the domestic front also."

However, under questioning from the committee, the tone became more combative.

When asked if he would change anything, Cowen replied: "Now that we know where we are now, of course I would have a different policy, of course I would," he said.

"But the policy we had at the time was a policy that was plausible and was backed up by international peer assessment and by domestic commentary here - that's a fact.
"We had a situation here where we were looking at long-term growth ... based on the economy growing consistently for 10 years."

In one tetchy exchange with Fine Gael's Kieran O'Donnell, Mr Cowen signalled his upset at young people throughout the country being lumbered with negative equity, having bought starter homes during the boom.

"You have no monopoly on upset or seeing people in distress," he said.

"I have nothing but the greatest sympathy for people in that situation.

"Anything I did ... the work that we did when I was in government was always about promoting the public interest as we saw it, about being ambitious for this country and trying to build on the success of previous years, and the hard work of the Irish people is what is helping us back.

"If we all had time back now ... I'm not suggesting we would have the same policy framework if I knew then what I know now. But no one knew then we were going to have a financial crisis in 2008.

"Anybody suggesting that they did is being intellectually and politically dishonest.

"Every country in the developed world has had to deal with this to a varying degree

"I'm not shifting the responsibility anywhere. I'm the guy that was there, and I'm here to explain to people what was the contemporary thinking."

This was Cowen's first appearance at the Inquiry, covering his term as Minister of Finance from September 2004 until May 2008.

He will return next week to cover his spell as Taoiseach, from May 2008 to March 2011, which will cover the night of the bank guarantee in September 2008 and the acceptance of the bailout in 2010.