Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Lenihan's confessions may just strengthen FG's hand

A friend said to me over supper, one night this week that Brian Lenihan was showing true patriotism in his ongoing confession of what really happened over the bailout.

My own thoughts on this were eccentric enough. I thought of John Gower, the English poet and author of Confessio Amantis, a 33,000-word poem about life and love written at the time of Chaucer.

Mr Lenihan, who has a certain measure of literary understanding, will know what I mean.

The poem was at heart quite political and I see Mr Lenihan needing about 33,000 words before he is finished.

In these early instalments of his own series of confessions he has told us that the EU, through the commission, was relaxed about letting Ireland see if it could survive without intervention and that it was the European Central Bank that put pressure on.

Expressing these views, though in political terms long after the event, our former Finance Minister was undoubtedly helping Michael Noonan and Enda Kenny in their struggle with Europe over an impossible burden of debt.

This will lead inevitably to default if we cannot negotiate burden-sharing.

The only question is whether this will be a default that we choose and negotiate or one that happens in an unstructured way.

There are voices from Europe that suggest a willingness to let our debt be restructured after the savage impositions of last November, accompanied perhaps by a collective EU/ECB/IMF apology.

But this has not yet materialised. Instead, the hard line coming from the ECB is still that the Irish taxpayer has to bail out French and German banks.

Mr Lenihan tells us that the approach of the ECB before November was characterised by indifference and that this quite abruptly gave way to the hard line that pushed us into immediate and draconian levels of imposed debt now regarded as impossibly severe. Patrick Honohan sided with the ECB. This was before their full intention -- to make us pay for the Irish Banks' indebtedness to German and French banks -- was made clear.

He has not changed. And the Government and Department of Finance are going along with that despite its potentially unworkable severity.

Mr Lenihan, by engaging in his own Confessio Amantis, indicates a change of heart that is not dissimilar to that of Gower.

Chaucer's contemporary was commissioned by King Richard II after a chance meeting with the royal barge on the River Thames, and dedicated the first version to the King and to Chaucer. But things changed, references to Richard and the dedication to Chaucer were removed. There was a new dedication to Henry of Lancaster, the future Henry IV. This shift in loyalty was not far removed from Mr Lenihan's unexpected helping hand to Mr Noonan and Mr Kenny faced with the coming default.

They face also a dire piece of nonsense proposed for May 9 when the Dail will hold a Europe Day Debate to herald our 're-engagement' with Europe. This piece of abject hypocrisy truly beats the band.

If designed to allay Eurocrat fears about Irish public opinion becoming more EU-critical, then it is already too late. We have passed the sell-by date for such renewal.

Relations are likely to get worse not better with the bailout breaking our backs. Public opinion is cool at best, hostile at worst, to what Europe has done. PR exercises will not reverse this.

However, if the Government handles it shrewdly -- a big 'if' -- reflecting on our past glorious relationship but facing the reality of the anger and stalemate of the present, they may make progress reducing our debt.

The mistress of ceremonies, our Minister for Europe Lucinda Creighton, will have to swallow what she has said in the past and get a good speech-writer to chart a new way forward for us and Europe.

The presence of our Commissioner, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, will not help nor will her grand address to the Dail. As to our MEPs crowding in to ask Dail questions. Who knows?

The timing for this circus encourages Mr Lenihan to continue his Confessio Amantis, working backward from last November and assessing the whole break-up of our former, simplistic but happy relationship with the EU, including its critical intervention over the banks guarantee.

Since then Europe has beaten us, betrayed us, ordered us to take impossible actions and to follow impossible courses.

The EU and its many messengers and gauleiters campaigned illegally over the Lisbon Treaty referendums, lied to our politicians about what they would do and about what the treaty meant.

The worst aspects of all included their early interference in our banking disaster, back in 2008.

This intrusion did not help Mr Lenihan who was trying to find his way through the intractable quagmire of Anglo-Irish Bank in particular and the other banks in general.

The 'helpful' ECB engaged in seriously toxic advice by telling him that no Irish bank should be let fail.

He obliged, costing us billions of euro. We were still handing them over when the 'help' trio from the EU, the ECB and the IMF arrived two years later, last November. On both occasions and in the interim period, the EU, with support from the ECB and, latterly, the IMF, failed crucially in terms of follow-through.

They did not explain in 2008, and indeed not until two years later when it was far too late, how the country should proceed in the light of their poisonous and treacherous proposal, which was to put the onus of saving Europe's banking system on the shoulders of the Irish taxpayer.

As a continuation of Mr Lenihan's Confessio Amantis I would like him to tell us just how truthful Brian Cowen was about Anglo Irish Bank in the handover when he became Taoiseach and Mr Lenihan moved into Finance. He was even less experienced than finance ministers in other countries. His job was more difficult but he made a hamfisted mistake in including Anglo in the rescue operation when he should have let it fail.

Was he told about the 2007 meetings, the crisis after Sean FitzPatrick handed over to David Drumm, or the failures of the Financial Regulator, the Central Bank and other institutions in bringing their new Finance Minister fully into the disastrous set of circumstances he faced?

Was he told about Sean Quinn's gambling with Anglo-Irish Bank shares? In short, was Mr Lenihan brought up to speed, or was he, as David McWilliams's first-hand encounters revealed, at a complete loss?

His Confessio Amantis to date has not added these areas of error to his other statements about what happened in his unhappy past.

On its own it is sufficient for us to cancel the proposed fiasco on May 9. However, it does seem that both Mr Noonan and Mr Kenny are fighting far more skillfully than either Mr Lenihan, Mr Cowen or Micheal Martin did, in the whole period of 2008-2010, so we'll let 'Europe Day' strengthen their hand, if that is possible.