Thursday 27 October 2016

Inquiry had its agenda, And Trichet had his. The Frenchman triumphed

Published 01/05/2015 | 02:30

Institute of International and European Affairs chairman Brendan Halligan presented Mr Trichet with a book about Dublin
Institute of International and European Affairs chairman Brendan Halligan presented Mr Trichet with a book about Dublin

As an exercise in holding a once powerful official to account, it was hard to see its usefulness. Jean-Claude Trichet gave a defiant performance. At times condescending and even brash.

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But did we learn anything new? Not particularly.

The inquiry had its agenda, and Mr Trichet had his. And the Frenchman won.

In many respects, the event was an elaborate farce. The former European Central Bank president was feted for his appearance, and was even presented with a book about Dublin by Institute for International and European Affairs chairman Brendan Halligan at the close of the three-hour event, amid a round of applause.

Other witnesses before the inquiry haven't been treated with such reverence. There was a lot of anticipation surrounding the appearance by Jean-Claude Trichet before the joint IIEA and Banking Inquiry event yesterday, given the drama in getting him to appear.

The Oireachtas probe has had to play an elaborate game of footsie with him to get his side of the story.

Trichet was arguably one of the most important witnesses to come before the inquiry. As President of the European Central Bank at the time of the bank guarantee in 2008 and the bailout in 2010, the Frenchman's insight and reflections were always going to be of interest. But it's not clear whether his testimony will be of much value.

Mr Trichet's 55-minute opening address swung between highlighting what Ireland had done wrong in the run-up to the crash, and giving us a patronising pat on the back over the recovery. It was about 90 minutes before the members of the inquiry could even begin their questioning. To be fair to the inquiry members, it's unlikely they would have managed to get much more had they grilled him in the familiar confines of Leinster House. The consistent message was that the European Central Bank did no wrong. It was a friend at a time of need and its support was greater for Ireland than any other country.

It knew nothing of the bank guarantee, and suggestions that its president put a gun to the head of the then-government and bounced Ireland into a bailout or threatened that it would withdraw emergency cash if it moved to burn senior bondholders was roundly denied.

And throughout it all, the late Brian Lenihan was the ghost in the room. Mr Trichet spoke of "Brian" often in a fond and reflective tone, giving the impression of a bond between the two men that transcended the professional.

He rejected claims by the late Finance Minister that he phoned him in September 2008 demanding that he save the banks. And even though the ECB simply "advised" that it wouldn't be wise to burn senior bondholders in 2010, Mr Trichet said he had no recollection that Mr Lenihan was considering the option.

The problem is the one man who can refute or accept it, isn't here. And that puts a question mark over the usefulness of the exercise.

Irish Independent

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