Sunday 25 February 2018

Review: Pat Leahy - 'The Price of Power - Inside Ireland's Crisis Coalition'

Jean-Claude Trichet
Lise Hand

Lise Hand

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Every good story needs a villain, and heaven knows there's a cast of thousands to choose from when it comes to the tragic tale of the demise of the Celtic Tiger.

But in journalist Pat Leahy's absorbing book The Price of Power, which takes a peek behind the scenes of the current coalition Government, top billing is given to the former head of the European Central Bank (ECB), Jean-Claude Trichet.

The book by the political editor of the Sunday Business Post contains a fascinating account of the manner in which the powerful ECB president stymied the plan of the newly installed Irish coalition to impose losses on the unguaranteed and unsecured bondholders in the two defunct banks, Anglo and Irish Nationwide.

Leahy describes a series of increasingly fraught phone calls on March 31, 2011 – just three weeks after the Fine Gael-Labour Government took office – between the ECB boss and Finance Minister Michael Noonan in which Jean-Claude Trichet spelled out the consequences of burning the bondholders.

"No, no, no," said Trichet. "If you do it the bomb will go off. It will not go off in Frankfurt, it will go off in Dublin." The 'bomb' would be the sudden withdrawal of all the ECB funding that was keeping the Irish banks going.

Rattled by such high-powered pressure, Noonan backed off at the last minute, and the script of his planned Dáil speech to announce the plan was hastily rewritten as he made his way into the chamber 10 minutes late.

It makes for dramatic reading but it's still an unfinished story. The long-term political and financial consequences of that decision may not yet be entirely certain, but it does place the man once dismissed by Eamon Gilmore as "a mere civil servant" firmly back into the role of Ireland's bête noire of the troika.

The Price of Power is two things: it's a half-time work, produced at the mid-term point of the Government's tenure (assuming the Coalition lasts for the full five years); it's also a book of two very distinct halves.

The first 100 pages takes up where Leahy's excellent first book Showtime left off. This section is devoted to the insanity and dysfunction of the last chaotic nine months of the Fianna Fáil-Green administration, and it zips breathlessly from farce to fiasco, recounting the events surrounding the now-infamous Fianna Fáil think-in which became known as Garglegate and which in hindsight was the beginning of the end of Taoiseach Brian Cowen, to the confusion and denial around the arrival of the IMF into Ireland, the clumsy withdrawal of the Greens from government and the electoral massacre of the Soldiers of Destiny in February 2011.

But this section also examines other wars. The book opens with the extremely messy and public Fine Gael heave against Enda Kenny in June 2010, which was as much lost by the ineptitude of the rebels than won by the leader's loyalists.

And it has an impressive amount of detail about the volatile relationship between Labour leader Eamon Gilmore and his ambitious deputy leader Joan Burton – a plot-line which is still going strong to this day.

The second and larger section of the book deals with the ups and downs of the Coalition, and reveals how not everything is rosy in the red and blue garden. There are less anecdotes and more analysis, but it's clear that the author had access to senior sources and for anyone wondering how the government parties do business together, it provides interesting insights.

Leahy pays much attention to the Economic Management Council (EMC), the 'inner cabinet' consisting of the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Michael Noonan and Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin.

He describes this quartet who meet every Wednesday morning as "the decisive organ of of leadership in Ireland". And its existence and influence is a sore point with several other cabinet ministers who feel that all of the major decisions are shaped by the EMC and simply rubber-stamped by the rest of them.

One of the defences posited by the members of the EMC is that of discretion, as time after time confidential cabinet discussions were immediately leaked to the media, particularly in the run-up to the Budget.

And with the next Budget due in a few weeks, the book makes no bones about the stresses they cause to the Coalition, recounting how the Coalition experienced a major wobble last year over proposed cuts to social welfare which was only rescued at the last minute.

Leahy describes how the Labour ministers left to pow-wow over the compromise solution with the Tánaiste. "The Labour contingent trooped out of the cabinet room as the Fine Gael ministers watched in silence. Even if the danger of the Coalition falling apart had been at its greatest the day before, the withdrawal of the Labour ministers from the cabinet room was the most dramatic moment to date in the short life of the Coalition."

Readers of The Price of Power will be left with the overriding impression that although this is a stable administration in comparison with the utter madness of the final year or so of the last one, fires are still being put out daily on the Labour and Fine Gael corridors.

Labour, reeling from defections and depressing opinion polls, are struggling not to suffer the usual fate of junior coalition partners by becoming the sacrificial electoral lamb.

Leahy vividly sketches a picture of a mercurial political marriage in which both parties are toughing it out and sticking together for the sake of the battered country.

As one senior Labour insider told him: "There is no government message. There are two parties who are agreed on things that have to be done".


'The Price of Power – Inside Ireland's Crisis Coalition'

Pat Leahy

Penguin Ireland


Irish Independent

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