Monday 11 November 2019

Illumination once again: Michael sees light at end of this tunnel

Michael Noonan broke his news in his laconic manner. No fanfare, no triumphalism

AT long last. A glimmer of light, a tiny speck of illumination at the far end of a very dark and scary tunnel.

And for once, just maybe, it isn't the oncoming headlamps of a train.

For the last few years, the windowless press centre in Government Buildings has become a sort of doleful Lough Derg (but without the spirituality), a desolate place of little cheer where good news is doled out in very meagre rations indeed and briefings simply serve as grim reminders of all the hard yards the country has to walk before the sun ever shines again.

And no conference in the press centre was ever more gut-wrenchingly depressing than that which was held there on the icy night of Sunday November 21, 2010, when an ashen Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan announced that our nation's sovereignty was being handed over to the IMF.

But yesterday, just a month short of the second anniversary of that horrible evening, Michael Noonan entered the same room and pointed to a pinpoint of brightness in the distance.

It was at the start of what by now has become a routine post-troika press briefing -- the chaps from the IMF, EC and ECB had just completed their eighth inspection of our balance sheet, and both the Finance Minister and Public Expenditure Minister arrived to deliver the troika's latest verdict on our painful pilgrim's progress.

Michael Noonan broke his news in his characteristically laconic manner. No fanfare, no triumphalism, no build-up. He breezily announced that he and Brendan Howlin had brought up a new subject with the troika team -- Ireland's exit from the bailout programme by the end of next year.

The troika, he explained, would begin putting together a paper on what he described as "normal exit strategies from a programme.

"So we're at the stage now where we're just taking the first steps of making the preparations for leaving the programme and running our country in the normal way as a normal sovereign country," he said.

One small step, perhaps, but a big deal nonetheless. It was the first indication that Ireland just might be able to survive the savage storms which have buffeted its shores for over four years now.

"I am very confident that we will exit the programme in all circumstances," said Michael laconically, as beside him, Brendan wittered happily about us all entering a Picasso-like "post-programme period".

Of course, this pronouncement did come with a variety of caveats, buts and ifs trailing in its wake -- there were a few variables, warned Michael. And of course the biggie is what concessions the EU will grant Ireland in lightening the overwhelming burden of legacy bank debt.

If we get a decent deal on it, he explained, "we will access money (on international bond markets) at a much lower interest rate. That is the variable."

But the Government has had a good week on that front, too. The Merkel Muddle of last week's EU summit was rapidly followed by the "special case" communique from Dublin and Berlin last weekend, and then this special case status was given a resounding endorsement by French President Francois Hollande on Monday.

The stakes are so high. Getting a break on our broken banks could make that pinprick of light so much bigger. Even in the Dail earlier in the day there had been a spooky harkening back to the dark days of 2010 during a heated exchange on bank debt between the Tanaiste and Fianna Fail deputy, Barry Cowen.

Out of nowhere, Barry suddenly let fly at Eamon Gilmore, taunting him over Labour's election pledges to burn bondholders. "I would say it was almost treasonous to give the people that impression," he snarled, visibly enraged.

There were quiet intakes of breath around the chamber. This was clearly payback for Eamon Gilmore's infamous charge of "economic treason" which he flung at Barry's brother Brian in the Dail in March 2010 -- an accusation which deeply wounded the Taoiseach.

Eamon -- wisely -- ignored the taunt. No one wants to rehash those bitter times.

And especially not when Michael Noonan was striking a match in the dark. And typical of the man, he admitted he hadn't even told the Cabinet about the momentous discussion.

"Yeah, Brendan and I have been talking about this, even though there has been no discussion at government yet," he explained cheerily.

Well, they sure as heck know about it now.

Irish Independent

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