Wednesday 17 January 2018

When quiet day at the office became history in making

Then deputy government press secretary John Downing watched from a unique vantage point as Ireland's power-brokers gathered on 30-09-08, a tense meeting that concluded with the controversial €400bn bank guarantee scheme

Former government press officer John Downing outside the Dail, Leinster House
Former government press officer John Downing outside the Dail, Leinster House
Tough times ahead: A woman looks at televisions in a shop window at then Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan delivering his mini Budget to the Dáil
John Downing

John Downing

It was after 5pm and I was strongly thinking of filing this one under 'M for Monday' and stealing a rare 'half day'. As a lifer in the newspaper business, where ramshackle open-plan newsrooms are the norm, 15 months in this government press service job were not enough to get me used to having a big office all to myself.

A mixture of loneliness and curiosity caused me to often keep the office door open. That was why I first noticed an unusual amount of coming and going on the corridors for that hour on a Monday.

The radio news all that day was dominated by the calamitous fall in Irish bank shares. The grim business page headlines of several weeks had now colonised the mainstream news agenda and the outlook was very dispiriting indeed. And, as if an imminent national economic slump was not bad enough, it was now clear that my 'half day' was also now very probably out of the question.

A donder around the splendid Government Buildings told me that some very heavy-hitters had come in from the Department of Finance and the Central Bank. There were just too many of them about for this to be a routine matter.

A group of people came and went on the second floor close to the office of Taoiseach Brian Cowen. Joe Lennon, the Taoiseach's programme manager, and the avuncular Professor Peter Clinch, a newcomer to Government Buildings on secondment from UCD, were among them.

I said 'hello' to both but knew better than to ask any questions. Back on the ground floor, close to my office, I waylaid government press secretary Eoghan Ó Neachtain. "Rud mor i dtaobh na bainc (Something big involving the banks)," he said.

My first reflection was lamentably superficial but also showed how hard old habits die. I had a fleeting thought, of a kind one can get from staring too long at the train communication chord, that I could ring a few newsdesk numbers I still had off by heart and rack up a world exclusive.

I quelled that dangerous urge by reflecting on everything I knew about world money markets and bank shares. I realised that the bulk of markets were closed on this side of the world. On the floor above me, some kind of intervention was being very seriously pondered during this brief market truce. These deliberations, just starting, would drag on into the night. But there would probably have to be some kind of announcement before the money markets frenzies resumed.

And with that, I had exhausted the sum total of my world financial knowledge. I went back to my office, closed the door and put the radio and television on. That told me absolutely nothing. So, I went back to Eoghan Ó Neachtain's office in hopes of eventually finding out some detail.

In fact, for most of the evening, I was in and out of Eoghan's office. He was busy going up and down the stairs and talking to senior officials about a draft press release.

Many of the senior civil servants were fretful that the journalists would get wind of what was happening. But to all our surprise, none did find out.

Later, much around 9pm, others arrived, only some of whom I recognised. I was later told these were Eugene Sheehy and Dermot Gleeson of AIB and Bank of Ireland's two most senior figures, Brian Goggin and Richard Burrows. I recognised Dermot Gleeson, as a former Attorney General, and the others were in reality just faces from the business pages.

It goes without saying that I have absolutely no special knowledge of the deliberations that followed. Despite my news instincts, I must add that I probably would not be able to disclose such information even if I did have it. As time ticked on, everyone was hungry so sandwiches and soft drinks were procured from a nearby late-night shop. I idly watched RTÉ's Questions and Answers show, barely aware of what the discussion topics were.

The press release composition was taking a deal longer than War and Peace. I finally left the building around 1am and drove home. I kept in constant contact with Eoghan Ó Neachtain and there was a flurry around 2am when my boss, Environment Minister John Gormley, could not be contacted.

Gormley had been closely involved in talks throughout the previous days but kept all details to himself then and later. Late that evening, as ill luck would have it, his mobile phone simply ran out of power and it took a garda visit to his home to get him to ring the Taoiseach.

There followed a so-called 'incorporeal cabinet meeting' where the bank guarantee was discussed with ministers on the telephone. Later I felt an actual cabinet meeting, possible because many ministers were in Dublin, would have been better for the optics.

At 6am, Eoghan called to say the press statement was finalised and would go out about half an hour later. At 6.45am, he pressed the email button and it landed on unsuspecting newsdesks in Dublin and across the world.

I read it on my laptop at home.

Political journalist John Downing was deputy government press secretary, working for the Green Party in government from July 2007 until January 2011.

Irish Independent

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