Thursday 17 October 2019

'There were far too many heavy hitters in the building for this to be just routine'

John Downing's insider view of events as a government press secretary

Signs of trouble: The corridors of Government Buildings were a hive of activity
Signs of trouble: The corridors of Government Buildings were a hive of activity

A mixture of loneliness and­curiosity often caused me to keep the office door open. Even 15 months after first going to work at Government Buildings, I was still not used to having a vault of an office all to myself, and I still missed the racket and bustle of a large open-plan newsroom.

But that Monday afternoon, the open door was how I first noticed an unusual amount of comings and goings on the corridors outside. It was after 5pm and I had been strongly thinking of stealing a rare "half day".

The radio news had been dominated by the calamitous fall in Irish bank shares. The grim business page headlines of several weeks had now colonised mainstream news and the outlook was very dispiriting indeed.

A threatened national economic slump was bad enough. But now it began to look like my "half day" was also out of the question.

I did a quick stroll around the splendid corridors of Government Buildings and learned 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 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 decided it was not the time to ask questions. Back on the ground floor, close to my office, I waylaid government press secretary Eoghan Ó Neachtain.

"Rud mór i dtaobh na bainc," (Something big involving the banks)," he said in reply to my question. We never spoke English to one another unless there were non-Irish speakers in our company.

I went back to the vault of an office and began 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 money 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 market frenzy resumed.

At that, I had exhausted the sum total of my world financial knowledge. I decided I had better close the office door and put the radio and television on. Teatime news bulletins 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. There were efforts being made not to attract attention with an unusual amount of movement in and out of the complex. Various side entrances and link routes into other buildings were being used.

But to all our surprise, nobody did find out. Later, around 9pm, others arrived, only some of whom I recognised.

I was told afterwards that these were Eugene Sheehy and Dermot Gleeson of AIB, and Bank of Ireland's two most senior figures, Brian Goggin and Richard Burrows. I did recognise Dermot Gleeson, as a former attorney general, but the others were just faces from the business pages.

It goes without saying that I have absolutely no special knowledge of the deliberations that followed. I probably would not have been 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 the writing of 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.

John 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. For what it is worth, I felt an actual cabinet meeting, possible because many ministers were in or close to Dublin, would have been better.

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.

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

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