The week Ireland gave up its sovereignty
The Troika has almost gone but, lest we forget, Lise Hand chronicles how its cold reign began
It was like a physical punch in the gut. Outside on Merrion Square, frozen snow glittered on the streets. But it was nothing compared to the icy chill which hung in the air of the press centre in Government Buildings on the desolate night of Sunday, November 28, 2010, as the packed room watched a group of strangers from the IMF, EU and ECB settle into seats just vacated by the Taoiseach and two cabinet ministers.
This Troika was our new government now – unelected, unwanted and absolutely indispensable. Three Kings bearing a bitter gift of €85bn for a broken nation teetering on the edge of the precipice. Thirty pieces of silver in exchange for our hard-won, precious sovereignty.
Earlier, an ashen-faced Taoiseach Brian Cowen had insisted that he and his team had "carefully considered all available policy options" before signing on the dotted line. But in reality they had no options. There is no wriggle-room when your back is against the wall.
Minutes later, Ajai Chopra was in the Taoiseach's seat. The IMF man tried to put a positive spin on the situation, but the steel fist kept glinting through the velvet glove.
The press conference was a subdued affair as journalists grappled with the enormous figures and the equally enormous implications, but also with the same emotions which had beset everyone since the economic tempest had begun to howl: fear, anger, bewilderment at how it come to this, and a shameful scintilla of relief that at least someone was in charge of us now.
It's hard to describe the utter turmoil of three years ago, the chaotic days leading to the bailout. The government was in disarray, the Taoiseach's authority weakened by antics such as 'Garglegate', the finance minister was battling cancer.
As rumours about the IMF began to swirl, nobody – not even cabinet ministers – seemed to know what precisely was afoot. On November 15, at the launch of the new Garda Gatso vans, Justice Minister Dermot Ahern stood in the courtyard of Dublin Castle and vehemently denied that a bailout was imminent. "I'm not aware of it, nor is Noel," he snapped, as beside him a mute Transport Minister Noel Dempsey resembled the sort of nodding dog which one sees in the back windows of cars.
But the rumours intensified. By the following Friday, November 19, Brian Cowen was under siege as he arrived at Dublin Airport to officially open Terminal 2 (handily opened just in time to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of emigrants forced to leave in search of a living).
Under the last glittering construction of the Celtic Tiger, Brian did a brief, brutal interview with a huge melee of media. He hinted that the IMF wolf was at the door. Talks with the Troika were "going well," he said, and he would come away from these talks "with the best possible outcome for the Irish people".
And no, he wouldn't be resigning, he insisted, standing – ironically – feet away from the new departure gates.
Then, 24 hours later, something extraordinary happened. Bizarrely, given how everything was unravelling in Dublin, the Taoiseach had travelled to Donegal to canvass with their party candidate in the by-election.
Maybe it was exhaustion, despair, frustration, but late on Saturday night, on the stage of a hall in the village of Castlefinn, Brian Cowen launched into an unscripted, hour-long, impassioned defence of himself, his government and his party.
"I am beholden to nobody, never have been, never will be, only to the people of Ireland," he shouted to 400 rapt party faithful. "I will not accept from any political opponent the charge of treason or liar from anybody," he raged.
But for all its power, it was a rage against the dying of the light, our sovereignty about to be snuffed out. It was the speech of his life, but there were no TV cameras to record it, and only this national reporter to witness his words.
And events rapidly overtook him. Another 24 hours later, and he was back in Government Buildings on the evening of Sunday, November 21, to announce that Ireland would be entering a bailout programme. With Finance Minister Brian Lenihan at his side, he took questions from journalists, quietly telling an enraged Vincent Browne: "I don't accept your contention that I'm the bogeyman that you're looking for."
But a frantic blame game was under way, and the following day was one of total chaos in Leinster House. The junior coalition party, the Greens, hastily convened a press conference to announce they would be pulling out of government but – "in the national interest" – not until the Budget had passed. To add to the surreal atmosphere, deputy Paul Gogarty conducted this historic press conference with his 18-month old daughter Daisy sitting on his knee clutching her teddy-bear.
"That's the first time I've seen a politician kiss a baby before the election campaign begins," muttered one bewildered observer.
Then all holy hell broke loose. Labour leader Eamon Gilmore called for the Taoiseach's immediate resignation. Inexplicably, Taoiseach-in-waiting Enda Kenny remained in Castlebar.
A group of protesters, including members of Sinn Féin, broke through the gates of Government Buildings and scuffled with gardaí.
And Fianna Fáil went into conclave as tension crackled around Leinster House. The government was tottering. Then in early evening, the Taoiseach appeared, surrounded by his ministers. He was going nowhere. In the national interest.
Instead, two days later, on Wednesday, November 24, the ramshackle coalition launched their Four-Year Recovery Plan, bristling with draconian cuts, a green-jacketed portent of hair-shirt horrors to come. The Two Brian's were desperately upbeat. "This document is enormously important because it sets out the realistic options open and available to this country," declared a bullish Brian Lenihan, dismissing any opposition counter-proposals as "nonsense".
But the opposition couldn't be dismissed anymore. For in the wake of the arrival of the Troika into Government Buildings on that snowy Sunday night, the balance of power was ebbing inexorably across the floor of the Dáil chamber, towards Fine Gael.
On Wednesday, December 1, a pall of gloom and anger percolated through the TDs as a debate on the €85bn bailout began. Harsh and bitter verbal spears were hurled at a wounded government.
Labour's finance spokesman Joan Burton demanded to know how the government negotiators had reached the deal with our new overlords, the Troika. "Give us a run down so we can see how hard you fought for your country. Tell us – what did you do in the war, daddy?" she scathingly asked Brian Lenihan.
Harsh words. But it was the harshest of times since our nation was almost fatally felled by greed-head developers and hubris-filled masters of the banking universe and feckless, power-hungry politicians.
The Troika is almost gone, but its cold reign is never to be forgotten.
November 28, 2010 - December 15, 2013.
Lest we forget.