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Cowen's hazy recollection of events is par for the course

SLOPPY. That's the only way to describe Taoiseach Brian Cowen's handling of his contacts, social or otherwise, with the board of Anglo Irish Bank.

Asked in the Dail last week what had been discussed at the dinner he attended at Heritage House on April 24, 2008, as a guest of the bank's board of directors, Mr Cowen said he couldn't "remember every aspect".

That the Taoiseach can't remember what he was told by Sean FitzPatrick, David Drumm and others on the Anglo board that night is not the problem.

The problem for Mr Cowen is that they can.

And so too can the numerous other bank directors and executives present for the private dinner, any number of whom could still come forward to support the claims made by their former chairman and chief executive that the then finance minister was briefed at length, and in detail, on the problems facing Anglo at the time.

Not helping the Taoiseach's recall is the manner in which he indulged in the hospitality being offered by his banking friends on the night in question.

According to Mr FitzPatrick's version of events, Mr Cowen had a gin and tonic upon arrival at Heritage House, and went on to drink red wine with his dinner. All very civilised you might say, and a long way from the boorish drink-soaked caricature presented to the world courtesy of the so-called Garglegate episode that followed the Fianna Fail think-in in Galway last September.

Others present at the dinner claim that Mr Cowen's alcohol consumption was somewhat less restrained.

But whatever the then finance minister drank before, during and after his dinner, can Mr FitzPatrick's or Mr Drumm's accounts be relied upon?

It's difficult to say, but in the absence of any contemporaneous note of the night in question from Mr Cowen, and with his already hazy recollection blurred by whatever quantity of alcohol he might have had, it is all we have to go on, rightly or wrongly.

According to Mr FitzPatrick, Mr Cowen was given an update from each of Anglo's key executives on the lending environment within each of their areas. The bank's non-executive directors, including Gary McGann, Ned Sullivan and his close friend Fintan Drury are also said by Mr FitzPatrick to have offered their views on the economy as it then stood.

Mr FitzPatrick says Mr Cowen was told that the property market had ground to a halt because of the credit crunch, and that Anglo had funding issues because of fears in international stock markets, but that the problem was not urgent.

And he insists that Mr Drumm repeatedly voiced his concerns about how difficult it was to hold on to deposits and raise new funding in the crisis.

"David did ask about the NTMA (National Treasury Management Agency). Anglo wanted [Cowen] to have a word about it placing some of its money on deposit with the bank. He said he'd look into it," Mr FitzPatrick said.

The former Anglo chairman's claim that Mr Cowen gave a commitment to contact the NTMA on the bank's behalf is backed up by Mr Drumm.

According to Mr Drumm's recollection of the Anglo dinner, he personally briefed Mr Cowen for over an hour on the difficulties facing Anglo at that time.

Crucially, the Anglo chief executive says he told the then finance minister, over drinks, of the serious outflow of corporate deposits from all the Irish banks, Anglo included, then taking place as a result of the global financial crisis.

Mr Drumm also claims to have appealed to Mr Cowen to intervene with the NTMA to increase the level of its deposits with Anglo, in an effort to boost investor confidence in the ailing institution.

Mr Cowen is said to have responded in colourful terms that he had "told those fuckers" already to place money with Anglo. Noting that they had not done this, he is said to have promised Mr Drumm that he would call the agency again.

With the former chief executive of the NTMA, Dr Michael Somers, repeatedly denying that his agency had ever come under any political pressure to put money with Anglo, it has been easy enough for Mr Cowen to dismiss Mr Drumm's claims out of hand.

However, it is still entirely possible that Mr Cowen was asked about the issue and gave a casual verbal commitment to the Anglo chief executive over dinner, but did not follow through with the NTMA.

As Finance Minister, Mr Cowen would have been -- or at least should have been -- fully aware of the legal constraints both he and the NTMA were under on the matter of where the agency invests its funds. Under the terms of its establishment, the agency's role is to invest monies in the best interests of the State, as opposed to that of its banks.

But there is another quite plausible, and altogether more disappointing explanation for Mr Cowen's rebuttal of Mr Drumm's claims in relation to the NTMA however, and -- unsurprisingly -- it involves drink.

According to an impeccable source present on the night in question, Mr Drumm's efforts to communicate to Mr Cowen the depth of the difficulties facing Anglo were frustrated in no small part by Mr Cowen's apparent interpretation that this dinner with the bank's board was a purely social occasion.

If such a claim is true, then it's hardly surprising that the Taoiseach has no recollection of how Mr Drumm briefed him in detail of developments on Sean Quinn and the massive stake he had amassed in Anglo as a result of his heavy gambling with Contracts for Difference (CFDs).

Mr Drumm is said to have informed Mr Cowen that traders in London had become aware of the Quinn issue, and were now aggressively 'shorting' shares in Anglo, ie profiting from drops in the share price.

Interestingly, Mr FitzPatrick has claimed that there was no discussion at the dinner of the Quinn issue; or indeed of his own phone call to Mr Cowen the previous month in the wake of the so-called St Patrick's Day Massacre, which saw a precipitous drop in Anglo's share price as a result of a loss in market confidence.

Mr FitzPatrick denies taking any opportunity at the dinner to have a word in Mr Cowen's ear in an effort to get his and the Government's support for Anglo.

Addressing the matter in The FitzPatrick Tapes, he says: "Sorry. I am not saying that it was right or wrong. I just didn't do those things. I never saw politicians as important in that way. Clearly they were important but I never saw them as to be used or anything like that. I never saw . . . It never struck me once in my whole life that Fintan [Drury] would be very useful because he was on our board and because he knew Cowen so well. It never struck me once. In my life, I never asked him to do anything with the minister for finance when he was on the board of the bank ever. Never even gone near it."

The former Anglo chairman's stated reluctance to engage in even gentle political lobbying either personally or through the good offices of a mutual friend is heartening, if it can be believed, given the decision by Mr Cowen to go to Druids Glen for a round of golf in his and Mr Drury's company only a few months later.

For it would be truly appalling to discover that our then newly-appointed Taoiseach had allowed himself to be improperly influenced over golf and dinner and drinks to put the interests of a basket case bank over that of the State he had been given the privilege of leading only weeks earlier.

Thankfully, Mr Cowen's memory of his day out with Seanie Fitz and Fintan Drury at Druid's Glen is sufficient to the point where he says he can assure us that the business of Anglo was not discussed.

So that's all right then, as the man said.

Sunday Independent