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Blame game rages over ECB's missive

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Michael McGrath

Michael McGrath

Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan

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Michael McGrath

Dubliner Brian got a letter from the bank. The 51-year-old father-of-two was beset by dreadful money worries, wracked with debt and surrounded by panicked colleagues. Moreover, he was very seriously ill.

But still, on an icy day in November 2010 the letter from the bank landed on Brian's desk. Like any Irish citizen faced with financial ruin (and in those dark days, such citizens were legion), he knew that a missive of that ilk never brings good tidings.

But this letter was especially grim. It was from the boss of the powerful European Central Bank (ECB) and, using the impersonal language of officialdom, was laden with threat. Jean-Claude Trichet had an ultimatum for the Irish government: apply for a bailout pronto or there isn't another sou going into your country's tottering banks. Obey or be damned.

The language of the November 19 letter to then Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, which was released yesterday, may be bureaucratic, but its tone is nothing short of chilling. It is hectoring and arrogant, the final shots in a brief, bloodless war in which the government lost everything - most crucially its sovereignty and the last vestiges of trust of the voters.

This particular letter, one of four released by the ECB yesterday, is another piece in a fiendishly difficult jigsaw which will take years to assemble: who is to blame for the sorry state of affairs which led to Monsieur Trichet picking up his pen?

Four years on, the Taoiseach believes the roots of the Trichet letter were sown after the election which returned Fianna Fail to power for a third successive term. "There was a long lead-in to a decline and a disaster facing Ireland which was not recognised by the government of the day, and not dealt with by the government of the day," said Enda. He described the letter as "a stark reminder of the cold and dark place that our country was in just a few years ago, it's a reminder of what we can't ever let happen again".

Beside the Taoiseach, Joan Burton described the late Finance Minister who died in June 2011 as a personal friend. "In many ways what I recollect is the tragedy of Brian Lenihan and the fact that he's no longer with us," she said. "I remember his journeys in the snow in what was a very snowy, cold winter. It brings back all of that for me in a very poignant way."

Undoubtedly Enda and Joan were delighted to be talking about something other than the never-ending hoo-ha over Irish Water, thanks to the serendipitous appearance of the Trichet letter - a happy coincidence which wasn't lost on Independent deputy Catherine Murphy. "The cynical timing is about one thing, namely, knocking Irish Water off the headlines and out of the front pages of the newspapers," Catherine told the Tanaiste during Leaders' Questions.

The Kildare TD saw a direct link between the Trichet letter and the public unrest over water charges, blaming the necessity of paying back our massive bank debt.

"This year €500m will be taken out of circulation, a sum of money which would fix a lot of leaky pipes. Meanwhile, the Irish people are left carrying the burden, which manifests itself in the Universal Social Charge, reduced public services and Irish Water. They have no money left to pay for food or bills," explained Catherine.

"The people are not fools. They know the reason they are being burdened with all of this debt. They are being burdened with something that is not of their making. What is the Government going to do about it?" she demanded.

The blame game was in full swing. Fianna Fail's Michael McGrath swiftly pointed the blame-finger. "It's a very direct, very threatening letter from the ECB. The country was bullied in my view," he declared.

But the ECB begged to differ. "Documentation shows domestic factors pushed Ireland towards (the bailout) programme," it sniffed.

No matter where the blame finally lands, the Trichet Letter should be set in stone and hammered onto the façade of Government Buildings, under the words: Never Again.

Irish Independent