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Dan White: Noonan has to win deal on EU loan or he's in big trouble

As he prepares for next weekend's crucial EU summit, the fate of the Government lies in Michael Noonan's hands.

Unless our Finance Minister can persuade our EU partners to agree to a major write-down of Irish bank debt, then this Government is in big trouble.

Talk about baptisms of fire. They don't come much fierier than this.

By this day week we will know if our new Government has a fighting chance, or if it is to be a complete write-off before it even leaves the showroom.


In the run-up to the summit there has been much discussion of the interest rate Ireland has been forced to pay on the €67.5bn the EU and the IMF agreed to lend us under the terms of last November's "bailout".

There has been much anger, and rightly so, at the punitive 5.8pc interest rate we are being charged by the EU for €45bn it has agreed to lend us.

Unfortunately the bailout interest rate is a side-issue.

If the EU graciously agreed to a 1pc interest rate cut that will translate into annual savings of €450m.

For a Government that is planning to borrow €17.6bn this year, that's neither here nor there. Even if the EU could be persuaded to reduce the interest rate to the 3.1pc that the IMF is charging us for its €22.5bn portion of the bailout, we would still save only €1.2bn -- better than nothing, but it doesn't get to the heart of the problem.

The heart of the problem is the massive losses of the Irish banks. These have been spreading like an ineradicable stain for the past three years.

It started with loans to builders and property developers, where the banks have taken a €40bn hit. Then it spread to mortgages, with a further €30bn-€40bn of losses on the cards.

Now it is clear that there are also serious problems with the rest of the banks' loans, with at least a tenth of all loans now in arrears. By the time the dust has settled on the great Irish banking crisis total loan losses are likely to comfortably exceed €100bn.

But surely that's our problem, not Europe's? Wrong.

By lending the Irish banks €70bn to repay the senior bondholders, mainly British, German and Benelux banks, in full, the ECB has made the Irish banking crisis its problem.

As things stand, the ECB has lent the Irish banks €117bn, while our own Central Bank has lent them a further €70bn on its behalf. Even if the €30bn the ECB has lent the Irish operations of foreign-owned banks is deducted, that's still almost €160bn.

Without this money, which has gone to replace money being withdrawn by nervous depositors, the Irish banks would have closed their doors long ago. So with the "official" national debt up to €100bn, and the Government having also issued €40bn of NAMA bonds, how do we repay all of this money?

The brutal truth is that we can't, and any effort to force us to do so will cripple the Irish economy.

When he travels to Brussels next weekend it will be Noonan's unpalatable task to inform his European counterparts of this reality. Ireland's current financial situation can be summarised as -- can't pay, won't pay.

What we need is a massive debt write-down rather than just lower interest rates.

That is what lies at the heart of the problem.


Having lent so irresponsibly to the Irish banks, the European banks should have been made to share the pain. When it decided, no doubt for its own good reasons, to repay them in full the ECB made Ireland's problem its problem.

That is the point Noonan must persuade his European counterparts to accept next weekend.

If he fails, then this Government will have already failed after less than three weeks in office.