Bruce Arnold and Jason O’Toole: The End of the Party
RTE’s “Inside the Cowen Government” demonstrated that there is no lack of interest in the events which led to the virtual annihilation of Fianna Fail as a political force in last February’s election. “The End of the Party” traces its demise from the heady days of its three in a row success in 2007 to its worst ever electoral performance. It’s a story without heroes, with the possible improbable exception of Charlie McCreevy. It is also a story without a happy ending as Ireland’s economic woes of recent years continue unabated.
This is an angry book, with the emotions of the authors clearly showing as they attempt to outline how we got from where we were to where we are. There are swipes at Bertie Ahern, with the meltdown of both country and party traced to his tenure, and at the Greens for turning “yellow” by entering coalition. But the main opprobrium is focussed on Brian Cowen, and his Finance Minister, the late Brian Lenihan. The main events of the three turbulent years to last February are burned in most people’s memories, and, indeed the book is less a narrative account of the Cowen premiership and more a collection of snapshots of its highs (few) and lows (many).
Brian Cowen became Taoiseach in early May 2008 and was immediately pitchforked into the Lisbon Referendum campaign. Possibly distracted by his elevation, he got off to a bad start, admitting he had not read the whole Treaty. It was downhill from then on, with the tactical errors of Nice One repeated by the Yes side. The advocates of a “No” vote, marshalled by the able and articulate Declan Ganley, ran a superb campaign and won by a clear margin.
With government finances collapsing in tandem with the end of the building boom, an emergency budget was scheduled for early October2008. It demonstrated more tactical ineptitude and necessitated an embarrassing volte face over a proposal to remove automatic medical cards from the over-70s. By then however, the fate of the government, and of the country, had been decided.
On the night of 29 September 2008, Cowen and Lenihan, fearing an immediate collapse of the Irish banks, and with other Cabinet members consulted by phone, issued an unlimited guarantee on all deposits and borrowings of six major Irish banks. It was the defining moment of Cowen’s government. The information available then suggested a considerable but manageable exposure of several billion; as we now know this was wrong by many multiples. The entrails of this will continue to be pored over for a long time to come and this book does its fair share, posing all the obvious (and not so obvious) questions.
As the banking horror story unfolded, Fianna Fail’s support declined . It dropped below 30% in the wake of the guarantee and never really recovered, slipping to 23 % in early 2010 and hitting 18% as the year ended. Not even a resounding success in the Lisbon rerun helped. The authors are particularly incensed at the decision to hold a second referendum castigating the Yes campaign as a mixture of “fear, lies and an array of blatant illegalities”.
Then and thereafter, the book suggests it was a case of holding on in the hope that something would turn up. There was too much respect for the ECB and not enough cognisance that most of Ireland’s trade was with countries outside the Eurozone. There are chapters on NAMA (condemned), the first cabinet reshuffle (remember that? Killeen and Carey in), and Brian Cowen’s drinking as well as his failure or inability to communicate.
The pace picks up as the end approaches, and the book is riveting enough in the final chapters. “The Sad Autumn of 2010” introduces the effective denouement, the arrival of Ajai Chopra and the Bailout, the terms humiliating, even the way the procedure was handled cringe making. The government was comprehensively bankrupt. Indeed, as the authors note “the reality…. at the end of November, was a set of fiscal circumstances about which people could do nothing, and a level of anger and hatred about which they could do a great deal”. Fianna Fail “had lied to them, betrayed them, robbed them and misled them”.
There are chapters also on the competing claims, from Fitzpatrick and Dunne, about the extent of Brian Cowen’s contacts with Anglo Irish Bank. There is next to nothing about the invisible elephant, Ireland’s structural budget deficit. But these are secondary. The Guarantee and the Bailout did for the Brians and Fianna Fail.