Cowen accepts the bailout but not the responsibility
As a result of an ill-judged edit, viewers of the national broadcaster missed the liveliest and most telling part of the press conference held tonight at Government Buildings by the current Taoiseach Brian Cowen and the current Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan. TV3 host and Irish Times columnist Vincent Browne asked Cowen if he accepted that he was to blame for “screwing up the country”; that he more than anyone else was responsible for Ireland’s economic catastrophe and that his continued presence in office was “a liability” to the nation.
“I don’t accept that at all,” replied Cowen, grumpily. “I don’t accept your contention [or] the premise to your question that I’m the bogeyman you’re looking for.”
Minutes earlier, a Bloomberg television journalist who asked if Cowen had ever thought of packing it in was told that the process of electing a Taoiseach was a parliamentary matter… mumble, jargon, mumble. As for whether or not he would lead Fianna Fáil into the next election, “obviously that is my intention”. All of this enraged Browne who temporarily became the voice of a nation’s anger about the bizarre lack of contrition on the part of a Taoiseach who insisted there was a rationale for every decision (that he would explain to Browne on another occasion if he wanted) and that every decision the Government had made was “in the national interest”. “I have always taken full responsibility for my actions,” said Cowen, lost in doublethink and seeming almost resentful of the television cameras.
He was also unable to answer Browne’s inquiry about the estimated level of Irish citizens’ future debt burden. This, he explained, would depend on the size of the drawdown on the assistance offered, which in turn would hang on further stress-testing of the black-hole-banks. Something to look forward to, then.
There is at this point no confirmation on the total size of the bailout from the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (plus some bilateral loans from the UK and Sweden thrown in for good measure). Lenihan earlier in the day said it would not be “a three-figure sum”, by which he really meant it would not be a 12-figure sum of €100,000,000,000 or more. In other words, it will be less than €100 billion, according to the Government. EU sources and UK banking analysts say something similar, in case the Government’s best guesses are no longer enough.
The only thing the press conference confirmed tonight, amid a blaze of obfuscation, was that Ireland will be taking the money. As a result, Irish public finances, for the next three years at least, will be subject to “regular reviews” by the external monitors that control the purse-strings. Whether the Government will be taking responsibility – as the concept of responsibility is understood by the (mostly livid) Irish viewers of the BBC and Sky (which kindly broadcast the press conference in full) – is as yet uncertain.
It’s an infinitesimally small comfort, but Browne’s series of questions, transmitted live to millions across Europe, will at least have shown internationally that Irish people are not okay with incompetence, not sanguine about fecklessness, not calmly accepting of economic negligence. This, in the long run, can only improve our reputation. Shortly after Browne’s indignant contribution, the two Brians exited stage left. TV3, for its part, is broadcasting a special edition of Tonight with Vincent Browne at 10.30 pm, where the rational apoplexy will continue.