Fight to the debt as newspaper article used in war of the words

IT WAS a fight to the debt.

Copies of the Financial Times were drawn like pistols. And after a screeching exchange of fire there was still no resolution in sight.

A selection of the most senior financially focused politicians in the Oireachtas had gathered for the first time in months.

Fianna Fáil brought a full battalion to support Finance Minister Brian Lenihan.

The Opposition gathered a depleted but feisty crew of malcontents.

Their task was to try to figure out why Anglo Irish Bank had continued to pollute Ireland’s reputation with unrelenting pace throughout the summer. But they spent more time bickering about the semantics of an article in yesterday’s Financial Times than finding out what would happen to the world’s most toxic bank in the critical period of the next four weeks.

Somehow, a six-paragraph editorial in a €2.50 international newspaper was being used to anchor the arguments on billions of euro in taxpayer support for Anglo.

In effect the editorial said Taoiseach Brian Cowen should quit paying so much deference to bondholders, tell them they would not get all the money they were due from Anglo back and negotiate a lower price.

In Financial Times-speak, Mr Cowen should enact “a special resolution regime”. The amount involved was in the region of €5.7 billion, which could be honoured in full or haggled down with humility.

At their meeting, no self-respecting member of the Oireachtas Finance committee was without a copy of the business paper, folded in four so the editorial on page 14 was at the ready.

The FT fetish consumed TDs, senators, senior civil servants and the minister himself.

Referring to anything but the pinkish hue of the Pearson PLC publication was akin to bringing a knife to a gunfight. For Fine Gael and Labour it was the ammunition they had craved – international support for a policy of looking to bondholders to share some of the pain.

Fine Gael’s deputy finance spokesman, Kieran O’Donnell, said now was a reasonable time to enter into negotiations with the faceless international lenders.

Mr Lenihan said his advisors had examined the offending article before the committee meeting. And he had read it himself.

“I do not think this country should become an experiment for a default strategy,” he said.

Labour’s Joan Burton said it was a not a case for default but for “resolution”.

Mr Lenihan disagreed. Chairman Michael Ahern stood between them. He brought down the hammer to suspend the meeting, yearning for some order. Five minutes later the meeting resumed.

So did the competing translations of the Financial Times’ leader.

They barely had time to shoot off a stare when they were reaching for the FTs. Their trigger fingers twitched down the paragraphs. Who would be first to find the supporting sentence?

“Mr Cowen should change a perverse policy that pushes up interest rates and crimps growth,” Ms Burton quoted.

Mr Lenihan was more concerned with a suggestion Mr Cowen should cut the umbilical chord to the banking system. Ireland could not default, he said.

There was no resolution to Anglo or their arguments.

Two hours later they were all still standing. Their Financial Times were re-holstered in their respective briefcases. There was no fatal shot and the same tragic amount of debt.


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