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Hell at the Gates

John Lee and Daniel McConnell

Hell at the Gates:


From the Prologue

The title of this book is taken from a BBC radio interview that the late finance minister Brian Lenihan gave two months before his death at age fifty-two from cancer. Reflecting on his tumultuous time as minister for finance, Lenihan said: T believed I had fought the good fight and taken every measure possible to delay such an eventuality, and now hell was at the gates ... I had had such a fierce struggle in the previous two-and-a-half years to bring my colleagues and the country with me on what had been a very difficult economic programme.' Even as he faced his mortality, Lenihan described with eloquence and flair the torrid period he and his party, and the country, had gone through.

Here, for the first time, Lenihan's colleagues - Brian Cowen, Eamon Ryan, Micheal Martin, Mary Harney and many others - tell the inside story of that doomed government in their own words. They provide a deeply honest, deeply personal, revelation-strewn account of their experiences in the white heat of an economic meltdown. This is not a financial and economic history, as that aspect is still playing itself out; it is unapologetically a political story. It is unlikely that any period of office in Irish history will be reflected upon by future historians and students of politics as intensely as that of the Cowen government. Here we record its voices.

The financial-turned-economic crisis, which had huge and long-lasting social implications for Ireland and her people, also changed the Irish political landscape for several generations. The implications for the Fianna Fail party were immense. The Green Party's Dail presence was wiped out. This book is an attempt to uncover and explain not only why major decisions were taken but also the motivations behind those decisions.

When former taoiseach Brian Cowen agreed to give an interview, we suspected that he was just doing us a courtesy and would go through the motions. Instead, in a hotel in Tullamore, he gave us an account of his years in office. Quiet and reflective, funny and emotional, he was devastating in his assessments of those times - and of himself. Cowen explained his thinking on matters from the 2008 bank guarantee to his public image and his refusal to address the nation, to not sacking Brian Lenihan when many of his own supporters urged him to over Lenihahs perceived disloyalty, to ultimately requesting a Troika bailout in 2010. He revealed the impact of the crisis on his family and described how they coped with the pressure. He opened up for the first time on dealing with Lenihan's cancer diagnosis and their complex relationship. Cowen also broke his silence on that infamous night at the Fianna Fail think-in in Galway in 2010, and the botched Cabinet reshuffle of January 2011 which led to his downfall. His honesty and candour reveal a new side to the pilloried politician and provide an insight into his thinking throughout his turbulent reign as leader.

This book also tells of the extent to which the relationship between Cowen and Lenihan became strained and ultimately ended in mistrust and separation. It records how the men met to resolve their differences in a farewell meeting before Lenihan passed away.

Brian Lenihan's family told us of their knowledge of his ambi­tions and his struggles, and revealed how serious his leadership ambitions were, even when he knew he did not have long to live. From his political allies, we heard that he saw himself as a cre­dible interim taoiseach in 2010, who could better lead Fianna Fail through a general election. Most of the quotes we include from Lenihan himself come from interviews and discussions with Danny McConnell before his death.

Micheal Martin, Fianna Fail's leader, for the first time gave the definitive account of his decision in early 2011 to move against his embattled leader. Former Cabinet minister Willie O'Dea told us how the Green Party insisted on his resignation, for which O'Dea has not yet forgiven them: 'It was an absolutely nightmarish time for me, my very worst time in politics. I'm sorry I had to live through it. My overriding memory was it was the worst time my life both in politics and out of politics. The lessons to be learned I suppose go back to the situation that preceded those three years. You have to maintain a strong economy and you can't : using the people's money to buy their votes. After every party lere's a hangover!'

Former ministers spoke about how they were physically as-aulted by traumatised members of the public at the height of lie crisis and how they cowered in their homes and hotels, far am the madding crowd. Civil servants and other sources close to the Cabinet, who wished to keep their anonymity, provided their sometimes withering reflections. The book also contains the visceral criticisms of several ministers about the treatment of Ireland at the hands of Jean-Claude Trichet of the European entral Bank and Dominic Strauss-Kahn of the International lonetary Fund.