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Inside the Room

The Untold Story of Ireland’s Crisis Government
Eamon Gilmore
Publisher
Merrion Press
Price
€18.99
ISBN


EXTRACT COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

From the Prologue

The Sycamore Room

"How long will it take to get the Punt back into circulation?" I ask.

"Notes and coins could be produced within a week, maybe two," replies the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr Patrick Honohan. "But it will take a lot longer to re-establish a national currency."

It is a Friday afternoon in the summer of 2012. The euro is in crisis. The Irish Government's Economic Management Council (EMC) is meeting to consider what to do if the euro suddenly collapses.

Ireland has no intention of leaving the euro. But what would happen if our shared European currency were to suddenly fall apart? If, for example, a big Eurozone state were to pull out unexpectedly? Big events have happened quickly before in this economic crisis. The crash had come unannounced four years ago in 2008. Lehman Brothers collapsed overnight. The Irish Bank Guarantee was put together in a few hours of panic.

Here, in the Sycamore Room, the Economic Management Council is managing the worst economic crisis since Ireland's independence. We cannot afford to be caught unawares. We must be ready for every eventuality. That is our job. We function like a War Cabinet. Now we must prepare a Plan B, lest the euro fail.

The Sycamore Room is probably the best known and most used meeting room in government. Television viewers know it from shots of large delegations meeting the Irish Government; from social partnership negotiations; and from the State visit of Queen Elizabeth, who, in 2011, was introduced to the members of the Cabinet between its wood-panelled walls.

The room is named for the impressive oval table, made from polished sycamore, which dominates the space. The table itself can seat meetings with over twenty participants, while another thirty or so can attend seated on chairs around the walls. At either end of the room are two electric clocks. One is permanently stopped. The other always fast! In one corner is a podium, occasionally used for technical presentations. And in another corner, a small table with cups, coffee, tea dispenser, and a small supply of sweetened oatmeal biscuits.

This was the room from which Ireland's economic recovery was steered and secured. Around the oval sycamore table, Ireland's exit from the bailout was mapped and managed; battles over budgets were fought between Fine Gael and Labour ministers; and strategies were devised to help create jobs and grow businesses.

This summer day, as always, the Taoiseach sits in the middle on one side, with his back to the windows. As at Cabinet meetings, I sit directly opposite him. To his right is Michael Noonan and his officials from the Department of Finance, including his Secretary General John Moran, and Second Secretary General Ann Nolan. To my left is Brendan Howlin, his Secretary General Robert Watt and advisor, Ronan O'Brien. To my right is Dr Colm O'Reardon, my economic advisor and David Cooney, the Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. To the Taoiseach's left sits Martin Fraser, Secretary General to the Government, Geraldine Byrne Nason, the Second Secretary General who managed the EMC and Andrew McDowell, the Taoiseach's economic advisor

Initially, our meetings were set for every Wednesday after lunch. Every meeting was held in the heat of crisis. Would the banks collapse? Would unemployment reach half a million or more? Would investment dry up? Would the ECB really insist on us paying over €3 billion a year to a dead bank? Time and time again we peered into the financial abyss, at the possibility that the State would become bankrupt.

Today's meeting is no less urgent. No agenda has been circulated and the attendance is limited to ministers along with a few officials and advisors on a 'need-to-know' basis. The Governor of the Central Bank, Dr Patrick Honohan, has been invited to attend, and he sits to my right just beyond Secretary General David Cooney. What would we do if the euro collapsed?

How exactly would the Government manage such an eventuality? What exactly would happen on the morning after? We would have to close the banks, but for how long? For how long would ATMs continue to dispense euros?

How long would it take to re-establish the punt? How many days would it take to print notes and mint coins? How quickly would they get into circulation? And what would they be worth?

What would shops do in the meantime? How would workers be paid? And people on social welfare? What if the value of the currency changed over days or weeks? Who would be at the loss in the commercial transactions that occurred in the interval?

This is no idle academic discussion. We have to make practical plans for the chaos of a currency collapse and the uncertainty of launching a new national currency in a crisis.

I have the feeling that this is not the first time that Finance officials and the Central Bank have teased out the practical issues, but there are also wider social and political considerations -including the possibility of public panic and disorder - that we, as the Government, need to prepare for.

Legislation will have to be prepared and contingency plans put in place. And we have to be very careful to keep all of this confidential. One leak and we could be fuelling panic, and ourselves contributing to a monetary catastrophe.

Already, journalists are asking the awkward questions about the stability of the euro. Doorstepped at the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels last Monday, I was asked if Ireland had a Plan B in the event of the euro failing. I dismissed the notion, because even to entertain the question was to give credence to the possibility that it might happen and risk making the situation worse.

But how do we describe the legislation we are drafting, so as not to cause panic? We can hardly have drafts of a 'Bill to Relaunch the Punt' floating around government offices! We agree, instead, to say we were working on emergency legislation to deal with the unlikely possibility of a flu pandemic!