Michael Noonan could have “walked on water across the Liffey” to the recent Fine Gael Árd Fheis. That was the view of one political commentator on RTÉ, following the “miracle” the Finance Minister had performed in relation to the Anglo Irish Bank promissory note, due for payment that day. This opinion was typical of mainstream media interpretation of the “deal” announced by Noonan.
In reality, the deal was a mirage, not a miracle. The Department of Finance, it is true, did not write out a cheque to the Irish Central Bank on March 31st. However, NAMA did. And who owns NAMA? That’s right, we do. So Ireland did pay the bill, in full and on time. We simply paid it out of one of our accounts rather than another. In the film Scarface, Al Pacino’s gangster responds to a rival’s pleas for mercy by saying, “Don’t worry, Frank, I’m not going to kill you”, then turns to a henchman and says “Manolo, kill this piece of shit”. Frank still ends up dead. We still ended up paying the money.
But it gets worse. The government has promised to repay NAMA the €3.1 billion. The promise taking the form of a sovereign, interest-bearing bond issued by the government. And NAMA plans to sell this bond on to Bank of Ireland, provided the latter’s shareholders agree.
If that last deal goes through, the government – or rather us – will owe the money, plus the interest (which might be some €90 million this year), to Bank of Ireland; so a bank that is 85% privately owned will end up making money by lending to the Irish government to allow that government to repay a debt that was not of our making and which could easily have been suspended. This is what counts as a miracle in Ireland today – it’s called a scam in most other places.
But stick with us here. Just when you think it could not get any worse, it does. The promissory note was ‘soft debt’, a debt that had limited legal status and which could have been suspended without significant complications arising. Not so the sovereign bond that the Irish government has issued to NAMA and that it plans to see sold on to Bank of Ireland. This is ‘hard debt’, the suspension of which would expose the government to potentially serious legal and other challenges. The government has boxed us into a corner, rendering it harder (but not impossible!) to write down this debt in the future. So it is not just a scam: it is also a political stitch-up.
For weeks in advance of the March 31st deadline, Minister Noonan waxed lyrical about negotiations and wranglings with the ECB. This was framed as real politik and strategic political manoeuvring. The reality is far more prosaic, but also completely damning. Pierre van der Haegen, the director general of the Secretariat and Languages Services in the ECB was asked via a freedom of information request to provide documents submitted by the Irish government as part of the negotiations. His official response? “Having duly looked into this matter, we would like to inform you that the ECB did not receive any documents from the Irish Government on the renegotiation of the terms of the promissory notes.” A political stitch up indeed. One entirely organised by our ‘own’ side.
Despite Noonan’s March stitch-up, we are not giving up. We are going to intervene in the fiscal treaty referendum debate and are going to keep making the case that this is an illegitimate debt that needs to be written down. Fitzpatrick and Fingleton caused this mess, together with the gamblers who gave them the money to speculate with in the first place. It is not our debt and we should not pay it – now or in the future.
This is an edited version of an article in Village Magazine by Mark Malone & Andy Storey from Anglo: Not Our Debt.