The phone had rung about an hour before, so I was expecting him. Even so, as we'd never had a politician in our house, never mind a Minister for Finance, seeing the bulk of Brian Lenihan at the door came as a surprise.
In fact, I had only once met the minister before and that had been in an RTÉ radio studio for Saturday View less than two weeks previously, on September 6th
. That day he was confident and calm. The man who appeared at my door was a different character. There was still the confidence and yet he was nervous and fidgety. His suit looked as if he'd slept in it. He had heavy bags under his eyes, his tie was undone and he held a copy of that day's Irish Independent.
Days before this late-night visit, Lehman Brothers had gone bust. That was on Saturday, September 13th. Merrill Lynch went on Sunday, 14th, and AIG -- the world's largest insurer -- went bang on Tuesday, 16th. The financial world was collapsing and the Irish banks were worth pennies, not pounds; cents not euros. The banks were running out of money.
Ordinary people were beginning to panic. We were starting to twig that we had been lied to. My mother had called me earlier in the day to ask whether she should take her life savings out of Bank of Ireland. I told her that the risk was now too great and there was only one thing that could be done: take your savings out and put them in a continental bank trading here. After all, the morons who got us, and their banks, into this mess wouldn't shed a tear for her, so why should she worry about them?
If something radical was not done and done quickly, it was crystal clear to me that the Irish banks would experience a traditional run, with depositors taking out their savings, and the banks would go bust. That one thing, at least, was certain.
The minister walked straight through the hall and headed directly into the kitchen as if he knew where he was going. Jaded, he sat down and turned off his phone.
<snip>Then he pulled a bulb of garlic out of his pocket and started to peel it. It was one of the odd moments in a long night of odd moments. In subsequent meetings, the raw garlic was produced and squashed into bowls of soup. This time he just peeled a clove and left it on the table.
He explained to me that the garlic gave him strength and kept him healthy and alert. I had no reason to doubt him. He went on to say that he had been chomping raw garlic all summer, since he'd got the Finance job.
I felt sorry for Brian Lenihan that night. He looked exhausted. He had been working day and night and he was trying to understand everything. This must have been very difficult for a man who had spent all his life in law. I thought to myself that this would be like me being thrown in as Attorney General in the middle of the country's worst constitutional crisis. I wouldn't know where to start.He told me he'd been breaking himself into the job and economics by reading Alan Greenspan's biography.
That night, even after a few minutes, it was clear that here was a man who could pick things up quickly. But we were starting pretty much from scratch. It was also obvious that he was, at best, sceptical about the advice he was getting. Given the spin that was coming out of the Government, I wasn't too surprised and I was quite relieved that he doubted the Regulator and the Governor of the Central Bank when they continued to parrot platitudes about the banks being fine and being stress-tested.He kicked off by saying if his officials knew he was here in my house, there'd be war.
They thought I was a maverick. I took it as a compliment.
He got to the point quickly. He was sitting opposite me and he had a habit of looking around rather than catching my eye as if he expected someone to join us at any minute. I told him we were on our own, just the pair of us and the puppy.He leaned over and, in a hoarse voice, almost whispering, he said: "What would you do?"there is more
So there you have it, he was self medicating in 2008. The mandarins were in denial and keeping their heads down trying to keep the lid on the sh!t can they'd played an active role in creating. Lehmans collapse had made it clear the Irish banks charade was about to be flushed away and they needed to act, but nobody was giving him any direction.