Former finance minister and EU commissioner Ray McSharry has contributed a chapter to the book of tributes to the late Brian Lenihan (Brian Lenihan, In Calm and in Crisis, Murphy, O’Rourke and Whelan (eds), Merrion Press 2014).
The chapter contains the following complete paragraph at page 111:
‘Brian had been keen to burn the big bondholders and we discussed this on a number of occasions. One morning I got a call about a quarter past eight and it was Brian. He told me that he was able to burn the bondholders and he was very happy because the European Central Bank President, Jean-Claude Trichet, had told him he could do it. This would have improved Ireland’s position significantly and it was going to be a big story, but later that day a now despondent Brian rang me back. He said Trichet had changed his mind because he realised that the main casualty if the bondholders were burnt would be big German and French banks. This was a disgraceful decision because the ECB is supposed to represent the interests of Europe generally, but they were clearly under the sway of the German and French banks. Even today, I still would not have much confidence in the ECB and until Europe gets a totally independent entity to defend its currency, the euro will remain a fragile currency’.
The context in McSharry’s piece indicates that
(i) the conversation took place in the summer or autumn of 2010, as the bank guarantee was coming to an end or had already ended, but prior to the EU/IMF programme, and
(ii) the bondholders referred to were bank, not sovereign, bondholders.
The phrase ‘…the main casualty if the bondholders were burnt would be big German and French banks…’ refers, it is reasonable to assume, not (or not only) to the direct losses that these banks would suffer as holders of the bonds in question (it is doubtful that they were big holders) but to the impact of default or haircuts in Ireland on their continued access to new debt funding from the bank bond market.
This reported conversation goes to the heart of Ireland’s unfinished business with the ECB. It is reasonable for the ECB president to display concern about the continued access of major European banks to important funding sources. Whether it is within the ECB’s powers under the statute to impose on an individual member state the cost of shoring up debt market access for Eurozone banks generally is not clear and will not be clarified until the European Court of Justice rules on the matter. The statute does not contain any explicit provisions conferring such an important power.
McSharry’s report of his conversation with Lenihan is further support for the view, which I have expressed many times, that Ireland should take a case against the ECB as provided for in the ECB statute. This is important for the credibility of the ECB as an independent central bank. Win or lose, referral of the matter to the ECJ would clarify whether the ECB possesses the powers it appeared to believe it had back in 2010. If the ECB can impose costs of policies aimed at stabilising markets across the common currency area on an individual member state it is time the member states knew about it.