It’s been an interesting week. There have been several articles about those ECB letters, and this blog has received a fair bit of traffic from various sources. So it’s worth going back over what has happened.
To start chronologically, it’s worth mentioning that Ireland has not been the only country getting letters of this nature from the ECB.
On September 29 last year, Mario Sensini writing in the Italian newspaper Corriere published the contents of a leaked August 5 letter sent to the Italian government by the ECB. The letter bares a striking resemblance to the purported contents of our own November 2010 letter.
The following December I sent a request to the ECB seeking access to “any and all communications from the ECB addressed to the Irish Finance Minister (or his direct office) in the month of November 2010”. On January 9, Pierre van der Haegan and Roman Schremser from the ECB sent a reply stating that two letters existed from November 2010, dated November 18 and November 19. They granted full access to the November 18 letter but refused access to the November 19 letter. I then appealed this to internal review at the ECB.
On February 8 I received a reply to my internal review from ECB president Mario Draghi. He stated that the Executive Board had thoroughly considered my request but they had again decided to refuse access to the November 19 letter. Myself and Tom Lyons wrote an article in the Sunday Independent on February 12, 2012, outlining the contents of Draghi’s letter. In both cases, in the original refusal and in the second refusal, no mention was made to any other letter from November 2010.
I, along with some other journalists, also sought any letters from the other side of the equation – the Irish Department of Finance. No reference is made in the schedule of documents to a communication in the week ending November 14. I appealed the refusal by the Department to release the letters to the Irish Information Commissioner in June. And there the matter has rested since – until recent weeks.
In a matter that appears to have some similarity to the Irish letter, on July 19 2012 the European Ombudsman made a decision on a request by a Spanish lawyer in relation to a letter sent by the ECB to the Spanish government. The lawyer sought a copy of the letter because he wanted to know if the ECB had sought an amendment to the Spanish constitution. The lawyer was refused access by the Ombudsman, “however, with the consent of the ECB President, he confirmed to the complainant that the letter did not suggest any amendments to the Spanish Constitution. The lawyer was satisfied with this outcome”.
Then on August 17, Karl Whelan pointed to an odd discrepency in an article in Forbes. He wondered why the ECB referred to a letter dated November 19, as per my ECB request, yet Brian Lenihan had always referred to receiving a letter on or around November 12. The week difference is important. Among other points, he asked “Did the ECB communicate with Brian Lenihan on November 12, 2010? If so, why was this letter not referred to in response to Mr. Sheridan’s request?”
On August 22, Minister Pat Rabbitte appeared on Tonight with Vincent Browne. Colm McCarthy speaking on the show said that reference to a letter of November 19 was “probably an error” on the part of the ECB and that they had likely got their dates wrong. Pat Rabbitte said “the ECB strong armed the Irish government into taking on board effectively private banking debt” but that he “hadn’t heard about the letter Colm is talking about”.
But then on August 26 Daniel McConnell writing in the Sunday Independent, quoted Finance Minister Michael Noonan as saying the bailout letter should be released. The issue of the letter was now back firmly onto the news agenda. Several articles appeared in print over the following days talking about the letter, and it’s possible release to any banking inquiry.
On September 1, Stephen Collins writing in a front page Irish Times story, wrote that his paper had sight of the letters. He wrote:
Three critical letters were dispatched by Mr Trichet to Mr Lenihan in the run-up to the bailout.
They were sent on October 15th, November 4th and November 19th, 2010. It also appears likely that an email or fax reinforcing the message was sent to Mr Lenihan on November 12th, prompting his conversation with Mr Trichet.
He further says:
On November 4th, Mr Trichet wrote another letter to Mr Lenihan. He repeated many of the points made in the earlier letter about the massive exposure of the ECB to Irish bank debt.
However the article did not quote from any of the letters, nor were the contents of the letters released by the Irish Times.
Given that Mr Collins has had sight of the letters, then what of the ECB’s position that there were only two communications in November, and not four (including the Nov 18 letter I did receive) as Mr Collins says? Is Colm McCarthy right, did the ECB just make a mistake? And what of a purported fax communication on November 12? What of the communication of November 4, that the ECB did not refer to in their communications with me?
To try and get to the bottom of this I have submitted a followup request to the ECB seeking further information on any other letters over a broader timeframe. I have also submitted a request about my original request and how it was handled by the ECB (also known as a meta-FOI). Let’s see what happens.