Ireland’s Days on Brink Recast In Movie as Bankers Saved

It’s the night of Sept. 29, 2008, and Ireland’s leaders are almost out of time as the country’s banks flirt with collapse.

Prime Minister Brian Cowen and Finance Minister Brian Lenihan meet in a bathroom in government buildings. Down the hall, bankers and officials await their call on a decision that would alter Irish history: whether to guarantee 440 billion euros ($557.5 billion) of debts owed by the six Irish banks.

Washing his hands, the bombastic, swearing Cowen bullies Lenihan into the guarantee, tying the state to a sinking financial system. At least that’s how it happens in “The Guarantee,” a movie released last week that shows the panic, profanity and persuasion swirling around Cowen and Lenihan as they try to save the Irish economy.

“It has the shape of a classic drama,” said writer Colin Murphy, 40, who based the movie on his play that ran in Dublin last year. “You lock a bunch of men in a room overnight, tell them you’ve got to make a decision and if you make the wrong decision, when you come out in the morning, the world is going to collapse.”

Ultimately, the gamble failed. Two years later, the pair sought a 64 billion-euro international bailout to help pay for what the International Monetary Fund called the costliest banking rescue since the Great Depression.

Needing Money

Directed by Ian Power, the Guarantee cost about 600,000 euros, with the government providing about 60 percent of the budget. Many of the events portrayed in the movie are viewed through the eyes of David Drumm, the chief executive officer of Anglo Irish Bank Corp., played by Peter Coonan, an actor known in Ireland for a TV role as a psychotic, gap-toothed criminal.

For dialogue, Murphy draws from tapes released last year of Anglo Irish executives in conversation as they face into the abyss.

Anglo Irish would tell the central bank “we need the moolah, you have it, so you’re going to give it to us and when would that be? We start from there,” Drumm is heard saying, weeks before the guarantee. “Because if they don’t give it to us on Monday, they have a bank collapse.”

Top executives from the nation’s biggest banks descended on government buildings demanding that something be done.

For Cowen, a rural politician whose lack of sophistication in the movie has him unable to work a Nespresso coffee machine, the answer is a sweeping guarantee, according to Murphy’s depiction.

Making Coffee

Cowen bulldozes over objections from the more urbane Lenihan, who can operate the coffee machine, but as a lawyer with no financial training, has little grasp of economics.

Lenihan and Cowen made mistakes that night, said Murphy, a freelance journalist who based his screenplay in part on off-the-record interviews with people who were in the room that night. They thought “Armageddon” would arrive in the morning if they didn’t do something sweeping, he said.

“On the night they were flying blind,” said Murphy. “They could and should have come up with something better.”

The movie leaves the audience wondering how accurate the version of events is. Lenihan died from pancreatic cancer in 2011, Cowen has left politics, and none of those present that night have ever given a definitive account.

A spokeswoman for Fianna Fail, the party that Cowen led, said its former leader wasn’t in a position to comment on the movie.

Lawmakers have started an inquiry into the crisis that will probe the events that led to the guarantee. In the meantime, the mystery enveloping the banking collapse and the guarantee continues to fascinate the Irish.

Bank Musical

A Dublin theater will next month run “Let The Market Decide,” a play about what might have happened if the government had decided against the backstop. Last year, the demise of Anglo Irish was the topic of a musical.

“It holds our attention because it was dramatic, continues to be secretive and has had huge impacts on the lives of everyone in this country,” said Stephen Kinsella, an economics lecturer at the University of Limerick. “The guarantee represents the failures of that government as well as the moment when private debt from banks became public debt.’

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