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Ombudsman unhappy ECB won't give Brian Lenihan letter to journalist

Emily O’Reilly said that the ECB has “wasted an opportunity” to use transparency.

2011: The then Fianna Fail Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, who died later that year.
2011: The then Fianna Fail Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, who died later that year.
Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

THE ECB WOULDN’T give a 2010  letter from its then-president to Brian Lenihan to a journalist – and has been rapped on the knuckles by the European Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, said today that she “regrets” that the Governing Council of the European Central Bank (ECB) has blocked disclosure of the letter Jean-Claude Trichet wrote to the Irish Finance Minister in November 2010.

She said that this follows a complaint from an Irish journalist, who had asked for access to the letter.

The letter was sent at the height of the financial crisis, and, said O’Reilly, “called on the Irish government to take swift action to protect the stability of the Irish financial system”.

Gavin Sheridan of TheStory.ie said that he had submitted a request to the ECB for all letters sent to Brian Lenihan or his office in November 2010. He said he was told that the release of one specific letter’s contents would “undermine the protection of the public interest”.

At the time, Sheridan said he intended appealing the decision.

    Transparency

    O’Reilly said she regrets that the Governing Council “has wasted an opportunity to apply the principle that, in a democracy, transparency should be the rule and secrecy the exception”.

    At a time when so many people have been, and are, suffering as a result of austerity arising from the economic crisis, the very least a citizen can expect is openness and transparency from those who make decisions that directly impact on their lives and on the lives of their families.

    O’Reilly said that she has inspected the letter, and is “unconvinced” by the Governing Council’s explanation for continuing to keep it secret.

    Irish journalist suspected ECB tried to pressure Ireland into bailout

    The background to the request is that the Irish journalist looked for access to the ECB letter in December 2011.

    He suspected that Trichet’s letter to Lenihan included pressure on the Irish government to enter the EU’s bailout programme.

    According to O’Reilly, the ECB justified its refusal to disclose the letter in 2011 “by the need to protect Ireland’s financial stability”.

    According to the ECB, the letter was sent in the context of significant market pressure and extreme uncertainty as to the prospects for the Irish economy.

    The Ombudsman inspected the letter, and concluded that the ECB had been right to refuse access to the document at the time of the request.

    But as more than three years have passed since the letter was sent, she proposed that the ECB could now disclose the letter “in order to underline its commitment to transparency”.

    However, the Governing Council of the ECB blocked its disclosure, “on the grounds that the protection of the public interest as regards monetary policy in the European Union and financial stability in Ireland continues to justify confidentiality”.

    Read: ECB ‘held a gun’ to Government’s head over bailout>

    Read: In full: Brian Lenihan tells the ECB why Ireland needs a bailout>

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