This is the 20th anniversary of the first overseas annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The Bank was established at its inaugural meeting in London in early 1991, and true to its commitment to its geographical area of operation, the second meeting was held in Budapest in early 1992.
Hopefully, without revealing any State Secrets, I can reminisce a little on some peripheral aspects of that first overseas meeting.
I should start, however, with a word on the Bank's logo (above). Jacques Attali, then PDG (Chairman of the Board of Directors and Chief Executive of the Bank) decided to hold a competition for a distinctive logo. The Bank's title in French, is Banque Européenne pour la Reconstruction et le Développement, or BERD for short. In English, BERD sounds like a bird and there was a likilehood that the entries would produce flocks of them. So the first rule was that birds were out. Apart from the visual implications of this ban, it would also circumvent the usual quota of smart-alec remarks, like birds not flying on one wing, birds in the hand, in the bush, and so on.
Another aspect of the competition was the adjudication panel, which included Mary Robinson, who had become President of Ireland by the time the Bank was inaugurated, and Václav Havel, who, by that time, had become President of Czechoslovakia. As a result of her participation in the panel which chose the logo, Mary Robinson was invited to the inauguration in London in 1991. That was her first trip outside the country as President and it made the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Charlie Haughey very nervous. But that is another story for another day, perhaps.
But back to Budapest in 1992. The first event of the Annual Meeting, from my perspective, was the IRA blowing up the Baltic Exchange in the City of London just as I was leaving Dublin for Budapest. So, what has that got to do with the EBRD? Well, the Baltic Exchange is just across the road from the EBRD's then London HQ in Leadenhall St., and were it not for the AGM and the bulk of the Bank's staff being in Budapest at the time, it is likely that many would have been injured, perhaps fatally. As it turned out, apart from broken glass all over the place, only one member of the Bank's staff was injured.
The attack had one immediate consequence for the Irish delegation to the meeting. Our security status was immediately raised to unprecedented heights and the security man assigned to us turned out to be KGB trained. Why the London explosion should have had any implications at all for the Irish delegation in Budapest was not clear to me. But I suppose the Hungarians would not have been up to speed on the nuances of the Irish situation and, in any event, would not have been inclined to take unnecessary risks.
My own initial reaction was how was I going to face colleagues when my countrymen had just almost blown up the Bank's headquarters in London. As it happened, the AGM was attended by the Irish Ambassador accredited to Hungary, Michael Collins, and when I mentioned my concerns to him he was quite firm in his advice. "Hold your head high. They have not done this in your name, whatever their claims." This was a new line of reasoning for me, but as ambassador he must have had to deal with this sort of situation many times, and it made sense. So I steeled myself and took the recommended line.
Our elevated security status did provide some amusing incidents, however.
At one stage, the head of the Irish delegation, Bertie Ahern, then Minister for Finance, had occasion to visit the loo. Our hyperenthusiastic security man preceded him into the convenience and kicked in the door of the cabin to make sure there was no-one hiding inside and to make equally sure that, if there was, he would be in no fit condition to progress his assassination mission. Imagine ...?
Another incident gave the same security man a real fright. It was during lent, and as is publicly known, Bertie is a daily massgoer during this holy season. Well, on the day we were leaving for home, I had arranged for him to attend mass in one of the big churches. Could have been a cathedral for all I remember. Anyway, the security man accompanied the Minister and his Secretary General into the church and kept them under very strict surveillance during the ceremony. This wasn't all that difficult as they were in the one place all the while. Near the end of the mass, the security man, who was beginning to relax and had joined the rest of us at the back of the church, jerked in shock. The mark was on the move. In fact both marks were on the move. He leaped into action and paralelled the progress of the marks up the aisle to the main altar where they received communion and, much to his relief, returned unharmed to their seats. A close call, and a reminder that you are never off duty until the mark is finally out of your jurisdiction.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, but these vivid memories remain as though they were yesterday.