DO YOU remember 7 April 2003? It was the day the US army tanks rolled into Baghdad to take on Saddam Hussein in his own backyard. Just as they arrived in the Iraqi capital, the local Minister of Information, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf held a press conference on the roof of the Palestine Hotel.
The hollow sound of gunfire echoed across the city and tanks fired from the banks of the Tigris just a few hundred yards away, as a hoard of journalists and cameramen gathered around the minister, later dubbed 'Comical Ali' by the British tabloid media.
He said, "there is no presence of American infidels in the city of Baghdad". And as the astounded group of journalists pointed out that all hell was breaking out across the Tigris, Ali replied, "There is no presence of American columns in the city of Baghdad at all. We besieged them and we killed most of them. Today, the tide has turned. We are destroying them."
Given the seismic events of recent days, the audacious claims by finance minister Brian Lenihan in his budget speech last December that "the worst is over" and "we have turned the corner" now look as ridiculous as Saeed al-Sahaf's comments that the tide had turned. To many people, he has become Comical Leni.
But comparisons between Irish government ministers and 'Comical Ali' do not stop at last year's budget. The events of the last 10 days have shown a cabinet in denial. As Labour's Pat Rabbitte recently claimed in the Dáil: "It's like the last days of the Roman empire around here at the moment."
A succession of government ministers poured cold water on reports from reputable international media organisations that Ireland was on the brink of an EU/IMF bailout over the last 10 days.
Last week resembled the roof of the Palestine Hotel in 2003 with ministers denying that the EU/IMF tanks were rolling into town.
Ministers also refused to utter the dreaded 'B' word. At no stage last week did any of them talk of a bailout. Instead it was referred to as "the facility", one that we would not be using.
On 12 November, finance minister Brian Lenihan appeared on RTÉ radio's News at One programme and said, "The state is well funded into June of next year…so this country is not in a situation or a position where it is required in any way to apply for the facility… It would send a signal to the markets that we are not in a position to manage our affairs ourselves…"
Later that day, the authoritative and globally-renowned Reuters news agency reported we were already in talks about a drawdown of funds from the EU's emergency fund.
As soon as the Reuters story broke, Taoiseach Brian Cowen dismissed its veracity as he accompanied Fianna Fáil's Brian O Domhnaill on a canvass for the Donegal South West by-election. He said, "We have no application whatever for funding... We don't have to borrow any money in respect of the sovereign issues that affect the government…"
But Cowen's denial did not quash the speculation. By Saturday, a number of "well-placed sources" briefed Irish journalists that Irish officials had been involved in 'technical' discussions about the procedures to be followed in the event of any aid application being made to the European stability fund.
Irish government sources have since claimed that the "well-placed sources" were most likely ECB officials and their claims were not true. They also dismissed reports of the 'technical' discussions and instead claimed that there had merely been routine talks between Dublin and EU officials ahead of last week's Ecofin meeting of EU finance ministers.
On Saturday, respected financial news agency Bloomberg quoted a German official saying Berlin was pressing Dublin to accept aid before the eurozone finance meeting in Brussels on Tuesday night.
Later on Saturday, the BBC reported that "preliminary talks" on financial support were taking place and recourse to the EU bailout fund was "no longer a matter of whether but when."
After the BBC report, the government denied again that it was in bailout talks for the second time in 24 hours. On Sunday morning the lead headline on The Sunday Independent read: "Cowen fury at BBC 'when not whether' bailout claim".
But stories in this newspaper, and other domestic and international media outlets, served to mount pressure on the government to further explain its position.
The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Batt O'Keefe, said on Sunday afternoon that Ireland was unlike Greece and it was not in bailout talks.
Speaking on RTÉ radio, he said, "No. It hasn't arisen. We have every confidence that we will be able to manage this economy. It's been very hard-won sovereignty for this country and this government is not going to give over that sovereignty to anyone."
Campaigning in Donegal on Sunday afternoon, the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, Mary Hanafin, was also emphatic that the government had not engaged in bailout discussions. She said, "there is no question of it."
She added that the "Wall Street Journal had been quite damaging to our reputation abroad. I met the head of the stock exchange and he is anxious to see what we can do to stabilise the financial message from Ireland.''
Later that night, the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern reiterated the government's position on a pre-recorded interview with Sean O'Rourke on The Week in Politics.
O'Rourke asked Ahern, "So where is all this speculation from reputable international news organisations coming from? Is it just total fiction?"
Ahern replied, "It is fiction because what we want to do is get on with the business of bringing forward the four-year plan and deal with the budget... We have to be calm in all of this, we have to be decisive and we will be decisive in the next few weeks. We obviously have to ignore a lot of this speculation because it is only speculation. We have not applied; there are no negotiations going on. If there were, obviously the government would be aware of it and we are not aware of it."
Ahern's "fiction" comment stirred up comparisons with Comical Ali's protestations in 2003 from some commentators and did nothing to kill the story into Monday.
One of the images of the week that will live on long in the nation's memory was the sight of Ahern again denying the bailout on Monday with transport minister Noel Dempsey shaking his head in agreement beside him.
The two cabinet ministers were jointly announcing the new system of 'Go Safe' speed cameras when Ahern was asked for the second time in 24 hours about a bailout.
Ahern cautioned against the continuing media speculation and said, "We have to be very careful in relation to this. People need to be calm. Ultimately, there are people who may have their own particular interests in making comments. It's vital that the less said about these issues, the less speculation there is. Speculation does lead, as we have seen, to some fairly significant spikes in the cost of funding of not just Ireland but a number of other countries across Europe."
Fianna Fáil national executive member Jerry Beades would later claim that Ahern and Dempsey's performance on Monday was "like Laurel and Hardy".
Around 6.30pm that evening, the Taoiseach Brian Cowen did an interview on the RTE Six-One News and he continued to insist that Ireland was not in bailout talks.
Among Cowen's replies to political correspondent David McCullagh, the Taoiseach said, "In a context where there is a lot of turbulence and worry and concern, I am just making the point that we will calmly and in a considered way deal with these issues in the days and weeks and months ahead."
Responding to Cowen on the same news programme, Fine Gael's finance spokesman Michael Noonan stressed the need to "speak plainly and not speak in riddles".
At lunchtime the next day, as Lenihan left a cabinet meeting to fly to Brussels for the meeting of EU finance ministers, there was a wave of anticipation in media circles when it emerged that Cowen was going to "make an announcement" in the Dáil at 5pm that evening.
Enda Kenny, who enjoyed one of his better weeks as Fine Gael leader with a succession of strong performances, questioned Cowen about the bailout in Leaders' Questions in the Dáil at 4.15pm but the Taoiseach refused to use the 'B', word.
At 5pm, as the nation anticipated Cowen's "announcement", he rose to his feet and delivered a bland "statement" about the economy.
After the Eurozone finance ministers' meeting concluded in Brussels that night, they issued a statement backing moves to intensify "short and focused" preparations for an EU/IMF rescue plan for Ireland.
Speaking on RTÉ's Prime Time programme shortly afterwards, junior minister Dick Roche denied that planned government talks with the IMF, ECB and the European Commission amounted to a bailout.
By Wednesday morning Lenihan's position appeared to have moved when he was interviewed on RTE's Morning Ireland programme. He said, "…the Irish government will fully engage with this process and will work with the mission to ensure that everything possible is done to secure the Irish banking system."
Shortly afterwards, Kenny launched another strong attack on Cowen and said, "The white flag has been raised. The towel has been thrown in…" But Cowen still insisted "there has been no question, as has been stated all over the weekend, of a negotiation for a bailout".
Ministers have taken a hammering for their repeated denials. In their defence, they clearly felt that any admission or use of the 'B' word would strongly weaken their negotiation hand before the talks even began.
But Kildare South TD Seán Power stood up in the Dáil on Wednesday and claimed, "We cannot continue treating people the way we have done. We often speak about our educated electorate, yet on occasion we treat them like fools.
"We failed the people and treated them as if they could not understand the complexities of the financial situation. We engaged in a game of semantics. We started trying to play a cute game about words and what they meant or might mean instead of using the opportunity presented to us following a number of statements on television and radio about the state of the nation and the difficulties we are experiencing."
On Thursday's Morning Ireland programme the Governor of the Central Bank, Patrick Honohan, said that he expects talks between the IMF, ECB and European Commission will result in a loan being offered to Ireland.
So if it looks like a bailout and sounds like a bailout, it's a bailout. After a week of speculation, the government's denials, much like Comical Ali's, were finally put to bed.
Yesterday afternoon, the Minister for Agriculture, Brendan Smith, appeared on RTE's Saturday View radio programme and reiterated the mantra that was used all week about the EU/IMF bailout. Smith said that the government has not applied for a bailout and outlined that "we are involved in technical discussions' with the EU, ECB and the IMF. He added that he recognised that the general public are not interested in the minutiae of the language used by Cabinet ministers.