Saturday 21 October 2017

No 'killer punch', but inquiry told us what we need to know

Clódagh Sheehy was the only reporter to have sat through the whole of the Banking Inquiry

Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen arriving at Leinster House, for the Banking Inquiry. The pre-golf meeting between Mr Cowen, former Anglo bank boss Sean FitzPatrick and three others captured the essence of the inquiry. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen arriving at Leinster House, for the Banking Inquiry. The pre-golf meeting between Mr Cowen, former Anglo bank boss Sean FitzPatrick and three others captured the essence of the inquiry. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

Clódagh Sheehy

The intimate pre-golf meeting between former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, former Anglo bank boss Sean FitzPatrick and three others captures the essence of the Banking Inquiry.

Marathon public inquiry sessions - many 12 and 13 hours long - have not given us explosive confessions or a single person to blame.

Instead, little nuggets of trivia have helped us put together a detailed account of how we were led unwittingly into a catastrophic financial collapse.

The inquiry has been about giving the public an opportunity to understand the culture and climate in which appalling decisions were made, with insufficient thought to the crippling consequences for future generations.

Every day of the Banking Inquiry since the beginning, I've witnessed the breathtaking arrogance and staggering greed of some of the players, combined with the timidity of regulators and the downright stupidity of many of those in authority.

Detractors are quick to insist that no "killer punches" were landed on any of the 128 witnesses.

You don't need to land such punches for the public to see through distortion, half truths, fantasy and even naked self - delusion.

As nation of talkers we are sharply tuned to the nuances both where evidence is given and equally where it is withheld.

When millionaire bankers and developers, former Taoisigh, politicians, financial regulators, accountants, auditors and higher civil servants queue up to tell us how they too have been burned by the crash or how sorry they are or how it was someone else's fault, we draw our own, informed conclusions.

We already knew, for example, that Irish Nationwide Building Society needed a €5.4bn taxpayer bailout and that its boss, Michael Fingleton, had a €27.6m pension pot.

When he told the inquiry, however, that he did not regret any of his decisions and he felt "wronged" and "misrepresented" by 80pc of media reports, we got a sharp insight into his mindset.

Equally, when financier Derek Quinlan explained that one of his biggest difficulties was the "pain" of having to live away from Ireland and how "I too have lost substantially", we understood how he viewed the world.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern - one of the most popular Taoisigh ever - was greeted with stony stares when he tried to joke about the Fianna Fáil Galway tent being a place to stay dry or even meet a wife.

This snapshot moment revealed more about the dramatic dip in his public approval than dozens of questions.

Sometimes it was easy to get sucked into the hard-luck stories of more eloquent witnesses.

It was easy to sympathise with one individual describing his losses until ever vigilant committee members linked these to the €2bn debt this particular episode had foisted on the Irish taxpayer.

In the case of the pre-golf meeting it was the trivial revelation from Gary McGann, a previous Anglo director, that the meeting was held in the home of former Anglo non-executive director Fintan Drury that pricked our interest.

Previous accounts by Mr Cowen and Mr Drury gave the impression - without actually saying so - that the meeting had been held in the foyer of the golf club.

The location, revealed by inquiry questioning, added much to our understanding of the climate that prevailed.

Even ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet's refusal to attend the Inquiry - and instead make the 11 members come to him in Kilmainham - hardly worked in his favour.

Although he stood on a stage above their heads and flanked by staunch supporters, the dignified but insistent questioning once again revealed a mindset.

It was one of the best displays of the professional skills of every single individual committee member, who throughout the 49 public hearings had to work under very tight legal constraints.

While utterly frustrating, these legal barriers kept open the possibility that anybody found to have broken the laws of the State could ultimately pay some kind of price with a jail sentence.

I sat through every one of those public sessions from start to finish, reporting for this newspaper.

I had expected skeletons to come toppling out of cupboards, deep secrets to be aired and ultimately someone to be held accountable.

I discovered instead that we already knew most of the facts and the real value of the Banking Inquiry was in the process itself.

We knew over-lending by banks to property developers combined with tax breaks got us into the mess.

What the inquiry process helped us to understand was why those in charge - who were paid massive salaries, bonuses and pensions - took such decisions, and the extent of any forethought given - to the impact on the rest of us.

The value has been in watching some famous faces and many never seen faces give a public account of their actions and, more importantly, their mindsets.

We don't need an Inquiry Final Report to shape our conclusion that the arrogance, collusion and cowardice of a relatively small but powerful group brought an entire country to its knees.

We have seen first hand how the system worked against us and caused untold physical and mental pain.

Surely, the lesson is not to invest blind trust in our rulers, regulators or bankers ever again.

As ordinary citizens we need to be more vigilant, more intrusive in our questioning and less accepting of fob-offs and devious answers.

I had no expectations of the 11 committee members at the outset of the process.

Having watched them carefully through hundreds of hours of witness questioning, I think they have done a very worthwhile job.

Irish Independent

Also in Business