Thursday 29 September 2016

Shane Ross: The constipated sphinx breaks ranks and turns on the bankers

Shane Ross

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

SPILLING THE BEANS: Former finance chief Kevin Cardiff broke civil service habit of omerta
SPILLING THE BEANS: Former finance chief Kevin Cardiff broke civil service habit of omerta

The last time Kevin Cardiff appeared before a Dail committee, he resembled a constipated sphinx. His 2011 summons to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) proved tortuous. The then head of the Department of Finance was on the back foot after a €3.6bn error in the State's finances occurred on his watch. Extracting information from the sphinx was like pulling teeth from the mouth of an unwilling dragon.

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On that November morning, Cardiff obviously hated every moment of the grilling, but it was an ordeal worth enduring.

He would soon be heading for the European Court of Auditors, free from the awkward scrutiny of Dail committees about the turmoil in the nation's finances. Four months later, he landed at the Luxembourg sanctuary on a salary of €229,000 plus perks, yet another well-rewarded failure of the banking crisis.

Cardiff's road to the Court of Auditors was a rocky one. His appointment was initially rejected 12-11 by the Budgetary Committee, mostly because of his record in Finance. The rejection was overturned by the full European Parliament. For the last three years he has been settling into a less controversial job, safe from the media gaze and the demands of accounting for his stewardship at the Department of Finance.

The Banking Inquiry put an end to the former chief mandarin's obscurity. Last Thursday, the constipated sphinx returned to the dungeons of Leinster House with an acute dose of verbal diarrhoea.

Like others, he was determined not to be made the scapegoat for the banking collapse. Offered a chance to redeem his reputation, Kevin Cardiff made a clever stab at seizing it. His surprise strategy was to provide more information than any other inquiry witness. The sphinx enjoyed his outing.

Cardiff was the man at the coalface of the entire banking fiasco, the point man ideally placed to relay the narrative, not only of the night of the bank guarantee but of the pressures put on the government in the far more important period leading up to D-Day, September 29, 2008.

Last Thursday, he buried his mandarin's instincts. He volunteered information that might never have been elicited, even under the toughest of questioning. He contradicted evidence already offered. Cardiff turned the tables on his detractors. He broke the civil service habit of omerta.

Cardiff the conformist, re-emerged as Kevin the heretic. His evidence opened the possibility that the bank guarantee was far from a panic decision made on the hoof on the night.

He hinted that it may have been well-plotted in advance. According to Cardiff, a broad guarantee had not just been mooted, but been canvassed in stages from May to September 2008.

The lobby for a blanket guarantee was banker-led. No lesser figures than Anglo's Sean FitzPatrick, Bank of Ireland's Brian Goggin, Irish Life and Permanent's Gillian Bowler and other power houses including former finance minister Charlie McCreevy and establishment bluebloods Davy stockbrokers had in turn bent influential ears about the need for a broad guarantee. Davy were brokers not only to Anglo but to Bank of Ireland. Cardiff emerged as distinctly anti-banker. Indeed, according to himself, he had been an opponent of their broad bank guarantee agenda all along.

Cardiff, once the quintessential self-effacing civil servant, spilled a lot of beans on Thursday. He seemed outraged by the arrival of the big banking beasts at the crux meeting armed with a pre-written banking guarantee.

According to Cardiff, the business of the night was based on the bankers' imported script. While the bankers had brought along their own draft written on a piece of paper, he emerged, in his own evidence, as the hero who resisted the blanket guarantee to the last. In the earlier part of the evening, he alone had soldiered with the late Brian Lenihan, fighting for the Anglo nationalisation option against the consensus view favouring a pan-bank guarantee.

Cardiff picked up early vibes in the meeting that Taoiseach Brian Cowen had long ago opted for the bankers' chosen route. It was also the choice of the Financial Regulator, the Central Bank and others. In the middle of the meeting, Cardiff's boss, Brian Lenihan, threw in the towel, after a brief one-to-one with Cowen. Cardiff was on his own. Official Ireland had fallen into line behind the bankers.

Cardiff was unburdening himself. No witness so far has provided as much awkward evidence. His exile in Luxembourg seems to have energised him. Far from giving him the chance to hide from his past, it seems to have motivated him to rebel against all his deeply ingrained instincts.

On Thursday, the sphinx was relaxed. He laughed a lot. When asked by Senator Susan O'Keefe if it was true that Cowen declared that he was not going to "effing nationalise Anglo", he played to the gallery, replying that he did not recall the expression but "I would be a liar if I said that I never heard the Taoiseach use the F word". The gallery laughed.

In reply to a question from Joe Higgins, he volunteered that he had "become more of a socialist in recent years" and revealed that even he had been out of work for a year in the last recession. The mandarin was humanising himself.

His response to a query about the infamous interview between broadcaster Marian Finucane and Sean FitzPatrick was the rather unconvincing, but wry, remark that "I hardly ever listen to Marian Finucane. She tends to have people on who criticise the Department of Finance".

His evidence on the role of former ECB chief Jean-Claude Trichet - due this week - is expected to follow the same pattern. Following last weekend's leaks to the media about his evidence, he will undermine the condescending Frenchman's assertion that he was simply an adviser to governments in trouble.

Cardiff supports the only credible narrative that there was an implied threat in every communication from the ECB. On burning the bondholders, he supports the school which says that Ireland was goosed from the word go by the diktats from Trichet.

Cardiff was followed on Thursday afternoon by his successor at Finance, the eloquent John Moran. The suspicion must linger in the minds of sceptics that the government-dominated inquiry had choreographed the day for a morning of sackcloth and ashes from Cardiff followed by an afternoon of Moran telling the nation how he and Michael Noonan fixed it.

Moran was Noonan's protege during his brief spell at Finance, while Cardiff was the man whom Noonan despatched to the Court of Auditors. Cardiff was the traditional public sector careerist, on the spot at the wrong time.

Moran was billed as the fresh face from the private sector who cleared up Cardiff's legacy.

Cardiff was initially expected to be beaten up by the inquiry members while Moran was set to enjoy a lap of honour. Moran would confirm that he (and Noonan) had set the banks on the road to recovery following Cardiff and Cowen's disastrous periods in office.

After the leaking of Cardiff's evidence last weekend, we knew that the one-time sphinx had opted to challenge the inquiry's agenda. He impressed the members with his frankness. He enlightened the commentators with his openness and his willingness to volunteer new information.

A mandarin has broken ranks and fingered the bankers. His evidence has challenged Trichet's patronising performance a few weeks ago. He has teed up a few key questions for Brian Cowen in early July.

He is not blameless for the collapse, but he is the first of the insiders to volunteer information that throws real light on how Ireland's bankers brought the nation to its knees.

Sunday Independent

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