independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Shane Ross: Bruiser leaves us all bleeding

RICHARD Boyd Barrett TD had just finished his questions to Bank of Ireland boss, Richie Boucher. Exasperated, the socialist TD turned to me: "Now perhaps you know why we want to nationalise the banks."

The Great Survivor of the banking implosion appeared before the Dail Finance Committee last Thursday. Even those of us who are hardened observers of bankers stonewalling questions were gobsmacked by the arrogance of the bruiser from Zambia.

Richie Boucher is the embodiment of all that is bad in Irish banking. He is old school. He was a director of the Bank of Ireland at the time of the bank guarantee in 2008. He was a lender during the property frenzy. He is paid €620,000 a year. He is unapologetic about his record and the Bank of Ireland's murky recent history.

He is a hard bastard with a hide like a rhino.

Richie's appearance provoked hostile comment. Members of the committee were quick to point out that Richie's attitude was far different from even AIB chief executive David Duffy's more conciliatory replies a day earlier. Despite the presence of his public relations advisers in the gallery, Richie was in no mood to concede any quarter to his questioners. He blocked, he refused to answer and he obfuscated. His PR guys must have been squirming.

Finance committee chairman Ciaran Lynch accused him of answering at a "minimalist level".

Other TDs were muttering less printable phrases under their breath. It takes a brutal beast to prompt TDs to throw a few compliments in the direction of AIB. That was Richie Boucher's achievement on Thursday. He made AIB's Duffy, the man who had raised interest rates on variable mortgages by 0.5 per cent last month, look like a pussy cat.

He even achieved the impossible, making Alan Dukes, the Anglo chairman who had appeared on Tuesday, look humble. Richie should win an honorary doctorate in hubris for that.

Behind Boyd Barrett's remark urging nationalisation lay a subliminal message: this guy's bank is only 15 per cent government-owned. So he is happy to give us the bum's rush. AIB, the bank that had provided more co-operative witnesses, is fully State-owned. Once these creatures are in full government ownership, it puts manners on them.

It breaks my free market heart to admit it, but when it came to the bout between Boyd Barrett and Boucher, I was cheering in the Boyd Barrett corner. After Boucher's performance, the Bank of Ireland should have been nationalised on the spot.

Richie started a few lengths behind -- and a few years ahead of -- Duffy. He has form. It was Richie who told the Oireachtas committee in July 2008 that, "unequivocally, we do not think there is a Northern Rock in Ireland".

Today, we would happily settle for a Northern Rock. Every Irish bank was a Northern Rock multiplied. Within two months of Richie's hostage to fortune, the mighty Bank of Ireland was exposed as bankrupt.

He has learnt nothing from the experience. On Thursday, his replies were ebullient, uncompromising. Asked by Joe Higgins about his €620,000 salary plus pension, he refused to comment apart from confirming that "my remuneration is put to shareholders annually".

It was a line he repeated ad nauseam.

Another was his response about the high charges imposed by Bank of Ireland. "We cannot," he repeated, "provide products for free." They can, they have in the past, but they won't.

Appeals to his humanity were met with stony-faced responses. When Higgins spoke of the misery that Bank of Ireland had inflicted on impoverished borrowers, Boucher adopted the cold mantra that, "my primary responsibility is to restructure the bank".

He refused to answer a question from Boyd Barrett about the infamous Jurys property deal with developer Sean Dunne.

Senator Sean Barrett failed to gain any satisfaction when he asked Boucher about the role of B of I's so-called 'Public Interest' directors, former Fianna Fail agriculture minister Joe Walsh and one-time Department of Finance secretary general Tom Considine. So unhelpful was Boucher's response that the committee rightly resolved to invite them in for a special session to explain themselves. The two boyos can thank Boucher for landing them in this unwelcome encounter.

Stephen Donnelly, a thoughtful and calm TD, nearly imploded at Boucher's refusal to respond to his question on debt-forgiveness, while Peter Mathews was reduced to telling Boucher that it was not all about numbers. Ethics, decency and humanity cut no ice with the great survivor.

Boucher is taking Bank of Ireland walkabout, out of the clutches of the State into private hands. The Government is giving him every assistance.

The banking landscape is now being prepared for him and his ilk. It is government policy to create a system with just two strong "pillar banks", the Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks. This will probably mean a further two-year gestation period of nursing them back to profit. Coincidentally, both chief executives expect that happy day to dawn in the same year, sometime in 2014. The holy grail will be reached by returning to the bad old ways of running a duopoly. A cartel is beckoning where both pillar banks squeeze their customers until they squeak.

The Government refuses to interfere with what they call the 'day-to-day' operations of the pillar banks. While Boucher and Duffy are hell bent on a return to profit at all costs, they are being indulged by a weak Cabinet intent on fattening them up for sale. The pillar banks have been granted a licence to plunder. And they are both taking full advantage of it.

Imagine what will happen if the two pillar banks are put up for sale in 2014 after they return to profit. AIB and Bank of Ireland will be back in business, unconstrained by government shareholdings, their competitors driven from the battlefield. There will be no battle, just a neat little carve-up.

Even today, there are predators hovering over the balance sheets of the two basket cases. As they sit and watch the Irish Government pumping more money into the duo, they are wondering with glee at the prospects of the taxpayer being bled to death in the cause of bringing these banks back to life. They will watch and wait until both patients are restored to good health, back in profit, the competition having fled home to the UK or further afield. Then they will pounce. Then they will plunder. They will buy into a tailor-made cartel.

Happy days will be here again, less than a decade after the bank guarantee. Richie Boucher will be in charge of the Bank of Ireland. The other half of the new cartel -- AIB -- will be run by one of the old guard restored to his former glory.

Two pillar banks, funded by the taxpayer, have eyeballed the Government. The Government blinked first with the guarantee, second when it decided to subsidise their recovery. It is still blinking. Next stop, the Government will sell the duopoly -- stuffed with taxpayers' money -- to overseas vultures. New invaders will beggar the captured Irish customers. Deja vu.

Richard Boyd Barrett, the socialist from Dun Laoghaire, is right. The only way to put manners on these boys is to nationalise them.

'The Untouchables' by Shane Ross and Nick Webb is in all good bookstores now

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