IMagine a state agency that in cash terms is bigger than the ESB, Bord Gais, RTE, Bord Na Mona and all of the other commercial semi-state agencies combined and which is subject to the bare minimum of public scrutiny.
Well, that agency exists – Nama.
Announced in April 2009, by the then Finance Minister, the late Brian Lenihan, the state's bad bank's purpose was two-fold.
Firstly, to rid the busted banks of their toxic development loans and recapitalise them so they could lend again. Secondly, it said it would restore a functioning property market.
"Nama will ensure that credit flows again to viable businesses and households by cleansing the balance sheets of Irish banks. This is essential for economic recovery and the generation of employment.
"It will ensure that we avoid the Japanese outcome of zombie banks that are just ticking over and not making a vibrant contribution to economic growth," he said.
Criticised for being mysterious, opaque and omnipresent, Nama paid €30.5bn for loans in five bankrupt banks previously worth €72bn. Because of a much longer recession than foreseen at the time of its creation, and because of house prices being about 25 per cent below where they were at the time it assumed control of the loan books, its chances of returning a 'profit' look slim.
Of most concern is that very soon after it was established, it became the stated policy that Nama would not seek to reclaim the €72bn, but rather just the €30.5bn injected into it by the taxpayer.
Yes, it has an arduous and thankless task, but its role and potential impact on the Irish economy is too large to leave off without proper public examination.
During the General Election campaign of 2011, Fine Gael heavily criticised the creation and establishment of Nama. The man who would become finance minister, Michael Noonan, lambasted Nama for "destroying the property market".
His party leader, Enda Kenny, described it as a great "secret society" in the final television debate. However, despite much promise, since taking office FG/Labour have done nothing to open up the 'secret society' of Nama, one of the largest property portfolios in the world.
This time last year, Noonan, suspicious of it, appointed former HSBC boss Michael Geoghegan to perform a review of Nama last year. Geoghegan credited the organisation with getting up and going under very trying circumstances, but highlighted some glaring deficiencies in its structures.
He made a series of recommendations to Noonan ahead of last December's Budget, including the possibility of selling Nama in its entirety. Since Geoghegan's review, in recent months, both Kenny and Noonan have turned from Nama's most vocal critics to its most ardent defenders,
Noonan said the organisation is "working well" and has adopted the recommendations put forward.
That is actually not true. Nama did not accept a sizeable number of the Geoghegan recommendations, including the one reversing the decision not to take in all loans over €5m, which he said would ensure "proper control" of the loans.
In truth, Noonan has been somewhat hands off in relation to Nama and by his own admission has relied heavily on "occasional" advice and phone conversations with Geoghegan.
Such a light touch approach has brought some stinging criticism from of all people, Fianna Fail, the very people who set Nama up.
Indeed, while Noonan and Kenny have become Nama's top cheerleaders from their previous positions of arch critics, Brian Lenihan's successor as Fianna Fail finance spokesman, Michael McGrath, has become a chief detractor.
Just last month, he railed against Noonan and the agency for its refusal to disclose how much of the €4.6bn received from the sale of properties under its control was made up of private, off-market deals.
"The proceeds of the sale of Nama properties go towards repaying the €32bn the agency has borrowed to buy the property loans. The properties under Nama's control are now essentially public assets and their sale must be done in a transparent and open manner," he said.
"It is disturbing that the Minister for Finance continues to stand over this practice by Nama. I am calling on the minister to introduce greater transparency to the operation of Nama and to start by ensuring that all Nama properties which are for sale are advertised on the open market," he added.
The further revelation that Enda Farrell, a former top employee at Nama, had taken confidential information out of the organisation was another blow to its credibility.
Despite such criticisms, Nama insists repeatedly that it is the most "transparent" semi-state agency, pointing to its quarterly reports, the C&AG audit and its appearances before the Oireachtas committees.
In defending its transparency, Nama said it must be remembered "the very extensive and publicly-available information that we make available on our operations, including in our annual reports and financial statements, our Section 53 annual statements, and our Section 55 quarterly reports and accounts, all of which are published on our website alongside other detailed information on core aspects of our work and our loan portfolio.
The various reports prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General on Nama's activities and our evidence before the Dail Committee of Public Accounts and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, which we attended in October, are also important sources for reference."
However, this plea of openness is open to dispute.
Firstly, despite all the above, Nama repeatedly failed to be forthcoming in terms of details of relevant information about its operations, including salary levels to its top people and to the developers it deals with, only disclosing such details after being pressurised to do so by media and from committees like the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee and the Finance Committee.
Secondly, the C&AG, Seamus McCarthy, last month spoke publicly about the strain on his office because of the effort involved in completing the Nama auditing function.
The C&AG audit has been one of the key components of Nama's defence to date that it is sufficiently open and transparent, and is one of the only avenues open to scrutinise and probe Nama's activities.
Thirdly, the last report into Nama by the C&AG's office concluded that the State overpaid to the tune of 20 per cent, or €5bn, for the loans it acquired from the banks.
The C&AG said that "it is estimated that, even after a writedown of 57 per cent at acquisition, that the acquisition price incorporates State aid of over one-fifth to the financial institutions" – in effect a subsidy of €5bn.
Fourthly, Nama will have to repay a quarter of its debts, or €7.5bn, by the end of 2013 and the remainder of the €32bn borrowed by 2020 and there are mounting doubts both within the Dail and beyond that it can meet this deadline.
'Nama now controls one of the largest property portfolios in the world...'
Therefore, given the deficiency in accountability, given the worsening conditions of the economy, the continued slump in property prices since 2010, given the Enda Farrell affair, and the arduous workload ahead of it, public confidence in Nama has been shaken.
To restore that confidence the time has come to consider creating a ministry with sole responsibility for Nama, given its size and its potential to distort and impact on Ireland's economic recovery.
When you consider that half the cabinet ministers have annual budgets of less than €1bn, surely it makes sense to get our priorities right.
While the Arts are important, do we need a full ministry to cope with this when the monolith that is Nama is largely been ignored. Or, while I'm sure Brian Hayes is doing a fine job as junior finance minister with control of the OPW, surely, he would do the state a much greater service by taking Nama off the workload of Noonan and taking responsibili-ty for it.
Only a full ministry for Nama is what is needed to help ensure its success.