Friday 21 November 2014

Politicians will be forced to appear at banking inquiry

Published 02/09/2014 | 02:30

Labour TD Ciaran Lynch heads up the banking inquiry, which begins its public hearings next Easter. Photo: Tom Burke.
Labour TD Ciaran Lynch heads up the banking inquiry, which begins its public hearings next Easter. Photo: Tom Burke.

Bankers and politicians who were in charge at the time of the banking collapse in autumn 2008 will have no option but to attend the forthcoming Oireachtas bank inquiry.

The TDs and Senators are seriously looking at the option of using legal powers to compel all witnesses to attend and also oblige them to provide whatever documentation is required. A host of senior politicians who were in office in the 2007-2011 Fianna Fail-Green Party government, including taoisigh Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern, have signalled that they will attend the hearings but others required to testify may prove less forthcoming.

It is understood that the compulsion plan will speed up the inquiry, which must complete its report before the next election due in spring 2016 at latest. Compelling people to attend will also provide legal cover for some witnesses while removing any "taint" on the character of witnesses who may have to be compelled to attend in the normal course of events.

The powers of compulsion will be worked on a different model to that of the Public Accounts Committee, whose members faced legal difficulties earlier this summer on the same issue. The plan is to draft legally water-tight terms of reference for the inquiry committee of eight TDs and four Senators which would avoid most potential legal challenges but also line up a strategy for any such challenge is extreme circumstances.

The inquiry committee chairman, Labour TD Ciaran Lynch, confirmed that the terms of reference were now being drafted and something close to a final version may be available when the committee meets again on September 17. A special expert group which is advising the committee will hold three more meetings ahead of that committee meeting.

"The terms of reference are a key aspect of this inquiry. They must be fit for purpose to ensure that the inquiry goes to plan and any foreseeable risk is dealt with," Mr Lynch told the Irish Independent.

The terms of reference must be cleared by the Dail's Committee on Procedures and Privilege and then voted through the Dail and Seanad. The committee members hope this can all be done - giving them legal existence for the first time - by the end of this month.

A punishing schedule of preparatory work must then be completed to inform a series of public hearings due to start about Easter next year. The committee's administration must be set up, a detailed work plan agreed and the required back-up documentation must be assembled.

The expert group has suggested the inquiry's work should be broken up into four modules - a context module, a module on banking systems, a module on regulatory and supervision and a module on crisis management and the policy response of Government. The expert group proposed that the policy module, which is expected to hear from key players - including Mr Cowen - should happen at the start.

Final agreement has yet to be achieved on the timescale to be covered by the inquiry. Several committee members signalled a starting point of more than a decade and continuing into the current government's term in office. Others argued this was impossible in the short time available and called for a focus on events in September 2008 but with a wide interpretation of the factors involved and special focus on the quality of information given the Fianna Fail-Green Party government at the time.

Already the committee has been advised that rules of cabinet confidentiality will mean they cannot access government meetings on the issue. But they have also been advised that they can see a wide range of government documents on the matter and many members feel they will not be unduly hampered by confidentiality. Those involved in the process concede that the public hearings are when the ordinary citizen is likely to engage with the process.

Irish Independent

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