News Analysis

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Shane Ross: Bankers in charge again as Noonan carries their hats and coats

Our timid little pet poodle of a Finance Minister lacks the guts to stand up to the banks

Shane Ross

Published 01/09/2013 | 05:00

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Are the bankers poised for a return to the glory days? Ireland's disgraced institutions are on the road to rehabilitation. The days of token punishment are ending. Less than five years after the guarantee, bankers are back in the saddle.

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The successors to their deposed brethren are on a roll. Never has it been more apparent than in recent weeks exactly where the balance of power lies in the phoney battle between Government and bankers.

Bankers are in the ascendant. Last week Brian O'Donovan of TV3 unearthed some pretty telling correspondence between Michael Noonan and top bankers.

A full 10 days after the release of the Anglo Tapes Michael Noonan had finally written to the surviving banks' bosses, asking them to retain records relevant to the approaching banking inquiry. The Government had woken up, realising that a banking inquiry might just need to hear similar conversations and examine similar documents buried in other banks.

The slow government response was pathetically tepid in tone. Noonan apologetically asked the increasingly confident bank chiefs if he might "remind" them "of the importance of the retention and maintenance of such records". The minister's rhetoric was feeble.

He went on, equally weakly, to "request" that the bankers "take all necessary steps to ensure that all records. . . are preserved in order to be available to the anticipated inquiry".

The bankers dismissively batted back the minister's missive. Archie Kane, the bonus-drenched governor of the Bank of Ireland with a less than distinguished career at Lloyds, replied nonchalantly that he had "noted" the correspondence.

He swatted away the minister's lame "request", confirming that the "bank will take such steps as we reasonably can to retain and maintain records reasonably believed to be within the remit of the anticipated inquiry".

It was a polite two fingers to Noonan. Archie and his colleague, Bank of Ireland boss Richie Boucher, but not the minister, will decide which documents are relevant to the inquiry. The other bankers replied in similar, if slightly less brazen, vein. Nearly all qualified their responses, saying that they would do as requested "as far as possible".

The mind boggles. The accused in the banking inquiry are telling the court that they will select the evidence against themselves!

Michael Noonan should have despatched a hit squad of forensic accountants into all the banks the day that the Anglo Tapes story broke. They should have seized all relevant documents for the ill-fated probe.

They should still be squatting in AIB's Ballsbridge Bank Centre with chairman David Hodgkinson and be shadowing Archie Kane and Richie Boucher in Bank of Ireland's Baggot Street headquarters.

Nor will Archie and David be shivering in their shoes at another episode of Noonan's grandstanding last Tuesday. The minister announced that banks and other financial outfits will now be "named and shamed" when the Financial Services Ombudsman has upheld at least three complaints against them.

Big deal: no fines, no charges, simply "named and shamed". The press release was laughable as a piece of macho posturing. The world knows that these guys are impossible to shame. What a damp squib.

The Government is far from thumping the table at the two plutocrats. Government policy is to foster and cherish Archie and David.

Not only is the Cabinet approving their obscene part-time pay levels (each individually dwarfing Noonan and Kenny's salaries combined), they are featherbedding the banks themselves.

It is government policy to give AIB and Bank of Ireland their heads. Government wants to create a duopoly, quaintly spun as a lofty strategy of two "pillar banks". The departure of foreign banks from our shores has panicked the Government into recreating the old cartel. Bank of Ireland and AIB are being given a free run. The most predictable consequence of this cartel will be another concerted assault on Ireland's depositors. Cyprus has shown us that no one is safe.

Depositors will not be the only victims of the resurgence of the ancien regime. Householders are back in the front line. At the end of the summer Dail session the famous Dunne judgement was legislated for.

Now bankers have been given back the power of eviction. They will use it opportunistically, as they wish, not on the instructions of the Government. For them, repossession is another weapon on the ruthless, but rapid, return to former glories.

We are now in the middle of a full-blooded mortgage-arrears crisis. Who is in the saddle there? Last week's revelations that the number of mortgage arrears is rising was a shock. Fools that we are, did we not believe the yarn that the authorities had ordered the bankers to deal with the crisis? Were they not committed to meeting strict targets?

Of course they were. Unfortunately, their promises were couched in meaningless language. Solutions were tied up in deliberately vague words like "sustainability". The result is that bankers, not the Government, are dictating the mortgage-arrears agenda.

The mortgage figures were bad, but even they are an underestimate. The banks alone know how many elderly parents are now paying off their children's delinquent mortgages. How many more of the seemingly solvent young borrowers are being kept afloat by the older generation?

Tens of thousands could be added to underlying mortgage arrears numbers if the banks released figures on the intergenerational transfer of wealth. Of course they will refuse, at least until they have bled the grannies of Ireland dry.

The result of the looming mortgage doomsday will be another recapitalisation of the shaky 'pillar' banks. That day of doom will mark the final restoration of the old guard, of the old ways and the humiliation of a Government that has bowed the knee to the bankers.

Shane Ross is the author with Nick Webb of 'The Bankers: How the Banks Brought Ireland to its Knees' published by Penguin Books Ltd, €13.35

Sunday Independent

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