Gene Kerrigan

Wednesday 30 July 2014

No justice or revenge – but what did we expect?

In entrepreneurial Ireland, if you play ball, don't take notes or ask questions then the odds are you will thrive, writes Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Published 20/04/2014|02:30

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Former financial regulator Patrick Neary at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court
Former financial regulator Patrick Neary at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court
Sean FitzPatrick is innocent not only because a jury said so, but because that’s what the evidence suggests
Sean FitzPatrick is innocent not only because a jury said so, but because that’s what the evidence suggests

Inevitably, as soon as the verdict emerged, closely followed by a grinning Sean FitzPatrick, social media went slightly berserk. Things were said about the jury and about the judge.

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Sean FitzPatrick is innocent not only because a jury said so, but because that's what the evidence suggests.

We'll get to the trial itself in a moment – the innocent, the guilty and the regulators who didn't regulate.

But how come, in the end, all that seemed to matter to us about the Anglo debacle was the outcome of a trial on relatively minor charges?

When Anglo's festival of greed exploded in 2008, leaving the entire country covered in crap, we did a lot of swearing and screaming about Seanie Fitz and about Brian Cowen and about the sleepy regulators.

Then, we got the €34bn bill for the gambling games that Anglo played with their builder friends and their bondholders. There was a lot of talk of revenge and reform.

We would find out exactly what happened and whoever was responsible would be made accountable.

We would clean up the banks, reform them, none of this 'too big to fail' nonsense. They would become utilities, serving us, not ruling us.

We would ensure that those who caused the collapse would pay for putting things right. We would dispense with the culture of greed, we said.

It must never happen again, we said.

That craving for reform and accountability lasted a good two or three days.

Now, we have bankers whining that a half million euro is a pauper's wage, and 'experts' assuring us they're right.

We have bankers telling the Oireachtas to get stuffed. The wealthy spend a year relaxing in the UK and come back debt-free and bristling with new deals, their lifestyles changed marginally. The young emigrate, the old behold their flittered pensions. And the people who bought overpriced homes sink deeper in debt.

We have a Government that continues to dance attendance on the bankers and financiers. We have had no accountability. The thorough investigation into what happened hasn't started, six years later.

And all along, we've been paying off the debts run up by these people – and we'll continue doing so into the distant future.

No wonder the Anglo trial mattered so much. Instead of change, we meekly settled for sticking three executives in the dock and waiting for the jury to reef them for us, so the tabloids could gloat as Seanie went to jail.

It took Seanie about 10 minutes to spot the flaw in that cunning plan. When the illegal loan deal was done, Seanie was a non-executive director. He had no role in those loans. The jury saw that, gave a verdict based on the evidence, and he walked. Quite rightly.

The essence of the Anglo debacle is that a bunch of high-ego, underperforming clowns ran their business into the ground. A very rich fool, Sean Quinn, destabilised the bank, which in turn threatened to destabilise the Irish banking system.

Ten big shots were roped into an illegal scheme to stabilise everything. And the bankers needn't have worried, because their political servants and devout admirers rushed to the rescue – and transferred all the debts of all the clowns onto the public accounts.

You know how some people sometimes fantasise that dynamic business folk should run the country? Well, that's pretty much what happened.

Such realities quite rightly had no place in the trial just ended. It was all about Section 60 of the Companies Act, and whether the rule of law was broken. The judge ruled out any reference to the fact that Pat Whelan and Willie McAteer got legal advice that the deal was lawful.

Turn that on its head. Suppose Whelan and McAteer went to lawyers and asked, is this legal? And the lawyers said, no, it's not. And suppose Whelan and McAteer went ahead, anyway. Would that be relevant? Surely proceeding with a deal against expert legal advice would be evidence of criminal intent? And it would aggravate the offence.

Surely, therefore, the reverse applies? Maybe not. (Strict liability, as opposed to culpability, and all that – which seems a bit preoccupied with law, as opposed to justice.)

Meanwhile, the chief clown, David Drumm, did a flit to Boston. And no one's been able to get hold of him. Apart from Charlie Bird.

After years of poking around the bank, all the authorities came up with in this case was a series of relatively minor charges relating to the Companies Act.

This is the message we're getting from the Anglo proceedings. If you shoplift or nick somebody's car there are laws to deal with that, quite rightly. The laws needed to police bankers effectively don't exist – except if somebody can be done for breaches of the Companies Act. Successive governments saw no need to hamstring our entrepreneurial classes with intrusive laws.

In his day, Seanie was a big man for denouncing regulation – and we know now just how strict the regulation was.

The court case was, in one way, of value. It taught us something that has long needed teaching. Pat Neary, the chief regulator, didn't take notes at crucial meetings. And, when anything more sentient than a peat briquette would have been agog with curiosity Mr Neary had no questions to ask.

And again and again and again and again, on the witness stand, Neary said he didn't recall important matters. (Ruadhan Mac Cormaic of The Irish Times solemnly counted the "don't knows" and "can't recalls" and recorded 82 incidences of Neary's ignorance or flawed memory.)

One might ask – given Mr Neary's lack of curiosity, his bad memory and his failure to take notes – just what qualities did he have that justified his €243,000 salary?

Why was such a forgetful, deferential, incurious chap at the helm of a crucial regulatory body? Could it be that a State that boasted of light touch regulation saw in Mr Neary precisely the qualities it needed?

What this teaches us – and what the series of debacles in the banking and private sector endorses – is that in entrepreneurial Ireland a chap who serves a purpose can thrive, no matter how light the burden of talent he has to carry.

We now know that the Maple 10 deal was illegal. Yet, none of the geniuses from Morgan Stanley, none of the lawyers, none of the consultants and executives seem to have paid a forfeit for their role in the deal – for which, I'm sure, they all sent in large invoices.

As the dust settled on the verdicts, a self-serving statement emerged from the family of one Sean Quinn, erstwhile billionaire. "The information that we have garnered will be of huge assistance to us in our forthcoming legal cases", it said. Well, it was all worth it, so.

The country has been stiffed for the cost of the games greedy gobshites played. And, one of the chief gobshites, the self-absorbed, self-regarding Sean Quinn, wants us to know how enormously pleased he is to have been able to pick up some titbits of information that might help him transfer money from somebody else's pockets into his own.

The bleating of the authentic voice of frustrated privilege, this statement is an example of missing a wonderful opportunity to keep your whiney mouth shut.

Apart from sentencing, the Anglo trial is over. It didn't give us revenge, it didn't restore any balance. It ruled on a narrow issue, quite properly. It did not and could not provide justice for what was done to us. We should never have expected it to.

Sunday Independent

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