News John Downing

Saturday 23 August 2014

Error-prone Enda forced to focus on what Independents do next in bank probe debacle

Published 16/06/2014 | 02:30

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Finian McGrath: ‘We must consider the entire process’. Photo: Tom Burke.
Finian McGrath: ‘We must consider the entire process’. Photo: Tom Burke.

ENDA Kenny will take a keen interest in what the 16 TDs in the Dail's Technical Group decide when they meet tomorrow. And it is not every week you could say that now.

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When Independent TD Stephen Donnelly dropped his bombshell of resignation from the banking inquiry in yesterday's 'Sunday Independent', he did considerable damage and compounded this Government's mounting series of bank inquiry problems.

The Wicklow TD was rated as having the knowledge to enhance the Oireachtas inquiry and his decision to quit was a blow to the already battered reputation of a process that has not even got off the ground.

The gravity of the resignation was highlighted yesterday afternoon by an announcement from Government Buildings that the Taoiseach and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore had talked over the issue and decided that the party whip would not apply in the banking committee.

This was being done in recognition for the unique nature of this inquiry, we were told. We must add that it was also done because of the total hash the Government had made of things.

But the resignation also risks further hoisting the Taoiseach on his own petard. The justification for the Government insisting on having a majority on the inquiry committee was that all committees always reflect the political make-up of the Dail and Seanad.

The 16 Technical Group TDs represent a sizeable chunk of the Dail membership and their involvement is crucial to this idea of proportionality.

It is clear that the group will take their time and talk this one out.

The wily Independent TD Finian McGrath summed up the mood yesterday. "My personal view is that in light of all that has happened we must consider the entire process and our role in it. But I will wait to hear my colleagues' views," he said.

It is known that several Technical Group members were keen to be involved and that may be likely to outweigh any temptation to shun the committee and not offer a replacement nomination.

The names of Clare Daly and Richard Boyd Barrett were mentioned in the past as potential nominees – names which will not enthuse the government side of the house where they would be viewed as tough operators.

But that is just one in a whole series of issues facing a problem which has been left open to allegations of political bias – before a single word of evidence is heard. Enda Kenny's words a year ago about the "axis of collusion" between Fianna Fail and Anglo Irish Bank were a serious error of judgment and his insistence last week on a government majority for the committee was of the same ilk.

Since his election to the Dail in May 2007, the inquiry chairman, Ciaran Lynch of Labour, has built a reputation as an able politician, capable of bringing some impartiality to his job as chairman of the Oireachtas Finance Committee.

He faced enough logistical and timing challenges without having to also fight for the committee's reputation and he has wisely stood back from all the hullabaloo about committee nominations, using the analogy of being ready to captain a team which he has no role in selecting.

The reality is that Lynch is already engaged in a race against time if he is to deliver a report within the lifetime of this Dail.

Failure to meet that deadline would see the inquiry timed out and it would fall, leaving the next government with the option of starting all over again. We are, after all a maximum of 22 months away from a general election.

The best estimates now are that the committee can finally be set up and open for business by the autumn. According to an informed source, public hearings are not likely before next March or April.

That leaves a bare 12 months to hear the evidence, reach some conclusions and write a report.

It is a very tall order with the tightest imaginable deadline, which brings its own doubts about how feasible the whole process is.

The scarcity of time available inevitably means that the inquiry will have to narrow its focus and curtail the timeframe to be investigated.

It will now be confined to the issues around the notorious bank guarantee of September 2008.

That of itself will again add to Fianna Fail's allegations that this is really about the Government using this process to "batter them with memories of miseries past" in the run up to a general election.

But those who know the process argue that it does not have to focus on the specific events of that fraught evening of September 30, 2008, when Brian Cowen's government took the controversial decision to guarantee all bank deposits up to €100,000 – a move which potentially left taxpayers liable for anything up €400bn.

One well-placed source pointed out that it means the inquiry can deal with the quality of information given to government by the banks. "We are told the banks talked about 'liquidity' rather than 'solvency,'" the source summed up.

All that being said, there is a strong view now that this banking inquiry is in a very precarious position and a crucial week beckons.

Irish Independent

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