Friday 30 September 2016

Governor skirts question of who will get the big bank job

Published 02/05/2015 | 02:30

The Governor of the Central Bank couldn't have been more chilled if he was stretched out on a sun-lounger with a drink containing a little umbrella and a lot of fruit.

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"What qualities do you think your successor should have?" asked the reporter. "A beard, I think, is essential," deadpanned Patrick Honohan, then waited a beat. "Or...a skirt," he added to the amusement of the room. He was flanked at the table by the two deputy governors, Cyril Roux (beard) and Stefan Gerlach (no beard or skirt) who both looked thoughtful.

For a chap whose departure later this year from the biggest job in Irish banking had been leaked to the media the previous evening, he was in cheery form. He remarked that he had planned to drop the departure bombshell during the routine press conference on the bank's annual report. "I was going to slide in at an appropriate moment in an offhand manner that you wouldn't be seeing me here next year," he admitted with an air of mischief.

And why wouldn't he be feeling chipper? For as well as the news of his impending retirement, he was also able to announce a Central Bank profit for 2014 of €2.1bn - "which is a record", he observed with satisfaction - a whopping €1.7bn of which will pour into the Exchequer's depleted coffers.

"It's a very good time," he reckoned, insisting that there was no dramatic behind-the-scenes reason for his departure before his seven-year term is up. Did he have a bust-up with Finance Minister Michael Noonan? "Absolutely not," he laughed. "It is a seven-year term so I could stay on. But I've long been asking myself when is the best moment. I'm not getting any younger."

As a rule, the vast majority of Irish citizens would struggle to pick a governor of the Central Bank out of a line-up, but not in the case of this particular incumbent.

For Professor Honohan managed the feat of simultaneously electrifying and scarifying a nation when he dramatically popped up on 'Morning Ireland' on Thursday, November 18, 2010 to confirm everyone's suspicion that the IMF were on the way and that a massive bailout was on the cards.

This interview brought him instant fame from a country full of Paddies who like to know the story, and instant infamy from the enraged denizens of Government Buildings who didn't appreciate the governor sticking his beak into the dreadful farrago.

Yesterday, in the bank's 7th-floor boardroom with a panoramic view of the city's Northside, the governor insisted that he had picked a good time to hang up his pinstripe suit. "It's a time of change and transition," he explained. "The crisis management phase is over - it's in a phase of repair and consolidation."

Moreover, he said that Michael Noonan was "understanding" of his decision to leave, but one suspects that the finance minister isn't delighted with the governor's timing, as he now has to launch a talent hunt for Ireland's Best Banker while an unmerciful scrap is raging between the Government and the banks over variable mortgage interest rates. But the governor was keeping schtum about any possible successor - apart from musings over beards and skirts.

Though in one final piece of mischief, he hinted he might write a book on the banking crisis - which should put a few hearts crossways in high places.

Remarkably, despite being at the banking wheel during a time of desperate peril, Patrick Honohan seems to have relished the rough seas. "It was like coming into a real live history book," he declared.

Well, he may get a chapter of his own, in a few history books yet to be written.

Irish Independent

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