Tuesday 30 August 2016

Bank boss still hasn't told us why no one listened to the Anglo Tapes

Published 26/09/2013 | 05:00

Central Bank Governor Professor Patrick Honohan
Central Bank Governor Professor Patrick Honohan

WE expected a tiger – a people's champion. Instead, we were confronted by a man who fumbled to explain his position and came across with all the verve of a tame and rather unadventurous house cat.

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There was too much cotton wool and not enough steel in Patrick Honohan's reaction to the Anglo Tapes – hand-wringing, rather than action. And not even enough hand-wringing, come to think of it.

There was too much professor and not enough public servant in his response to questions from the Oireachtas Finance Committee – rambling non-explanations, rather than clarification.

But where the Central Bank governor really ran aground was on the subject of why nobody on his team – least of all himself – ever bothered to listen to all of the material on the Anglo Tapes. Hundreds of hours of conversations have not been publicly released, although the gardai, the Office of Corporate Enforcement and IBRC (the Bank Formerly Known As Anglo) all have access to them.

Prof Honohan seemed mystified as to why the Central Bank should tune into the tapes. After all, what on earth could be gained by it? The tapes couldn't possibly throw any light on what happened in the run-up to the blanket bank guarantee ... could they? Besides, it would take such a lot of time. Dear me, no, it couldn't be managed.

Yet despite not listening to everything on tape, or deputising someone else to do it for him, or reading a transcript, or buying a headset and tuning in as he walked or drove to work and home, he had no trouble in reaching a definitive conclusion.

There was absolutely no need to approach the gardai with those tapes, which he hadn't taken the trouble to listen to anyhow. No need at all. He was convinced of it. Why? Just because.

Nothing to see here, move along.

When pressed by deputies, including Pearse Doherty and Kieran O'Donnell, on the thought processes behind this bizarre, mystifying and indefensible decision, he blinked in surprise. But there were so many tapes and it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, he protested.

Apparently, senior staff at the Central Bank thought it over. They talked about it. But they decided they didn't actually know what they might be looking for. So how could they find anything?

At this point, I had my head in my hands.

Pressed repeatedly by Mr Doherty, Prof Honohan did concede – finally – that he might review his decision not to listen to the rest of the Anglo Tapes. Review the decision? Review it? That's a decision which should be frogmarched by drum beat into a volte-face.

Listening to every cough, pause and expletive on those Anglo Tapes ought to be a priority. Central Bank staff shouldn't set foot out of their offices until the contents of those tapes have been heard, transcribed and assessed.

Yesterday must surely rank as the low point for Prof Honohan since taking over the poisoned chalice as governor. I don't for one moment doubt that he is a good man, but he took a wrong turn yesterday and bumbled round in circles for the rest of the session.

It's not his job to reflect the public mood. But it is his job to show judgment and initiative. He demonstrated neither on the subject of those explosive tapes, which gave people an insight into the blustering, aggressively macho culture at the core of the failed bank. A culture which has cost citizens €30bn we can ill afford.

Prof Honohan was too cerebral in his responses to deputies who were clearly frustrated by his apparent lack of interest in tuning into the Anglo Tapes.

He wasn't highbrow throughout, mind you. In Mr O'Donnell's direction, he let slip a snippy remark about sending the gardai a copy of the 'Sunday Independent' to alert them to what was in the tapes.

A little rattled, I dare say, and he did apologise quickly. The afternoon was turning out far from the way he had expected. The professor arrived before the committee under the impression that he'd be discussing mortgage arrears and big bad banks and what the Central Bank was doing to make them virtuous. Instead, he was Anglo Taped to his chair.

His real failure was an inability to spell out the Central Bank's position adequately. The position he adopted was that the gardai knew as much as the Central Bank did. No new criminal offences were uncovered, so there was nothing to pass on.

BUT that stance ignored the fact that the Central Bank only listened to the tapes released by Independent Newspapers. Bringing us back to the thorny question of why nobody at the Central Bank put themselves out to listen to the rest of the tapes.

"Good question," said Prof Honohan every now and again. As though he was in the lecture theatre and not before an Oireachtas committee. As though it was all an interesting intellectual conundrum to unpick and not an accusation of failure against a key regulatory arm of State.

Amid all the hot air, by a circuitous route, Prof Honohan led us to Britain's Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which suggested a new law should go on the statute books: reckless misconduct in the management of a bank. The Central Bank was also considering whether there should be such an offence in Ireland, revealed the professor in his mild-mannered way.

The sound of stable doors and horses bolting could be heard not just in the Leinster House committee room, but the length and breadth of the State.

Irish Independent

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