Wednesday 28 September 2016

The banker who blushed just a little bit when the good girls got into big trouble

Published 07/05/2015 | 02:30

Bank of Ireland Chief Executive Richie Boucher came close to a rosy glow yesterday when he was reminded of his infamous line: 'At a wild party, even good girls can get into trouble'
Bank of Ireland Chief Executive Richie Boucher came close to a rosy glow yesterday when he was reminded of his infamous line: 'At a wild party, even good girls can get into trouble'
'He mumbles and resorts to sporting terminology'

What makes a banker blush? Surprisingly little, judging by Richie Boucher. Yet he came close to a rosy glow yesterday when he was reminded of his infamous line: "At a wild party, even good girls can get into trouble."

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Bank of Ireland was the 'good girl' that fell into bad company, he had implied - the former Snow White who drifted. The fumbling metaphor appeared to embarrass him more than questions about why he wrote a letter in support of developer Sean Dunne to city planners, or why he was the only senior banker to survive the post-collapse purge, or references to the bonus culture or even to his salary - €843,000 last year, since you're asking. The pay cap doesn't apply to him because the bank is not a State-owned institution.

Odd, what does and doesn't cause mortification to set in. In an attempt to explain his unfortunate party girl analogy at an IBEC conference last year, he made a confession to Senator Susan O'Keeffe: he was inclined to overuse jargon, but may have gone too far in the other direction.

It was a mea culpa which surprised nobody - even a casual observer could have picked up on his fondness for 'shoptalk slanguage'. Clearly, numbers rather than words are Mr Boucher's forte. Possessed of a silver tongue, he isn't. But something new was learned as a result of his appearance before the Banking Inquiry.

We discovered the Financial Regulator knew that Irish Nationwide needed €4bn some three weeks before it was guaranteed by taxpayers. Yet the former government went ahead and included the institution, despite that yawning crater at its centre. This information being made public should certainly precipitate hot flushes all round among those involved in the decision-making.

Mr Boucher, who was head of lending at Bank of Ireland at the time of the collapse, is an atypical chief executive of a pillar bank. He is not slick. He mumbles, and resorts to sporting terminology when his stock of business phrases runs low. Consequently, we heard about bankers being in dug-outs or on and off the pitch in the run-up to the guarantee.

An exception occurred during an exchange with Senator O'Keeffe, who had a knack for identifying any vulnerabilities in that robust hide of his. When she mentioned the A word (apology), he felt the need to go the extra mile in explaining himself, and reached for a sliver of lyrical imagery that referenced our Celtic past.

Down in the dug-out, his words may not have served him particularly well, but they sounded rather elegiac in the Kildare Street setting.

He was driven by the need to repay the taxpayer, not at some indefinite point in the future "when the curlew cries three times at Newgrange" but as soon as possible. That was the best way he knew to apologise for the bank's failure, he said, with some heat in his voice.

True to his word, Mr Boucher has returned the bank to profitability and citizens have been repaid. But he has been tough on those in arrears and inflexible on the variables question. Profitability has been achieved at a price. But he is doing what his shareholders expect, and that's why they keep voting him back into his job.

He's on terra firma there if profit is deemed to be all that matters. But he's on less firm ground in relation to an infamous letter he sent on behalf of developer Sean Dunne, who is now bankrupt. Deputies Eoghan Murphy and Joe Higgins reminded him of that plea, written on Bank of Ireland-headed notepaper, to Dublin City Council in support of Mr Dunne's massive planning application to transform Ballsbridge.

"That letter was a mistake. It was one of the many stupid things I've done," Mr Boucher admitted, but declined to answer questions about why he did it on the grounds that he didn't share the committee's immunity from legal action. He did, however, tell Senator O'Keeffe he hadn't written such letters for any other developers. "That was a one-off."

So Sean Dunne was a special case to him. The question remains: why?

Let's remind ourselves of the contents of that letter sent on October 2, 2007. He said: "I write to confirm my strong support for this landmark proposal, which I believe will significantly benefit the City of Dublin and its citizens through helping enhance the concept of a living city and providing buildings of significant architectural merit befitting Ireland of the 21st Century."

Subsequently, Mr Dunne described Mr Boucher on RTÉ radio as "a very good friend of mine" who advised on raising finance for the ambitious project. The development was eventually refused permission by An Bord Pleanala after initial approval by the city council.

What makes you different from all the rest? That was the $64,000 question put to Mr Boucher by Fianna Fáil's Michael McGrath, who wondered at Mr Boucher's extraordinary capacity for survival. In fact, a reasonable answer was given.

He said he had passed the Central Bank's fitness and probity tests, and the shareholders kept voting for him to stay in place. These tests were introduced in 2011 as a reaction against the chummy relationship between the Financial Regulator and the banks.

They relate not just to an individual's ethics, integrity and financial position, but also to competence and capability. As a result - and it's amazing it took until 2011 to realise such regulation was necessary - no regulated entity can appoint a person to a controlled function unless they meet Central Bank standards.

Irish Independent

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