Tuesday 21 October 2014

A banking inquiry without Anglo is just like 'Hamlet' without the prince

Published 20/09/2013 | 05:00

Enda Kenny’s government is establishing an inquiry without any idea of how it can actually happen
Enda Kenny’s government is establishing an inquiry without any idea of how it can actually happen

DOES the Government have a clue what it is doing on the proposed banking inquiry? If it does, it's doing a pretty good job of keeping it well hidden. The Cabinet is proceeding with establishing an inquiry without, it seems, having the remotest idea of how it can actually happen. The whole thing is in serious danger of descending into utter farce.

The problem with Enda Kenny's announcement to the Dail on Wednesday is that it ignores a huge obstacle to the holding of a meaningful inquiry – the trials of three former executives in Anglo Irish Bank.

We know from experience – not least with the case of Charlie Haughey – how extraordinarily sensitive our courts are to any comments made about a defendant due to stand trial.

So it should be blindingly obvious to ministers that it will be hugely difficult, if not impossible, for a Dail inquiry into the banking crash to go ahead in advance of those trials. And the latest information is that the trials may not begin until this time next year.

To get around this, we are told that one option being looked at by the Government is that Anglo would be kept out of the bank inquiry until the trials are over.

Are they serious? Having a banking inquiry without dealing with Anglo would be like 'Hamlet' without the prince. It would be the equivalent of the famous Genesis report, commissioned by the FAI to critique their preparations for the 2002 World Cup finals, ignoring what happened with Roy Keane in Saipan.

It really is that bonkers. Anybody who knows anything about the banking crash knows that Anglo is central to what happened.

Of course, the government of the day, the regulator, the Department of Finance, the Central Bank, Irish Nationwide, AIB, Bank of Ireland and others are key players.

But you cannot get to the bottom of the banking collapse without forensically examining events at Anglo – end of story. And it seems as if it will be the beginning of 2015, at the earliest, before any inquiry can do that.

The idea that an inquiry could effectively tread water for at least a year until the Anglo trials are over suggests nothing has been learned from the long, meandering and often ineffective tribunals of inquiry.

It also calls into question the motivation for the Government in proceeding with a banking inquiry.

Is it about getting to the truth and learning lessons to avoid similar mistakes being made in the future? Or is it about ensuring the electorate are reminded about Fianna Fail's role in the crash in the run-up to the next general election?

Enda Kenny's comment before the summer pledging an impartial, independent inquiry while at the same time alleging "an axis of collusion" between Fianna Fail and Anglo gives a fair clue in that regard.

The public, which is bearing the burden of the massive €64bn cost of the bank crisis, deserves better than a government playing politics on the issue.

There are other difficulties with an Oireachtas inquiry. There is a question mark as to whether the necessary expertise exists in the Dail to carry out a forensic inquiry into the complex area of high finance and banking. Politicians' simplistic obsession with the bank guarantee – when the problems were far more deep-rooted than that – doesn't inspire confidence.

The potential for 'grandstanding' by TDs looking to score political points, particularly when dealing with witnesses such as Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern, is also an obvious concern.

And the fact that any deputy, deemed to have made any public utterance against the banks, or any other potential witness, could be disbarred from serving on any inquiry team raises serious questions about who will actually be eligible to be a part of it.

Shane Ross made this point yesterday, candidly declaring that he "could not possibly" present himself as somebody who was impartial because he'd written a book on the subject and had said "utterly prejudicial" things about bankers. He is hardly alone in that regard.

Yet despite all these problems, the Government is cussedly persevering with its plans for an Oireachtas inquiry – in public, at least. Privately, senior figures in the Coalition admit that the odds on an Oireachtas inquiry going ahead are only 50-50. Given the elephant in the room that is the Anglo trials, even that looks hugely optimistic.

We do, it should be stressed, need an inquiry into the banking crash – one that really shines a light on exactly what happened. The public deserves nothing less.

But it is becoming increasingly obvious that the Oireachtas is not the place to carry out that inquiry.

It's past time the Government came clean to the public on that fact.

Shane Coleman is Political Editor of Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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