News Shane Ross

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Banking inquiry set to be political show trial

Shane Ross

Published 04/05/2014 | 02:30

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Former Financial Regulator Patrick Neary in his office in 2006. He was carpeted last week by the judge in the Anglo trial. Photo: Liam Mulcahy

THE deadly contest among TDs for seats on the banking inquiry is suddenly descending into the comical.

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Last week, one nameless Independent TD, a most vociferous critic of the banks, stuck out his chest. He explained to me how he himself was the perfect fit for a slot.

He had form. He had expertise. He understood more than any of those financially illiterate TDs in Leinster House how the banks worked. He knew where the bankers' bodies were buried. He would not even countenance the perception of bias.

Another, who had been outspoken on the evils of bankers, regaled me on how he could rise above his former opinions.

TDs, he explained loftily, like judges, would have to leave their past behind them, to forget all those awkward utterances on the public record – in the national interest of course.

Welcome to amnesia, Leinster House-style.

The Leinster House somersaults are laughable. Some TDs see the banking inquiry as an opportunity to grab the limelight coming up to a general election. Shrewder deputies are more hesitant.

They are wary of a process that might be buried for months in private sessions in the Leinster House dungeons, long before there is any publicity dividend. They might be kept away from their constituencies as polling day approaches. They might be hidden from the cameras for key weeks. They might even be locked down in the Four Courts as the legal challenges mounted to their suitability to serve.

The banking inquiry may not be the political picnic that some TDs had originally anticipated.

They can, however, depend on one certainty: if the Government lasts its full term, there will be the mother of all political show trials timed for the last months of 2015 and the first days of 2016. The inquiry's agenda will be dictated by the general election.

The Government will have a clear majority on the banking inquiry. The Government will dictate the detail. The Government will determine which witnesses appear in January 2016. There are few bigger certainties in life than that the names already pencilled in for the pre-election dates are Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen and Micheal Martin.

Of course, Cowen and Ahern should be called. So should many others. Michael Noonan, Eamon Gilmore and Enda Kenny should give evidence about recent banking developments. Peculiarly, promised banking reforms under the current crowd are outside the inquiry's remit.

The whole focus will concentrate on events around the night of the bank guarantee, when Brian Cowen, Brian Lenihan, Financial Regulator Patrick Neary, leading mandarins and big bankers scuttled around the Department of Finance – headless chickens to a man, leading the nation into an abyss.

It's good thinking that we should unearth the detail of those days, but for one principal purpose: to be certain that it could never happen again, that the Central Bank is reformed, that the banks, auditors and consultants have abandoned their wicked ways and that politicians have learnt the lessons of the past.

It will be probably be more than seven years after the 2008 bank guarantee when the banking inquiry reports. An ideal time to take stock and find out if we have learnt from the mistakes of Fianna Fail and its friends.

Sadly, the present – even the recent past – is a no-go area. Why? Because such patently useful an exercise might expose the current Government to unfavourable scrutiny. Perish the thought that the Coalition's decision to liquidate Anglo Irish Bank last year should be exposed to full public view. God forbid that the failure of the Coalition to reform the appointment of bank directors should be exposed.

Independent and Fianna Fail members of the inquiry team might squeeze political purchase out of a session with Michael Noonan, as he explains the chaos in the Department of Finance on the night that Anglo was anaesthetised. The 'new broom' mandarins would not relish the thought of justifying the bedlam that reigned in Merrion Street on that dark February evening.

The sudden death of Anglo in 2013 was probably not comparable to the fiasco on September 29, 2008. But the chaotic hours before its demise could prove a serious embarrassment.

The Government has tailored the inquiry specifically to its own political advantage.

The chairman will be Ciaran Lynch, a loyal Labour Party TD. It will probably have nine members, four from the opposition and five from the Government. Fianna Fail has already nominated Michael McGrath, while Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and the Technical Group have yet to put forward a name. Pearse Doherty is a 'natural' for the Sinn Fein slot, while Richard Boyd Barrett, Joe Higgins and Stephen Donnelly are mentioned as possible nominees from the Technical Group.

I would love to have my hat in the ring, but know that my authorship of a book, The Bankers – a polemic against them – would provide ammunition galore to the lawyers.

Every single one of the above TDs would be capable of reading a balance sheet. Most of them would equally happily cut each other's political throats. Chairman Lynch, TDs McGrath and Doherty are able operators, but all have made partisan remarks about the activities of the bankers.

As it happens, they are on the button with their criticisms. That is the problem. Bankers' legal teams – cock-a- hoop after the acquittal of Sean FitzPatrick and the shock escape by fellow Anglo directors Pat Whelan and Willie McAteer – are already licking their lips as they research the 'anti-banker' bias of Lynch and McGrath. They will not be long a-googling before they find plenty of material to support their claims of bias.

Richard Boyd Barrett, Joe Higgins and Stephen Donnelly have spoken eloquent volumes about the bankers, much of it fine rhetoric, nearly all of it critical and invariably grist to the mill of the bankers' lawyers.

That is why many TDs – in their ambitions to serve on the inquiry – are now pooh-poohing their laudable lambasting of the banks in the past. There is not a TD in Leinster House worth his seat who has not spoken publicly on the banking catastrophe.

The real problem is not the bankers. It is the Government. It is not serious about a banking inquiry. It has absolutely no interest in the awkward truth that the banks, the Central Bank, auditors and civil servants remain unreformed.

This Government has shown similar indulgence to banking abuses as did its predecessor in Fianna Fail. Richie Boucher at BoI still earns a €843,000 package; top auditors retain this regime's patronage; there has been no cull at the Central Bank; the mandarins are undisturbed; while bank directors remain vastly overpaid insiders.

Instead, the Government wants a political trial and it has lined up the firing squad for Micheal Martin. It refuses to allow any inquiry into bankers' activities during the time it was in power itself. The inquiry has a Government majority.

It could all have been so different. Real reformers would have insisted on boring external experts, forensically digging out the truth about what happened at the banks in 2008 and how much the situation had improved – if at all.

The target of the inquiry is not the bankers. It is the political opposition.

What a cynical waste.

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