News Shane Ross

Monday 22 September 2014

Election timetable dictates Banking Inquiry agenda

Published 27/07/2014 | 00:00

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PROJECT RE-ELECT THE GOVERNMENT: FG wants Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen to appear before the Banking Inquiry just in advance of the next election

Perhaps we should relocate a permanent judge to Leinster House? Should we install one of those politically appointed beaks in an annexe beside the Dail chamber?

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On Monday, Angela Kerins - late of Rehab - hell-bent on a collision course with members of the Public Acccounts Committee (PAC), headed for the High Court. On Wednesday, members of the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry braced themselves for similar treatment from Ireland's bankers. Affidavits, writs, solicitors' letters and injunctions are about to become the daily diet in Leinster House. Judges, politicians, bankers and charities are entering a period of uncomfortable proximity.

TDs are likely to be trotting down to the Four Courts far more often in the months to come. Well-heeled opponents of accountability are calling in top-dollar lawyers to block the inquisitive instincts of parliament.

Angela's antics with the PAC are bad enough - but down in the Leinster House dungeons, the prospect of forays into the Four Courts is derailing calculations of the timetable for the Banking Inquiry. Although Wednesday's private meeting of the inquiry was reported as workmanlike, the room was simmering with underlying tension. Chief of the unspoken fears was the big question: when would the first banker land them in the Four Courts, alleging bias? It will not be long.

The early omens are not good. The first meeting kicked the can down the road until September 9. Members of the Banking Inquiry were given a presentation by an 'Ad Hoc Advisory Group'. Mercifully, the nine-member group included no bankers, but strangely enough found room for Pat Casey, a principal at the Department of Finance, and Raffique Mottiar, listed in the presentation as a consultant economist at the Central Bank. Questionable selections, as both the outfits which they represent were principal players in the banking crisis. Conflict of interest problems arise at the first hurdle. Former bosses and present employees at the Department of Finance and the Central Bank have serious questions to answer at the Inquiry.

The group's presentation to the TDs suggested that (following Context module hearings in February) the first meaty public hearings should begin next April. It added that the public sessions could last three months, from April 13 until July 17 - five days a week, six hours a day for 60 days in all. The TDs are reported to have swallowed hard when they read this part of the group's presentation.

The Advisory Group's document warns of the possible need for extra time. It suggests that the July 2015 deadline might have to be extended "depending on the number of witnesses and/or to allow for follow- up meetings from earlier hearings". The gigantic political elephant never entered the room during the discussions.

Every TD at the meeting understands the real significance of the timetable. It has nothing to do with the number of witnesses or their garrulous nature. It is pure politics.

If they begin the witnesses with the bankers, they will be injuncted. If they start with the politicians, the hearings will proceed unhindered.

Everyone knows the bankers are waiting in the wings, briefing lawyers about the bias of inquiry members. If the bankers are first up, the injunction button is likely to be pressed on day one. The inquiry could implode. No politicians would be called this 
side of Christmas 2015.

So who does an early appearance of the belligerent bankers suit best? Not Fine Gael. Not Labour. Not even Sinn Fein. Most of the big beasts on the inquiry want to see Brian Cowen, Bertie Ahern and the other Fianna Fail cabinet ministers in front of the cameras before the general election.

Most commentators do not now expect the Government to survive beyond the Budget in October 2015. If the bankers are called first they could stop the inquiry in its tracks. One by one, the independence of each TD or senator is likely to be challenged in front of a beak. The process could take months. Outspoken politicians with little love for the banks could be disqualified by their lordships. The Government's plans to put ex-FF ministers in the frame before polling day could be torpedoed.

In short, Fine Gael and Labour want to see the politicians in the box on day one. A mild, but public, crucifixion for Brian Cowen, Bertie Ahern and even Micheal Martin would do just fine. Any suggestion that bankers should be given an early opportunity to stop their well-laid plot will be fiercely resisted by the inquiry's coalition majority. Cowen and Ahern could escape until after the election.

The first Banking Inquiry spat will be fought over the sequence of the witnesses's appearances. On Thursday the members ducked any decision. They will consider the options again on September 9. In the meantime, the 'Advisory Group' will burrow away fomenting new ideas.

The second big bone of contention has equally little to do with the pursuit of truth or the prevention of a repeat of past mistakes. The mother of all battles looms over the dates and events that the inquiry's investigations will cover. Decoded, which government's banking policies will come under scrutiny?

The presentation to the TDs on Wednesday suggested that it might be necessary to go back to "before the early 2000s and in fact to look back to the mid 1990s to uncover answers..."

Bad, but not fatal, news for the FG/ Labour coalition, because it might cover some of the mistakes of the last rainbow government. Yet they could live with criticisms of their predecessors. Far more divisive is the question surrounding at what date in Ireland's recent banking history the inquiry stops its probe. Will its terms of reference allow it to investigate only a few months after the bank guarantee (pure Fianna Fail rule) or will it cover banking events up to the present day (including Fine Gael and Labour's decisions)?

It would be a major setback for the Government's real agenda - to use the inquiry to hang Fianna Fail - if the probe ventured into Michael Noonan's period in Finance.

Yet at least one member of the inquiry, Joe Higgins, has already demanded the presence of Noonan at the inquiry to answer questions about past exchanges with ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet. Others, like FF's Michael McGrath, are certain to seek equal scrutiny of today's bankers and politicians.

Under Fianna Fail, Ireland's bankers committed terrible sins, but if Cowen is to face questioning from Labour's Ciaran Lynch, Fine Gael's Kieran O'Donnell and others, surely then Noonan's stewardship should be put under the microscope by McGrath, Higgins, Pearse Doherty and Senator Sean Barrett?

He should be asked how in the name of God - after all that happened under Fianna Fail - he allowed the Bank of Ireland to appoint Lloyds TSB failure Archie Kane as governor and AIB to pick Richard Pym, another insider, as chairman two weeks ago?

Prompted by the mysterious 'Ad Hoc Group', the politically controlled inquiry is due to suggest terms of reference to the equally politically controlled Dail Committee of Procedure and Privileges (CPP) in September. The CPP will then, sitting in secret, approve or amend and send the final version to the politically controlled Dail. The inquiry will be subjected to political proofing three times over.

Do not dismiss the possibility of a walkout by Joe Higgins, Michael McGrath, Sean Barrett and even Pearse Doherty.

The Banking Inquiry was always intended to be a kangaroo court with a noose being prepared for a pre-election execution of Fianna Fail. Despite Wednesday's tame meeting, it is more likely to be bogged down in the Four Courts before it fulfils its destiny.

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