News Shane Ross

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Shane Ross: Bank on Emily to lift the veil

Shane Ross

Published 03/06/2012 | 05:00

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GOD be with the days when Emily O'Reilly was a journalist. The nation's Information Ombudsman was lost to the noble art many years ago when she crossed the line and headed for the public service.

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It was a bad day for the media. Her critical faculties seemed certain to be blunted by the bureaucracy with which she is surrounded, not only as the Information Ombudsman, but also -- more topically -- as a member of today's dull-as-ditchwater Referendum Commission.

Her journalistic style rarely endeared her to her chosen subjects. I remember her inviting me to lunch when Eamon Dunphy and I were rebelling against the antics of the directors of Eircom. She wanted to write about our plans for D-Day, the imminent AGM.

It was a tempting invitation. She was witty, highly entertaining company with a razor-sharp tongue. She was also easy on the eye. The publicity she offered promised to attract more shareholders to the imminent AGM of small investors.

I knew Emily well enough to be aware that she was a dangerous journalist with whom to tangle. A lunch of good humour and light banter would not guarantee soft publicity. She would not be bought off by a smoked salmon sandwich.

The lunch went remarkably well -- so well, that I eagerly looked forward to her article.

A few days later, when I had read it, I felt as though she had put a bayonet in my back.

She cut me down to size with a few well-directed blows.

That is Emily O'Reilly -- perverse in her independence and impartiality. In nobody's pocket.

Thankfully, she never changed. Last week, she earned her keep in the public service. She put the wind up several of the most powerful bastions of secrecy.

Emily launched her annual report with a demand that Nama, the NTMA, the Central Bank and other protected state institutions be made subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Emily has banged on about these bodies before; but her patience with government promises has now been severely tested. Not only was she pointing the finger at the three pillars of secrecy, she was upbraiding the government for the delay in updating the Freedom of Information Act. She accused her political bosses of having "traded" on its vows to reform the Freedom of Information legislation before the election.

"I'm still waiting," said the Ombudsman. "I think at this stage, to use an awful cliche, they have talked the talk -- and now they need to walk the walk."

I hope Emily has a watertight contract. In the tribal world of Irish party political appointments, people who challenge the parties in power tend not to be re-appointed.

Emily was on the button. Her timing was perfect because last week the Central Bank was in the frame. The Regulator -- and the auditors Deloittes -- owe us all an explanation after a liquidator was called into Bloxham stockbrokers. We need to know how Bloxham was cooking the books for five years while under the supervision of both watchdogs.

We need to ask the Central Bank how they never did sufficient checks to unearth the insolvency of one of Ireland's leading stockbrokers.

The obsession with secrecy at the Central Bank suggests that they have something to hide. Despite the arrival of two good men at the top (Regulator Matthew Elderfield and governor Patrick Honohan), the bank retains its siege mentality -- so lethal at the time of the banking collapse.

The Central Bank needs to answer serious questions about something else -- an internal inquiry it held into a recent whistleblower, who allegedly let the cat out of the bag about vital stress tests. Central Bank officials refuse to say much about the case. All we know is that an expert in stress testing, employed by the Central Bank, complained that data was doctored before it was passed on to European authorities.

According to the Central Bank, the allegations were examined by its own internal investigators and dismissed.

The Central Bank pleads confidentiality when asked about anything so sensitive. Yet there are important questions to ask -- like is the employee still working in the Central Bank? Why was there no external independent investigation? Are they still working on stress tests? Was the "internal" process monitored by outsiders? How much were Elderfield and Honohan told about it?

We do not want to know the Regulator's commercial secrets. However, we -- very reasonably -- need a clear picture of how the Central Bank conducts its business. It does not have a proud record on whistleblowers, as we saw in the disgraceful way that Eugene McErlean was treated. We need to be sure that there are no longer any cover-ups.

The Regulator is showing signs of its traditional paranoia. It has a public relations department that makes the Poor Clare Sisters look like chatterboxes. While Elderfield and Honohan often give interviews from on high, below them in the ranks, secrecy remains the norm.

The Central Bank should take a leaf out of the book of the Bank of England and the US Federal Reserve. Both of those central banks now openly release the minutes of their decisions on interest rates. It is difficult to find out when the board of our Central Bank sits, let alone what it discusses. Its minutes should be open to public inspection.

Genuinely commercially sensitive information could be withheld, but should not be used as an excuse, a blanket cover for information to which the public is entitled.

According to Emily, we need to lift the same veil of secrecy off both the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) and Nama. She is right.

The NTMA, Ireland's second pillar of secrecy, shrouds itself in darkness. Emily's office was the instrument that, after a long battle, revealed the €1m remuneration of CEO Michael Somers. Somers fiercely resisted releasing the figure, but was unlucky that it appeared in documents floating around elsewhere in the public service.

Yet the outfit that runs our pension fund and manages our debt still refuses to let the great unwashed know about the pay of its top brass -- apart from the chief executive.

Even last week, the NTMA refused to tell me the ingredients of the benchmark it has used to measure its debt management performance. Pleading "commercial sensitivities", a source told me that they do not give detail of the composition of the benchmark. Perhaps the truth would be embarrassing.

The third pillar of secrecy, Nama, is putting up strong resistance to being subjected to the Freedom of Information Act. As recently as last March, Nama chairman Frank Daly fiercely opposed such transparency, telling an Oireachtas Committee that "we can't afford to be hamstrung viz-a-viz our competitors". He failed to identify these competitors.

Nama, the NTMA and the Central Bank -- guardians of Ireland's finances -- are bastions of secrecy, hiding activities from their ultimate owners. The state-owned banks, Anglo Irish, AIB and Irish Life & Permanent, are similar fortresses, still enjoying the same Masonic culture as they did when they were in the private sector.

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