Friday 20 April 2018

Evacuated bankers stay calm, for the worst has already happened

Delegates had to evacuate the forum temporarily due to a fire
alarm. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Delegates had to evacuate the forum temporarily due to a fire alarm. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

'The British ambassador hit the button," quipped a mischievous "insider", as 700 international financiers stood around helplessly in the grounds of Dublin Castle, having been forced to evacuate.

A deafening alarm had sounded at the Printworks conference centre, just moments after Philip Lane, governor of the Irish Central Bank, opened his address to the European Financial Forum. He tried to speak over it, but the din was unbearable, and with remarkable speed, the room cleared.

The effect on a roomful of already-jittery bankers might have been expected to have been catastrophic. But, curiously, no. When the worst - or Brexit - has already happened, there is little more to fear, it seems.

They were like a group of regretful schoolchildren on a fire drill as they filed, dutifully but dully, back into the room once the all-clear was given.

Nothing sinister. It appeared someone had been smoking - or vaping - in the loo, that was all. Further evidence that the schoolchild lay merely latent beneath the surface of a nice sharp suit.

Mr Lane confessed that he was rather blasé about fire alarms since his days at Trinity.

The purpose of the day was to bring together international and Irish industry leaders, policy-makers, regulators and experts to explore the various forces shaping the global financial services industry.

Ireland's ambassador to China, Paul Kavanagh, said he had come home to be part of the effort from the Asian dimension, with links to China growing very rapidly.

But the strongest undercurrent was how Ireland could best woo banking refugees washed up by the tsunami of Brexit from the City of London.

Qualities best embodied in the quintessential form of the Irish mammy were extolled by Martin Shanahan of the IDA, as he said: "We hope Ireland provides a comforting and familiar certainty in uncertain times."

Ireland has a six-month window in which to make its case, because banks are keen to select new bases for operations soon, Junior Finance Minister Eoghan Murphy said later.

He revealed that the Government has had "over 100 significant inquiries" from companies thinking of transferring staff here.

Rather racily, he turned to Lenin for inspiration, as he told delegates: "There are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen."

The Taoiseach was possibly even racier with his own words, as he reminded the crowd how Dublin Castle used to be the centre of power for the British administration here, quipping: "So, welcome to the new free world."

Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor bewitched them with the idea of a lithe Riverdance economy, as she said how, with "choppy seas ahead" Ireland was "nimble and sure-footed . . . better able than most to navigate those circumstances".

Crucial issues, such as where these high-flying financial types were likely to live if we got them here, were brushed over gently.

The minister made the briefest of references to the housing plan that would "double residential construction over the next five years", 4.5 million sq feet of additional office space, and a new international school. Will that do them? It remains to be seen.

A possible solution was casually suggested as a footnote by Ken Mehlman, global head of public affairs with KKR and former George Bush strategist.

"How to deal with affordable housing? There is a partnership that can do that," he said, brightly.

Meanwhile, a high-ranking Irish official urged optimism when it came to the issue of Ireland seizing this opportunity with both hands.

"The whole public debate is . . . I won't say," he shrugged.

Irish Independent

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