Business Irish

Sunday 17 December 2017

Anger at bankers is no basis for public policy

Laura Noonan Banking Correspondent

SO it has come to this -- a state-owned bank using what is essentially taxpayers' cash to prepare its chief executive for a state-run investigation into whether he was part of the reason that his institution needed taxpayers' cash in the first place.

When the Irish people demanded retribution for the horrendous cost of the banking crisis, that was hardly what they were hoping for.

But that is indeed where we find ourselves, as the Central Bank cranks up its 'fitness and probity' review into whether 'legacy' directors should be allowed to stay or be forced out because they contributed to the demise of their institutions.

When the review was announced by Financial Regulator Matthew Elderfield last spring, the effort was greeted with praise from a public delighted that someone was finally going to hold the bankers to account.

But more than a year on, it's worth taking stock and looking at what exactly we're trying to achieve here.

Just three bankers are now being considered by the Central Bank -- Bank of Ireland's chief Richie Boucher, EBS boss Fergus Murphy and Irish Life & Permanent's top man Kevin Murphy. All their other peers had bowed out before the review got going.

Mr Boucher has questions to answer about his pre-2008 career at the bank -- most particularly his role, if any, in the bank's building up of a sizable property loan book from 2004. But his bank has emerged from the crash in better shape than all its peers and has avoided nationalisation. He is hardly Sean FitzPatrick or David Drumm.

EBS's Fergus Murphy only joined the then building society at the start of 2008 and was literally out of the continent for the height of the Celtic Tiger years.

IL&P's Kevin Murphy spent most of his career at the PLC's life-insurance arm.

That's not to say the trio all covered themselves in glory, but should the public really be focusing their anger on these three?

They are also doing rather important jobs. Mr Boucher is trying to prove that BoI can be rehabilitated as a bank that can raise debt and attract blue-chip investment.

Fergus Murphy is heading up the transformation project at beleaguered AIB, into which his former building society has been subsumed. Meanwhile, his namesake in IL&P is central to efforts to sell Irish Life Assurance and save the taxpayer from stumping up another €1bn.

It could now be as long as six months before they find out definitively if they will be allowed to stay in their jobs.

It's not a popular question, but would the country gain more from having the trio concentrate 100pc on their day jobs rather than having them spend endless months preoccupied by investigations into crises past?

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