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Diarmaid Ferriter: History will ask how we could be so docile in face of such betrayal


In years to come, will those writing the history of Ireland in the first decade of the 21st Century see the Anglo Tapes revelations as something of a watershed? It is likely that the sentiments and attitudes exposed in the taped conversations will provide historians with a useful example of the dangerous consequences of excess, bravado and contempt for standards and public service that have been one of the hallmarks of Ireland's crisis.

The tapes provide, in great detail, one of the contrasts that historians can build much around – in this case, the great gulf between Ireland's Celtic Tiger elite and those below who had to pay for the consequences of their greed. In the chapter entitled 'Boom to Bust', historians will document the extremes that were experienced in the decade.

Key moments and decisions will undoubtedly be included; the decision in September 2008 to announce the bank guarantee; the extent of the pressure that was put on Ireland by the European Central Bank not to allow any Irish bank to collapse; the humiliating arrival of the IMF and its bailout partners in November 2010; the consequent loss of Irish sovereignty and, of course, the collapse of support for Fianna Fail – historically one of the most successful political parties in the world – in February 2011.

Interestingly, the only Fianna Fail TD who survived the party's routing in Dublin in 2011 was the late Brian Lenihan. Whatever his faults and the disastrous mistakes he made as Minister for Finance at the time of the crisis, people found in him, his attitude to his illness and determination to carry on, a dignity and a sense of public service that was obviously missing in so many others.

In interviews given shortly before he died, Lenihan described a moment in time that historians in the future may find illuminating: "I've a very vivid memory of going to Brussels on the final Monday to sign the agreement (about the bailout) and being on my own at the airport and looking at the snow gradually thawing and thinking to myself, this is terrible. No Irish minister has ever had to do this before."

Whatever about the self-serving nature of some of the comments of Lenihan and his colleagues, it is a powerful image. Contrast that with the attitude of the Anglo bankers as they interrupted their quaffing of Merlot to joke about the bank guarantee, or with what another Fianna Fail finance minister, Charlie McCreevy, said in New York in 2005: "As finance minister in Ireland I saw what great entrepreneurial energies a light-touch regulatory system can unleash". In that same year, 'The New York Times' noted, caustically, that the "light hand" of corporate regulation made Dublin "the wild west of European finance".

The tapes provide us with evidence of how a few individuals caused public indebtedness on an unprecedented scale. But it is also likely that historians in the future will contrast the wave of protests and mobilisations in other countries where incompetence and greed were exposed, with the absence of such activity in Ireland, even when the extent of the bankers' betrayal and contempt for their fellow citizens became public.

Taking an even longer view, other questions will be asked. Was there nothing that would bring the Irish to the barricades during the financial meltdown? Why did a country that fought a war of independence in the early 20th Century become so compliant and docile in the face of the exposure of systemic corruption and the destruction of that independence nearly a century later? And why were those responsible not made accountable and punished?

Many answers and theories will be put forward, including the post-colonial mindset, the underlying political stability of Ireland over an extended period with an accompanying lack of ideological debate, the dominance of the Catholic Church and the resultant absence of a strong civic culture and dissent.

In 2011, the economist Morgan Kelly, now often credited for the accuracy of his predictions about the extent of the property bubble and its consequences, suggested that Ireland was at a crossroads, and that he had a "sinking feeling" that what was needed – "to survive as a small society we must be better educated, more transparent and more efficient than the rest of the world, even if that means public servants have to work hard, and bankers and politicians face prison" – would simply not come to pass.

Ultimately, again taking the historian's long-term perspective, the tapes illustrate a supreme irony of Irish history: the Irish social revolution of the late 19th Century, during which the political and social power of landowners was broken by their tenants through a land war, was replaced 130 years later by a native class of bankers and land speculators who abused their domination of the Irish economy in an even more invidious way than the most wretched of 19th Century landlords; but this time, there was no war fought against them.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD

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