Wednesday 16 January 2019

It will take years for an inquiry – if we see one at all

Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

CLAMOUR away, but you are unlikely to see a banking inquiry anytime soon. The Government has tried to subdue your anger at the revelations contained in the Irish Independent's Anglo tapes by announcing details of laws to set up an inquiry by the end of the summer.

It has done so safe in the knowledge that it could be as late as 2016 before any such inquiry kicks off, if at all.

This is because the Director of Public Prosecutions has already intervened in the Quinn family's civil action against Anglo to advise against the running of any parallel inquiry or court action that could impact on pending prosecutions.

Even if the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill 2013 is passed, politicians will not be able to make findings of fact against any individual (other than office-holders) owing to the constitutional parameters of the Supreme Court's Abbeylara ruling.

The 2002 ruling arose from a political inquiry, into the shooting dead of John Carthy in Abbeylara, by an Oireachtas sub committee whose members included Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin and Justice Minister Alan Shatter.

It was no small coincidence that it was ministers Howlin and Shatter who, almost a decade later, championed the failed 2011 Oireachtas Inquires referendum.

The referendum sought to row back on Abbeylara and, by extension, the fair procedure rights afforded to witnesses at Oireachtas Inquiries, and was defeated by a sceptical public who, although anxious for accountability, did not want to endorse what they felt would become political show trials.

Sadly, the strongest argument against political inquiries is the conduct of politicians themselves who simply cannot resist partisan warfare.

Just look at the recent debacle in the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

An all-party committee supposedly above party politics, it descended into pantomime farce with even its own members admitting the PAC was deeply politicised over its chairman John McGuinness.

Another reason why I fear there won't be a banking inquiry anytime soon is because the State could not handle the truth of its own involvement in the collapse in all but name of the economy.

If, as the dogs in the street suspect, the culpability for the collapse of Anglo and its ugly sisters – AIB, Bank of Ireland and Irish Nationwide – involved knowledge or approval at the highest levels, then the State could find itself exposed to lawsuits by bondholders, shareholders, investors and others.

It is worth noting that the bondholders have not been burned; their fingers haven't even been singed.

The nationalisation and subsequent liquidation of Anglo was intended, among other things, to hermetically seal the filth of the collapse of Anglo and the bank guarantee.

It hasn't worked.

The real opportunity for accountability and punishment lies in the ability of the criminal justice system to investigate and prosecute corporate failings.

Public inquiries, whatever form they take, are vital, necessary things and we need effective political oversight over matters of public importance.

But public inquiries are no substitute for well-resourced criminal investigations that enhance public confidence.

Irish Independent

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