Saturday 25 November 2017

Bankers turn the tables on the Banking Inquiry

IT'S A DODDLE: Former Governors of Bank of Ireland Laurence Crowley (left) and Richard Burrows arrive at Leinster House last week. Photo: Tom Burke
IT'S A DODDLE: Former Governors of Bank of Ireland Laurence Crowley (left) and Richard Burrows arrive at Leinster House last week. Photo: Tom Burke

Shane Ross

The bankers are playing a blinder. Someone, somewhere has been giving them some wickedly shrewd advice.

Remember all the dire forebodings about the Banking Inquiry ? Remember the implicit threats? Former bankers with long pockets would be dragging members of the inquiry down to the Four Courts on a weekly basis. If TDs on the inquiry betrayed a scintilla of prejudice, the inquiry would be injuncted.

We were advised about an army of bankers' lawyers ready to cry "foul" at any hint of a star chamber. The inquiry could be bogged down in a legal quagmire for years.

Nothing of the sort has happened. The Banking Inquiry is a sea of tranquillity. No flak is flying. The threats have worked.

Normally flamboyant TDs are transformed into pussy cats. The bankers are emerging unscathed. Hidden in the long grass are their legal teams, watching on their screens. Down at the public hearings the star witnesses, the bad bankers of the boom, are sweetness and light. They are on a roll.

Remember all the public demands that bankers should be dragged into Leinster House to face the music? Well they are playing the inquiry like a violin. The mood music is soothing.

The formula is sickening.

Confession, contrition, conversion.

Each banker in turn confesses that he has wronged the Irish people. Each banker is sorry, and each vows that it should never happen again. They are emerging as repentant sinners. They are not just taking the road to redemption. They are turning the inquiry into a rehab clinic for rich bankers.

The architects of the inquiry have played into their hands. Intimidated by the fear of the Four Courts, the members have been warned that there must be no "grandstanding". Emotion is out.

They have been told that they may not make findings of fact. They may not ask any leading questions. And worst of all, they are restricted to a few minutes each, not giving them enough time to follow an in-depth line of questioning. The supposed "ordeal" is proving a doddle for the bankers.

The passion of Ireland's finest parliamentarian, Joe Higgins, is wasted on this inquiry. The forensic accountancy talents of Kieran O'Donnell are never given enough time to dig deep. The parliamentary skills of Michael McGrath and Pearse Doherty are stifled. John Paul Phelan and Susan O'Keefe have frequently shown uncanny perception, only to find their time is up.

Oratory is out. Rhetoric might give the impression of the dreaded "bias". The bankers are off the hook.

Last Thursday, Richard Burrows and Laurence Crowley, two former governors of the Bank of Ireland, appeared. Neither flinched. The first two questioners were allowed 25 minutes. After that it was 10 minutes for each Oireachtas member.

Burrows, a key player in the worst banking collapse in the history of the State, and his predecessor Crowley merely needed to survive a morning of restricted questions.

They did better. They looked good. No one landed a glove on them. The exchanges seemed almost chummy.

The deeply bronzed Burrows and the ultra-polite Crowley were humble and helpful. And, like all the bankers that had gone before him, Burrows expressed deep gratitude to the Irish Government.

Significantly, the section in the room reserved for members of the public and the press was virtually empty. The bankers' repetitive mantra has bored the nation to death. Burrows and Crowley, supposedly among the villains of the piece, have anaesthetised much of the opposition.

While some bankers have been forced to do a token penance in purgatory, Burrows' story is staggering. He has never fallen from grace. After presiding over the Bank of Ireland calamity he, somehow, immediately sailed into a job peddling tobacco.

Today, he commands a salary in the UK of £645,000 (€884,000) a year as chairman of British American Tobacco (BAT). BAT generously throws in a driver, private medical insurance and his airfares from Dublin, and facilitates his wife to accompany him to appropriate overseas or UK board meetings. Not bad for a guy who resigned after he had seen billions of state funds pumped into the Bank of Ireland corpse.

Burrows and most other bankers have rarely been visible in public since they departed in disgrace in 2008/9.

Their reappearance was billed as a big day, but is a pathetic anti-climax. The re-emergence into the limelight just two weeks ago of his chief executive, Brian Goggin, was widely anticipated as a clash between democrats and plutocrats.

It was nothing of the sort. Goggin was on an even stickier wicket than Burrows. While Burrows had pocketed €503,000 annually in the good years, Goggin had hit the jackpot with a €4m package in 2007.

He had one awkward moment at the inquiry when he refused to confirm that his pension stands at €650,000 a year. Apart from that, it was plain sailing.

Goggin was even allowed to pitch for the sympathy of his audience when he told the inquiry that the day of the guarantee "was the worst day of my life". He went on to tell an indulgent audience about the "pressure, the stress, the issues I was trying to deal with, it was incredibly stressful and traumatic. As it was for government and officials".

The rules of the inquiry stopped any outraged member asking him how he thought the Irish people felt.

Goggin's opposite number at AIB , Eugene Sheehy, played a similar game. He laid on the humility with a trowel. He was "very sorry - I feel deeply disappointed every day. I take personal responsibility for my actions and omissions."

The lads were successfully using the inquiry not only to provide information that was already well known, but to portray themselves as beleaguered, repentant human beings. It worked. Sheehy was impressive in his breast beating. After all, he only earns a pension of €250,000.

Sheehy's former AIB chairman, Dermot Gleeson, had set the pattern three weeks ago. Gleeson launched the litany of apologies, mistakes and regrets. Others queueing up for the chorus included former Ulster Bank boss Cormac McCarthy and Bank of Ireland's chief executive Richie Boucher. Even Boucher bowed the knee to the doctrine of humility, admitting that his decision to support developer Sean Dunne's crazy planning application on the Jury's Ballsbridge site was "one of the most stupid things I have done".

Boucher, the hard man of banking, was using the platform to humanise himself. It worked.

Most of the bankers took advantage of the hearings to point the finger at Anglo and Irish Nationwide. They had good reason, but their excessive lending did not justify the insanity of those who should have known better. Yet last week, away from the inquiry, Gary McGann - the man who resigned as a director of Anglo and as chairman of its audit committee during the madness - was quietly slotted into the chair of bookmaker Paddy Power. The same company has already proved a refuge for another high-flying casualty - Ulster Bank's Cormac McCarthy, restored to favour in 2013 when he was appointed as the publicly quoted bookie's chief financial officer.

Few of the bankers who appeared at the inquiry in recent weeks had been seen in public since the collapse. Many feel that they have been demonised by the media in the intervening period. Their strategy to leave their lawyers lurking in the shadows, but to apologise in spades to the nation has left the inquiry wrong-footed. The bankers have skilfully used the charade in the Leinster House dungeons to accelerate their rehabilitation. What a boomerang.

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