Friday 19 January 2018

Banking Inquiry is a pointless waste of time

Brian Cowen and Charlie McCreevy are just the latest pair to get the opportunity to vindicate their good names

GIVING EVIDENCE: Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen arrives at the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry last week
GIVING EVIDENCE: Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen arrives at the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry last week
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Not to be stating the obvious here, but the Banking Inquiry is a bit pointless, isn't it?

Last week was supposed to be the big crescendo. Everybody had high hopes for last week. For ages now, political anoraks have been breathlessly telling us to wait for July when the big guns are being wheeled in. And of course, last week and the next week or two were also, for Enda and those who cooked up this inquiry, the whole point of it.

This was when they really got to nail Fianna Fail to a cross and remind everyone how they ruined the country. They were going to reopen those wounds again, make them bleed afresh. And it would all contrast so sharply with now, this era of responsible government.

Sometimes, of course, it doesn't contrast enough. For example, we were reminded in the last few days that the great pre-election Budget of 2006, which apparently bought the 2007 election for Fianna Fail, constituted a giveaway of €1.25bn. Given that we are all expecting a giveaway of at least €1.5bn in the next Budget, and given that on Friday, everyone was asking if it shouldn't be more when they saw the positive Exchequer figures, ¤1.25bn at a time of plenty (however illusory the plenty was) doesn't seem that shocking next to ¤1.5bn in a country that is still stuttering out of bankruptcy.

Charlie McCreevy was preaching to the converted on Wednesday when he said that line about politicians liking to get re-elected.

But of course, the main point about the two big marquee names last week was that the whole exercise of bringing them in was not only a waste of time, but rather that it backfired. Indeed, there are probably some people thinking we should bring back Cowen as Taoiseach and McCreevy as finance minister. The inquiry is no walk of shame for these people, more an opportunity to come and present their own self-justifying narrative of what happened back then.

We know, at this stage, what the general dynamic in the Bank Inquiry is. Step 1: Guy (it's always a guy) goes in, issues vague apology not exactly for what he did but for any unforeseen consequences of what he did. This is a bit like when you are apologising for something you said, and you say you are sorry if anyone took offence. It distances you nicely from the whole thing. So anyway, guy says sorry. Sorry should be included in a long, self-congratulatory opening statement. Step 2: Guy then proceeds to blame everyone else for everything. If you are a banker you blame the regulator, if you are a regulator you blame the bankers, if you are a politician you blame both the bankers and the regulators. Everybody blames the civil servants and the civil servants blame everybody, except themselves.

Then, the inquisitors of the inquiry throw a few shapes trying to show that they are hard men (they are overwhelmingly men, too) but generally, they don't land a punch and the subjects just stick to their line: "I'm very sorry; it was everyone else's fault."

Given that we have already exhaustively enquired into the past, and given that we have all supposedly learnt the fundamental lessons - don't lose the run of ourselves, don't go with the herd too much, don't borrow or lend too much money and don't trust politicians and civil servants to run anything - you have to wonder what it is anyone hopes to achieve from this bizarre dance.

Mainly so far, it seems to have yielded bits and pieces of gossip and a vague bit of entertainment at times. The inquiry has no powers to blame any individuals for anything anyway, so there are absolutely no consequences for anyone hauled before it. And besides, everyone seems to be free anyway to give their own version of events.

We saw this more than ever last week, when Charlie McCreevy and Brian Cowen were both essentially given a platform to come in and publicly absolve themselves of any blame for anything. There was a vague bit of nudging at them but no serious or coordinated or professional effort to catch them out or pin anything on them. Cowen summed it up with a new phrase that should become the motto of everyone called before the inquiry. It's an update on, "We are where we are." "We did what we did," he said at one point. And there you go. What else is there to say? Everyone called before the inquiry should just come in and throw their hands up and say, "We did what we did." What's anyone going to do about it? The inquisitors certainly aren't going to do anything. The papers might give out for a day, and then we all move on.

Those who claimed the inquiry was a show trial were certainly proven right last week. Because Wednesday and Thursday were pure showbiz. And indeed, the bizarre jovial commentary on it would suggest there was nothing serious at stake here at all. Charlie McCreevy and Brian Cowen's appearances were reported on as if they were sporting events. Cowen showed some of that form we remember from his heyday in the first half, but he seemed to flag a bit in the second half. Charlie McCreevy had apparently lost none of his roguish charm and his infuriating smugness, but still proved himself a formidable opponent, even though he's been retired from the ring for five years now. There was even a whiff of admiration for the two old bruisers.

You can be sure both of them will have been well pleased with their appearances, which - apart from a bit of griping in the media, which will be a three-day wonder - had almost exactly the opposite effect to what might have been expected. They were not really held to account; they were actually allowed to come in and vindicate themselves, to rewrite history in their own words.

Now, you could argue that justice was done, because they did manage to vindicate themselves, so maybe they deserved vindication. But then you remember that Kevin Cardiff managed to vindicate himself two weeks ago, and all the bankers got off pretty lightly too. And essentially, nobody has been remotely damaged by this inquiry, except maybe the poor schmucks conducting it, who are coming across as ineffectual and pointless.

If I was Brian or Charlie, I'd be quite happy to go back to my massive pension, and, obviously in Cowen's case, to worrying and brooding about all the people whose lives he destroyed, or didn't destroy.

You have to wonder if this inquiry would be less pointless if it had a slightly more definite point of view. For example, when Brian Cowen says that the banking guarantee was the "least worst" option at the time, and they were up against it and had to do what they could, it's hard for anyone to argue with him, because no one in that inquiry can really say for sure whether the guarantee was a good or a bad thing. No more than anyone, they don't know what would have happened otherwise. Of course, Cowen was probably helped by the images coming out of Greece as he spoke.

Really, once you get beyond the fairly superficial paradigm that Fianna Fail destroyed the country by going crazy, the guys in the inquiry don't seem to have much more to bring to the table. So when that main narrative is challenged, they seem to crumble. Like when they are reminded that the money that Fianna Fail went crazy with was actually spent on social services and infrastructure and so on. You kind of wonder are they able for this at all. You wonder, too, if politicians are fit to inquire into other politicians. They are all in the same big club ultimately, and there must be an element of simpatico there

So, the members of the inquiry don't know what they are really trying to find out, they aren't very good at finding it out and even if they do find it out, there's nothing they can do about it. All in all. No wonder this whole thing is proving a pointless waste of time.

Sunday Independent

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