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Contenders for Finance Minister outline their strategies to resuscitate the banks

Whoever becomes Ireland's 26th Finance Minister will oversee the most radical restructuring of the country's broken banking system.

The new minister will have to complete the wind down of Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide, sell AIB and other distressed financial institutions and try to win support in Europe to do a deal with bank bondholders to protect the taxpayer.

It's a mammoth task and one that both Fine Gael's Michael Noonan and Labour's Joan Burton have given a bit of thought to.

Noonan believes that Ireland can have a fully functioning banking system by the end of this year once the new government can establish the true state of the banks and take corrective action.

"I thought we would have a fully functioning banking system two years on but it hasn't happened," he says. "If the briefings we received had been true we wouldn't have needed to re-capitalise AIB and Bank of Ireland very heavily. There has been so much information that has been inaccurate.

Functioning system

"We have had fresh cash injections into the banks, restructuring and a bailout so far, but it is possible to have a fully functioning banking system by the end of the year," according to Noonan.

Burton says it will take six to seven years to fully repair the damage caused by the banks' reckless property lending.

Ireland's banking system will be much smaller and dominated by foreign-owned institutions once the existing banks are sliced, sold and merged into new entities that consumers can have confidence in.

Noonan wants to see at least one significant Irish bank maintained that will be committed to supporting Irish businesses.

That may be Bank of Ireland which is struggling to raise fresh capital to fend off nationalisation. Noonan accepts the banking scene in Ireland will be dominated by foreign-owned banks in the future. "The problem is that now we own everything," he says.

Burton would like to see two strong Irish banks survive and perhaps one building society but that is a tall order.

"From a political point of view, I would like to see one successful Irish high-street bank," she says.

"I had hoped there would be two Irish banks but I am no longer sure of that. Just one Irish bank may emerge, which may be Bank of Ireland, but the jury is out as to whether it can survive."

There is also talk of a third banking force that will provide competition for customers, but Burton says it is difficult to see how that will develop given the enormous scale of Ireland's banking meltdown.

Both aspiring Finance Ministers concede that AIB will have to be sold or merged in the near future.

Ireland's once biggest bank is a huge burden on the State and Noonan believes the Government has already been making overtures to attract buyers.

Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan hasn't expressed a preference as to what part of the globe Ireland's new bank chiefs will come from, but Noonan has a definite view on this subject.

"If AIB could be sold it should be sold to a bank within the eurozone, rather than a UK or US bank. They would be operating in the same currency, have the same regulator and would be tied to the European Central Bank," he says.

"I am not sure anyone wants to buy it. Maybe it could be sold if the losses going forward were guaranteed. If they would take it with the liabilities that would be good."

Burton has concerns about ceding too much control to foreign-owned institutions that may not be as embedded in the Irish economy as the local brands.

"It could make it more difficult for small and medium-sized enterprises in particular. Local banks tend to know their customers but the Central Bank and the regulator will play a powerful role in the reforms," she says.

And 2011 will certainly mark the end of building societies as we know them in Ireland. "There won't be a standalone building society," Noonan says.

The EBS building society will be sold, with bidders ranging from Irish Life and Permanent to the Cardinal Group chasing this deal.

EBS purchase

Noonan says that Cardinal has pledged to inject €3bn into creating a new bank out of the EBS purchase that could be expanded through the purchase of loan books from foreign banks and evolve into a bank geared towards the small business sector.

And then, of course, both political parties have spoken about creating a new enterprise bank to support indigenous industry. Burton is still committed to this policy.

The Labour Party has said it would use €2bn to create a strategic investment bank to fulfil a role similar to that once performed by the former state-owned ICC Bank.

Fine Gael has also drawn up a blueprint for a new bank but Noonan says that will have to be reconsidered in light of the EU/IMF bailout.

"I am not as enthusiastic about creating a strategic bank now as I was two years ago, given all of the money we have put in to recapitalise the banks.

"A new strategic bank would require more capital from the State and it is hard to see any support for that as part of the EU/IMF bailout," he says.

"There are plenty of vehicles to turn into a development bank," Noonan adds, but he favours reorganising one of the existing banks to become a strategic investment bank.

Irish Independent