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Maeve Dineen: We've had enough bailouts -- now it's time for a clear-out

FOR bankers, the war is not yet over. Their banks are only alive thanks to government support but, €70bn later, Irish taxpayers are feeling very sore.

They correctly blame the banks for pitching the country into crisis, and for now hoarding the bailout money rather than oiling the wheels of commerce by lending it.

But having a scapegoat is one thing. What to do with him is another.

Bankers, we are told, have learnt the lessons of the financial crisis. This includes the need to revive a culture of "basic business lending" so conspicuously absent during the credit-fuelled boom years when millions of euro were given out willy-nilly based on back-of-the-envelope assessments and no collateral whatsoever.

Our ever so humble bank chiefs have even gone as far as to line up and assure clients, politicians and regulators that their credit binge is over and their organisations have changed for good.

But can the system really have changed that much when the same people who led us into this mess are still in key positions in our banks, including the Central Bank and Department of Finance?

The yet-to-be published Nyberg report into the banking crisis may be followed by a number of senior level departures in the Department of Finance. Finance Minister Michael Noonan will be keen to reshape the department that helped draft the 2008 bank guarantee, which was described at the weekend by former European Parliament president Pat Cox as "the most reckless single decision in the history of the State whose legacy will live with us for a very long time".

The Government is now deeply embedded in our banking system. Thanks to the Credit Institution Bill rushed through the Dail last December, the Finance Minister holds some astonishing powers that allow him (and his department) to get involved in the day-to-day running of our banking system.

Not only are our banks state- owned but they are also state-run -- a powerful but dangerous place to be. We have some pretty shocking examples of what happens when politics and business are mixed in this country.

Back to what is left of the nations' banks, and we see that many of those who were forced to "retire" over the last few years have been replaced by a mishmash of internal candidates and interim managers.

The bank boards have been forced to make room for government-appointed directors but more than one-third of the directors who oversaw the demise of the banking sector still sit around the board table every month.

The Government is now suggesting another clearout of bank boardrooms and officials but this is easier said than done.

Industry experts will argue that it is virtually impossible to get people to run an Irish bank or sit on a bank board these days. Who would want the hassle of it, they argue?

The truth is, many people would give their right hand to run a bank. Not for the fame or the glory of it but because they firmly believe they would make a decent fist of it.

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There are a lot of young, bright, talented people that have the drive and energy to take on these roles, if the terms and conditions of the job allowed them the opportunity to show us all what they are made of. We have seen the mess career bankers made of it -- now it's time to look outside the box.

There are thousands of university graduates out there who have much to contribute to our bank boards. People who exhibit first-class business skills and who understand the needs of those that this crisis is affecting most: the 30 to 45-year-olds.

Matthew Elderfield has often been accused of taking on the role of Ireland's Financial Regulator as a stepping stone to his next big career move. But what's wrong with that if it's true? Isn't that what most ambitious people do in their careers -- take on one job in hope that in time it will lead to another promotion? Surely that's the type of person we are looking for and not someone who is happy to plod along to retirement.

When Mr Noonan is finished with the banks, we should hope that he has managed to staff the upper echelons with a mix of people who reflect modern Ireland as well as the ordinary people who have been forced to bail out the banks.

The boards should be younger, more diverse, less Irish, less male and understand the real concerns of business as well as banking. The same, incidentally, applies to the Central Bank and the Department of Finance, whose mandarins too often appear not to inhabit the real world.

Mr Noonan is right to want to change the make-up of the banks and ensure he gets better and more varied advice from his civil servants.

The temptation will be to give in to the powerful urge to stick with the people he knows. It will be a lost opportunity if he does.

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