Tuesday 20 March 2018

Newsmaker: Michael McGrath

Michael McGrath. Photo: Tom Burke
Michael McGrath. Photo: Tom Burke

Michael McGrath

Fianna Fáil's emergence as the tough-on-banks party ranks as one of the greatest reinventions since struggling computer-maker Apple got into the phone business.

Eight years ago, the party presided over a bank bailout that ended with Irish taxpayers cutting a €64bn tab for banks' out-of-control lending.

Last week, in a remarkable reversal, it was Fine Gael Finance Minister Michael Noonan who found himself apparently backing greedy banks over hard-pressed middle Ireland.

The bear-pit of Irish politics is an irony-free zone, where anything is possible.

In Noonan's view, the mortgage law proposed last week by Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath isn't needed because costs can come down without it.

That makes sense, except that the collapse in competition in the sector has left Irish banking looking more and more like the kind of cartel competition laws were invented to bust up.

Ironically, the economics of this week's mortgage interest row probably don't really matter.

Borrowers hoping for a cut in their interest charges to the eurozone average shouldn't hold their breath.

The notion that bank shares will be holed below the water line is equally daft.

The powers proposed by McGrath will almost certainly never be used.

But McGrath has played his hand well, demonstrating a more sophisticated understanding of the new Dáil arithmetic than his veteran opposite number.

In the new Dáil, ministers have responsibility without power, and Fianna Fáil has power without responsibility.

In opposition, McGrath has the luxury of championing the little guy, while Michael Noonan is struggling to balance the needs of consumers with the financial pull of State shareholdings in three of the five main banks.

McGrath does get finance, though. The 39-year-old Cork TD graduated with a Commerce degree from UCC and combined his early career in local politics with work as an accountant at KPMG.

During the last Dáil, McGrath's outwardly low-key, constructive approach was deceptive.

Post-2011 he slowly but surely eroded Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty's status as the headline grabber among opposition voices on finance. Last week's coup, a product of the new Dáil numbers, means Michael Noonan's authoritative status is now in danger of going the same way.

Irish Independent

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business