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Shane Ross: Banking inquiry looking like political stitch-up

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ELECTION AHEAD: There’s great enthusiasm in Government for parading Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen before an indignant citizenry. Above, the former Fianna Fail leaders meet in Croke Park.

ELECTION AHEAD: There’s great enthusiasm in Government for parading Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen before an indignant citizenry. Above, the former Fianna Fail leaders meet in Croke Park.

Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Independent TD Shane Ross

Independent TD Shane Ross

Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney

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ELECTION AHEAD: There’s great enthusiasm in Government for parading Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen before an indignant citizenry. Above, the former Fianna Fail leaders meet in Croke Park.

TDs are queuing up for seats on the Oireachtas banking inquiry. Last week, Peter Mathews TD wrote to Sean Barrett, Ceann Chomhairle of the Dail, seeking support for his campaign for a seat on the inquiry. Peter reeled off his experience in chartered accountancy, his MBA and his long 20-year stint in ICCB bank.

Others are, more quietly, jockeying for the job.

Landing the banking gig is a difficult trick to pull off. TDs are trying to prove their expertise on the banking issue while simultaneously projecting their lack of bias on the hottest political potato of the day. Acrobats would be proud of them.

Imagine a TD at a public meeting on mortgage arrears protesting that he or she had no opinion on the gang that brought Ireland to its knees, landing their constituents in financial disaster.

Of course, no TD is neutral on the banking issue. Few have any expertise. Those few who have the expertise have been pontificating loudly about bankers – as is their job. Their opinions are two a penny. And that should rule out the likes of Peter Mathews.

But we TDs all have one thing in common. In the uncomfortably honest words of George Hook, "we all just love the limelight". Happily, I have ruled myself out of any such ambitions, because I wrote a book about banking that was a polemic against bankers.

Many TDs who have ranted and railed against banks and bankers for years are offering their services to the inquiry. Suddenly as the cameras beckon, they can miraculously discard all past bias and opinions. They are suddenly morphing themselves into reincarnations of good King Solomon.

The entire political system is now conspiring to promote this little pretence.

Last week, a few independent TDs were given a parliamentary briefing about the banking inquiry. We emerged confused and deeply sceptical about the prospects of the probe ending in anything less than an utter fiasco.

The banking inquiry is under tight political control. Politicians – of all people – are hardly impartial participants in the process. Many have been competing to condemn the banks in colourful language.

Fatally, all decisions about the inquiry revert to politicians – or, as they soothingly like to say, to the Dail. Which, in practical terms, means to the Government. Meaning, of course, to Fine Gael and Labour.

No terms of reference for the committee of inquiry have yet been set. No members have yet been appointed. The process is tortuously slow. It is increasingly apparent that the rules of the banking inquiry are being made up as it goes along. The big idea of putting Fianna Fail in the dock had instant political appeal. The smaller ideas were never worked out.

Today the best minds among the officials of Dail Eireann are being challenged by the task ahead. The big question is who will sit on the committee? And where will we find suitable candidates without bias?

The simple answer is, we won't.

A monumental fudge on the crucial issue of bias has been plotted. The members of the inquiry will be chosen by the Government. Once chosen, the first bias filter is the selected member. If he or she looks into his or her heart and decides that he or she is biased they must voluntarily stand down!

Asking a politician to withdraw from this gig is like demanding that a Lotto winner returns the jackpot.

The next filter will be the Dail Committee on Procedures and Privileges, made up exclusively of politicians. They will examine the chosen members of the inquiry and – if there are any questionable choices – decide whether the members are suitable. In the words of the legislation, they will decide whether there is a "perception of bias in the eyes of a reasonable person".

Many politicians are lovely guys – but "reasonable persons" they are not. They look after their cronies like no other tribe on God's earth. Places on the banking inquiry will be given to party loyalists.

The bias – or otherwise – of the TDs chosen for the committee of inquiry is subject to naked political interpretation. Ahem. TDs, sitting on a committee dominated by government TDs, will be the arbiter of other TDs' bias on banking. Ahem. Then the TDs' recommendations on the bias of fellow TDs will go to a full hearing of other TDs in the Dail chamber, where a decision will be rubber-stamped by the overwhelming majority of government TDs.

The outcome is looking predestined. Fianna Fail should not be feeling comfortable.

Nor do they deserve to, but the inquiry is beginning to look more like a political stitch-up than a credible probe.

Do not expect the chosen few to be dumped by sudden bouts of honest self-doubt, or by the government-appointed Committee on Procedures and Privileges. Nor by the Dail itself.

But a fascinating provision was slipped into the legislation to make the process look more democratic. Any citizen can object to a member of the inquiry on the grounds of bias. That citizen could be a wronged customer or a banker, a begrudger or a victim, alleging bias either way. There could be dozens of citizens' objections, ensuring that this token gesture towards democracy could cause chaos and delay.

We all know that the adjudicators of bias, the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, will swiftly despatch mere members of the public with objections to government-anointed appointees, but this provision could ensure that the selection process could take many months.

Worse still, a member of the inquiry team can be challenged on bias grounds at any time after it has been set up. He or she will then have to be replaced if belatedly found to fail the bias test. Such a scenario has the potential for lengthy court battles, as any new member will be participating for only part of the inquiry.

No one has a clue how much this inquiry will cost. No one has a clue how many extra staff will be needed. No one has a clue how long it will last. The enthusiasm to set up a court to parade Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen and to embarrass Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin in late 2015 as an election nears has left the detail undecided and an overdue inquiry discredited.

We know from past experience that it will cost the taxpayer millions. Conservative estimates suggest that staff costs will be at least €3m. The consequences for other committees of the Dail could be catastrophic.

During the only similar probe, the Dirt inquiry, the operations of other Dail committees were brought to a standstill. One consolation: today the Government would get its wish if a compliant banking inquiry brought the activities of the independent Public Accounts Committee to a halt.

Not to mention the unmentionable. No one is in any doubt that this inquiry will spawn more court cases than any other parliamentary probe in the history of the State.

Lawyers will reap in millions from taxpayers as they challenge it on multiple grounds. The dangers of the inquiry overlapping with criminal cases in the Four Courts are manifest. Modules of the inquiry may need to be abandoned in midstream as the parallel proceedings develop elsewhere. It should have been held five years ago.

The winners will be the lawyers and government TDs. Bankers could be off the hook, seizing on every daft political move as an opportunity to escape from justice. Losers will be the integrity of Oireachtas inquiries.

And Fine Gael will win the next general election.

Irish Independent