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Maeve Dlineen: 'Public interest' directors is something of a misnomer

If you ever find yourself hauled in front of a Dail committee, give Alan Dukes a ring. The Kildare man is certainly no stranger to Kildare Street.

The veteran politician-turned-chairman of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC) put in a masterful performance in front of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance earlier this week.

Committee hearings are the lion's den for those charged with cleaning up the fall-out from the banking collapse, the all too rare venue where highly paid executives can actually be questioned on the work they are, or are not, doing.

Unlike most that end up there, Dukes has been on both sides of the committee table, thanks to his decades as a senior Fine Gael TD, and even party leader.

He knows how it's done. Keep it simple, keep it positive and make yourself look available to the members. It means he can handle a committee room.

Dukes tells deputies a story, but he will never allow himself to get tripped up in detail -- just broad brush strokes.

Awkward questions are greeted by skilled displacement tactics, humour, world weariness and even the promise of future conspiracy.

The impression he gives is a clever one: I'd love to tell you but they just won't allow it, but let's get together later and thrash it out.

Committee members who spent hours ripping apart AIB and Bank of Ireland chiefs didn't lay a glove on Dukes.

Dukes was appointed as a "public interest" director of the former Anglo Irish Bank in 2008 and became chairman of the bank, since renamed IBRC, in 2010. When the Government unconditionally guaranteed the deposits and bonds of the Irish-owned banks in September 2008, a move that eventually bankrupted the Irish state, "public interest" directors were appointed to their boards.

Boards

Former NTMA boss Michael Somers and former Labour Party leader and Tanaiste Dick Spring were appointed to the AIB board.

Former Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh and former secretary general of the Department of Finance Tom Considine went on the Bank of Ireland board; and former Finance Minister Ray MacSharry and former secretary general of the Department of Tourism and Trade Margaret Hayes were appointed directors of Permanent TSB.

Former Irish Dairy Board chief Noel Cawley is IBRC's other public interest director.

Between them these "public interest" directors had been paid a total of more than €1.6m from the date of their appointment to the end of 2011.

While the "public interest" directors have done well, it's not clear that the general public, whose interests they are supposed to serve, has done quite so well. Next week, it's the turn of Dukes's fellow public interest directors in front of the Oireachtas committee. Top of the questioning agenda will be the hiking of variable rate mortgages and the slashing of new mortgage lending by over 90pc.

The poor volume of lending to SME's is also sure to be broached, as are the fat-cat pensions being paid to ex-bank bosses. But above all they will have to prove that they have not gone native.

Have the "public interest" directors, who were supposed to be our watchdogs on the bank boards, been converted into tame poodles? Now there's a question Dukes would struggle to answer.

Irish Independent