Friday 24 November 2017

The banking inquiry must be set up as a matter of urgency

Kieran O’Donnell: vice-chair of the PAC
Kieran O’Donnell: vice-chair of the PAC
John Downing

John Downing

NOW that this Anglo trial is finally over, the Government is running out of excuses – and, more importantly, time – on setting up the long-promised parliamentary inquiry into the banking collapse which cost Irish taxpayers €64bn.

Officially, this is a matter for the Dail to set up – but the government parties have a huge majority in the Dail. It is hard to believe that over five years have elapsed since the bank guarantee on the fateful night of September 30, 2008.

There has been much talk about getting it off the ground and various dates have been mooted. Well-placed sources have insisted there will be action by the end of next month – conceding that failure to put something in place by summer makes it unlikely a conclusion can be reached in the lifetime of this Government, which ends at the latest in spring 2016.

If an inquiry cannot reach conclusions within the lifetime of this parliament, it will likely fall and things could go back to square one. So time is increasingly scarce.

The most persistent model mooted by Oireachtas sources is a five- or six-member specially empowered committee. Names mentioned to head this committee are Labour's Ciaran Lynch, chair of the Oireachtas Finance Committee, or Fine Gael's Kieran O'Donnell, vice-chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

Both are meticulous committee room operators who could be relied upon to steer a careful course. The chosen one as chairperson from this duo would be joined by up to five other members, with possibly one of them coming from the Seanad.

All would have to pass 'the bias test', which could rule out many politicians. There is a line of argument that any TD or senator who has not made robust comments about the banking collapse is not worth his or her salt.

But more than two months ago, the most senior officials in Leinster House broke new ground by visiting each political group and giving them a pep talk about the dangers of political bias in public statements.

The inquiry itself will operate under the purposely designed Houses of the Oireachtas Inquiries Act 2013.

It will have to tread a very narrow legal ledge, given the 2002 Abbeylara judgment, which seriously limited the powers of parliamentary inquiry findings.

For this and other reasons, the inquiry committee will require considerable back-up and much of this will have to be brought in from outside. There would be a big legal team, a team of banking experts, stenographers, administrators and other clerical back-up.

In all, it is expected that up to 50 people would have to be brought in and a supplementary budget of up to €5m would be needed, though it may be voted in different tranches.

It is believed that the inquiry hearings would be held in Kildare House, across the street from Leinster House, which was the scene of the successful DIRT tax inquiry in 1999. Extra accommodation for the administrators has been identified at Leinster House.

Fianna Fail has repeatedly castigated the Government's foot-dragging on getting the inquiry off the ground. But they are also fearful that the early stages of any inquiry might be used to cast the previous Fianna Fail-led government in a very bad light ahead of the next general election.

There is a hefty list of issues to be examined, including the events which led up to the 2008 bank guarantee; the shortcomings of the regulatory framework; the quality of information furnished by the various banks; and what happened after the guarantee.

But above all there is now an increasing urgency for action on this matter.

Time is running out.

Irish Independent

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