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Don't look to banking inquiry for real justice

OUR capacity to learn little or nothing from the past is extraordinary. So, right from the off, it's odds against the forthcoming Commission of Inquiry into the Big Bust amounting to much.

Mr Justice Peter Kelly found it "astonishing" and "extraordinary" the other day that AIB loaned over €500m to property developer Liam Carroll with only a letter and the deposit of title deeds as a security. But this state of affairs is actually by no means unprecedented. Ireland's banks have been caught out time and again on securities and charges before.

Back in 1981, the late Patrick Gallagher gained control of the 4.5-acre Slazenger site on St Stephen's Green (perhaps the largest prime site ever to come on the Dublin market) for a down-payment of £50,000 -- roughly the price of a modest detached house at the time.

Mr Gallagher's penchant for documenting property deals on the back of a cigarette packet was legendary. But Ireland's first property "golden son" flew too high and crashed to earth, dragging the entire property industry in his trail.

So it was that the first "red alert" that the market was over heating flashed for me in 2005 when I read a court report regarding a €100m cheque for a 50pc stake in a Co. Kildare shopping centre.

Twelve months later came reports that Bernard McNamara had agreed a mezzanine finance package for the Irish Glass Bottle site which offered the Davy investors a 17pc interest rate. This sent alarm bells ringing again in my head.

Then, of course, along came solicitor Michael Lynn whose property dealings have also been aired in the courts.

The failure of Irish bankers, property developers and homebuyers to spot such (or any other) signs speaks volumes about the extent to which greed, hubris and sheer ignorance can blank out history.

This propensity of banks to play fast and loose with massive sums of money only serves to highlight the old adage that, if you owe €10,000 to the bank, you're in trouble -- but, if you owe €10m, it's the bank's problem. Such issues assume a new cogency as the handover of the first batch of "bad loans" to NAMA finally approaches. There will be plenty for the legal eagles to chew over in the coming months.

Now, if you thought the run-up to the proposed commission of inquiry was a real pantomime, you have good reason to fear the bank probe itself will degenerate into a farce. At the end of the day, expect much less "Oh yes -- he did" and much more "Oh no -- they didn't!"

All those who want to hiss in the background or pelt eggs at the villains of the piece are likely to be disappointed. Brace yourself instead for tedious discussion of highly complex debt arrangements, cross-collateralised obligations and financial esoterics galore. The end result: more red tape and tougher lending rules all round.

Our latest national investigation is, after all, ostensibly to provide future generations with a road map to help them avoid taking such an almighty wrong turning ever again -- not to make wayward developers, financiers or politicians walk the plank.

But we have been down the inquiry route before -- and the omens from times past are inauspicious.

The search to pin the blame on the main culprits for the great stock market crash of 1929 and shift heat off the government of the day began immediately after the dust had settled in April 1932. This task was handed over to the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency.

Its interrogations proved a big disappointment to those baying for blood. Exhaustive questioning produced little evidence of wrongdoing and no identification of wrongdoers. As Professor JK Galbraith put it: "In the congressional investigations, no flagrant miscreant of any kind was uncovered on the Stock Exchange to serve as the symbolic bad apple."

Some of the questioning has a very contemporary resonance, though. Stock Exchange overlord Richard Whitney recommended cutting the pensions of army veterans and government salaries generally. When asked about cutting his own pay, he said no -- it was "very little". Pressed on what he earned, he said that it was only about $60,000.

Committee members responded that this was six times the pay a senator received. But Whitney remained steadfastly in favour of cutting public pay, including that of Senators (calling to mind Sean FitzPatrick's pre-Budgetary advice to rein in the "sacred cows" of Irish society, notably children, the elderly and health care).

Whitney emerged unscathed from the public inquisition -- despite being arraigned for grand larceny six years later.

If such historic testimony suggesting that leopards don't change their spots does not suffice, flip forward to our own Dirt Inquiry in 1999. Nobody lost their job or was prosecuted there either. A phalanx of well-heeled "suits" strutted their stuff and a new code of banking ethics was pawned off as a remedy to clean up our stables. Prepare for the merry-go-round to start right on rolling again. . .

Irish Independent