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God’s Banker: Peter Mathews on his differences with Fine Gael economic policy, rosary beads at party meetings


Peter Mathews

Peter Mathews

Peter Mathews

Coming from a small town, if someone called you a "character" it was never meant in a good way. The next step was to be handed a bell and told to shout "unclean!" in public.

Politicians don't like being labelled as characters either. There are plenty of them in the opposition benches with the bubble-permed builders, dope smokers and the Citizen Smiths, but the Government side has them too, such as Fine Gael backbencher Peter Mathews, whose views and those of his party regularly diverge like a Y-junction.

Sixty-year-old Mathews looks every inch the banker, with his pinstriped suit, rimless glasses, impeccable manners and slicked-back grey hair. He speaks with perfectly measured Dublin middle-class enunciation . . . a lot.

I shadowed Mathews for a few days and he talks, and talks. He talks about banking mainly, the inequities of Nama, the Irish banking sector and the European Central Bank. But there's also time for everything from jazz, aluminium teapots, the lack of insured drivers in Estonia, the best shoes for walking, non-fiction books on the financial crisis, and PG Wodehouse.

On the surface, for Mathews and Fine Gael, it's a case of 'where have you been all my life?' as he's a sharp-suited scion of southside privilege and professional respectability. His victory at the polls last year was helped by the fact that he's embedded in Dublin South with his Donnybrook origins and a family home in Mount Merrion. "My brother had an extensive GP practice on Deerpark Road," Mathews says. "He is much loved and respected and I benefited from the contagion effect."

He quickly schmoozed the Dublin South voters, who were wary of arrivistes after George Lee's abrupt departure. "Until they saw and heard what I had to say they had that worry," he says. "Here is somebody associated with public appearances and panels, and I was a new arrival. I told them, 'I'm an older person with a different background. I intend to be there for five years if you can put up with me!"

His Leinster House office resembles a GP surgery, with framed professional qualifications like his BComm degree, chartered accountancy parchment and MBA. So how did a nice guy like him end up as a Fine Gael TD? Back in 2008, he sat down at his kitchen table with his wife and began drafting critiques of Nama and the banking sector. This developed into organising public meetings in the RDS, appearances on the Tonight With Vincent Browne show and regular opinion pieces in newspapers. With his forensic, albeit idiosyncratic knowledge of banking, he was approached by Fine Gael in 2010, with James Reilly and Phil Hogan as the intermediaries, to run in George Lee's old constituency, and he won a seat there.

Since then, it's been interesting. As a PG Wodehouse fan, Mathew would be familiar with the line: "I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled." I spent some time with him to see just how gruntled he was.

Mathews claims he was welcomed into Fine Gael with open arms, but as the Marx Brothers's line goes, how late they stay open is another matter. Since becoming a TD he has continued to demand a bank debt write-down of up to €65bn, which hasn't endeared him to Michael Noonan. Last month he was responsible for the Government losing a vote in the Oireachtas by insisting that the Finance Committee dragoon Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan should appear before them.

He was reportedly carpeted by Enda Kenny at a dawn meeting about this vote loss. He denies that he was carpeted. "The Taoiseach said to me that it was a bit unfortunate the way things emerged. I naturally accepted that I inconvenienced people. He said these things happen!"

Why was the vote lost? "The committee wanted to present a letter to the Central Bank governor and a firm insistence that we'd like to see him. A vote was taken that we wanted him not later than March 23. Some of the people in the discussion went out and didn't get back in.

"Because the party whip was in place I had to follow it, which was ironic, being the person making the proposal. Technically, once a bell is sounded, I couldn't withdraw it. I wanted to stay within the rules so under protest I voted against it. The votes carried the proposal," he added.

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The outspoken backbencher has also supported the rural turf-cutters, spoken out about inaction towards Syria, and reportedly swung his rosary beads around during a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting about the closure of the Vatican embassy. He even paid his own way to be part of a Dail committee to the Bundestag so that he could expound his views on debt write-off to the German parliamentarians.

A major reason for Mathews's recent successes has been his run of profile-raising appearances on Vincent Browne's TV3 show. It's a Faustian pact in which he's wheeled on regularly to face Vincent's nihilistic rage, and in exchange he's granted the oxygen of publicity. "Vincent Browne does root-canal conversation with people. It's not just the Osmond-family smiley teeth. It was also a practice ground how to discuss things in public. I'd come from chartered accountancy, then ICC bank for 20 years," he says.

I join him as he canvasses the constituency on Monday afternoon with his assistant Colum Fahy. It's all very relaxed as we drive into the estate in his old Mercedes. As the rain threatens, he jokes that he doesn't like canvassing in the rain, and even puts on his comfortable slip-ons before beginning the meet and greet.

On the doorsteps of Dundrum, he's the consummate politician. Even the occasional roasting ends in a handshake, such as the exchange with one OAP who has a few things to say about TD pensions. He tells every voter who'll listen that he's fighting for the write-down of our bank debts.

Back in his Dail office I have a quick look around for a Sacred Heart lamp or a May altar, but it's just full of those academic diplomas. He admits to having a strong Catholic faith but insists his rosary-rally exploits have been exaggerated. "There was a proposal by one of the [FG] members that the decision to close the Vatican could be reviewed. I'd say maybe 30 different people had small contributions. The atmosphere was conversational, certainly no tension. No even suspicion of a crusade. The person who proposed the motion on the Census recently said it appears 3.5 million out of 4.5 million in the Census indicated they're Roman Catholic. Maybe a review of that decision is reasonable to propose," he said.

He dismissed reports that Michael Noonan had to act as peacemaker. "One of the papers said the tensions were palpable and Michael Noonan had to calm things down. No, he didn't! Michael Noonan -- I thought he was actually dozing -- but he did make a contribution . . .

"On about the 26th contribution, one TD who I like a lot, sitting a few rows behind me, was saying: 'It's interesting to hear about all this. I was just thinking over the last number of years the face of Ireland has changed so much. If you ask some people to recite the Hail Mary, they wouldn't even remember the words, or the Hail Holy Queen.' He also said that some politicians wouldn't even recognise a rosary bead, and at that I smiled. I had a pair of rosary beads in my pocket, showed them to him -- 'Rosary beads still exist,' I said."

Despite embroiling himself in the Vatican embassy controversy, Mathews thinks the FG parliamentary party meetings may have their priorities wrong sometimes. "When they were talking about school buses a few months ago," he says, "and this is at the height of the eurozone crisis with people saying, 'Where will I put my deposits?' School buses and the distance of schools and all that! I would say there were three

parliamentary party meetings that 70 per cent of the time was about school buses."

He is clear-cut about his religious beliefs. "I do have a strong Catholic faith. I saw a letter in the paper which said you don't hear of many people turning their lives around as a result of finding atheism, but you do with God. You don't hear a guy saying, 'I gave up my criminal background because of finding atheism'," he laughs.

Mathews is also black and white about contentious social issues such as abortion. "I've made it abundantly clear that we begin as human beings at conception and we exit at the end when we have a natural death. It's very fundamental and simple."

What about in cases of rape or when the mother's life is in danger, such as ectopic pregnancies? "As regards the principle, it's like a candle flame," he says. "Human life is the beginning and when the flame goes out that's the end."

He's not too enthusiastic about some issues close to the heart of the Fine Gael leadership. Would he favour abolition of the Senate? "I'd be slow to do away with the Senate. It's another litmus test for legislation and for taking national discussions further. You never know what really worthy contribution is going to arise from the Seanad."

How about the proposed referendum on the fiscal compact? "To correct the engineering of national budgetary plans this needs to be done. But to make them so rigid mightn't be ideal," he says.

Mathews' major source of disgruntlement is the lack of progress with regard to the banking crisis. He wants a large-scale write-down of our bank debt by the ECB to the tune of up to €75bn. This has put him on Michael Noonan's radar -- with mixed results. What's his opinion of the Finance Minister? "Michael Noonan has a tremendous resilience to attend all the meetings he does, as they're very long," Mathews says. "He's got a battleship quality to him -- like a battleship sailing up the fjord. His mind is inversely quick to the slowness of his speech."

To stick with the nautical comparisons, many felt Peter Mathews was holed below the waterline last year when Michael Noonan slapped down his idea of massive bank debt write-down. At a Finance Committee meeting, Noonan said that people would think he was "deranged" if he followed Mathews's idea of writing off up to €75bn of bank debt. He also described the solutions as "kindergarten stuff".

"He said the analysis was absolutely correct, it was just the suggested policy answers were not going to work. In fact he said the journalist Emmet Oliver had called it kindergarten economics and there was a little bit of laughter from this," says Mathews.

Was that not effectively being subjected to a pounding by his battleship Finance Minister? "Someone said, 'Did you not feel sore about that?' No, I didn't feel sore in the way it might have been taken up. Michael wouldn't do that and I know that. He's a gentleman as well as a professional. I would hold though that no matter who said the suggested solution about creditor write-down, it is self-evident to anyone coming from my background."

He suggests that there may be other voices turning the head of the Finance Minister. "He may be receiving advices from people within the Department, from other outside advisers, which they want to blend and harmonise with what fellows in the ECB and their advisers want. That to me doesn't mean it's necessarily right at all."

The civil service Sir Humphrey types would feel his wrath if he was ever elevated to the Cabinet table. "If I was a Minister and I had staff reporting to me that were permanent civil servants and I just found I don't know where they're getting this stuff from, I don't feel it's right, then I'd be looking to see can we change people around. I'd feel I'm not getting the facts that I want that are out there. I'd be looking for some new blood," he says.

And he believes that civil servants should be put in their place. "Public servant and civil servants are exactly that -- they're servants -- and if you have the executive responsibility as a Minister then you have to call the shots. 'Sorry! Not happy! Think I'm still getting the stale bread. Can I have some crispy bread, please!'"

He also wants to get his trusty power hose to elements of the Department of Finance. "Power hosing into corners to get rid of cobwebs and things is not easy. There was sluggishness, particularly in the Department of Finance over the years, a lack of energised, muscular, mental talent."

Mathews is yet to be convinced about new Department of Finance chief, John Moran. "I've seen other people's views and note them -- I suppose my own preference is that somebody would have a very strong accounting and financial background. Say someone is a lawyer? What sort of lawyer ? General or corporate? Do they understand loan portfolios, capital markets?"

The bankers are his greatest bugbear and they would also face the power-hose treatment. "They're still very wounded and rely on loan advances from the Central Bank of Ireland. I'd like to power hose into the corners and I don't think that's been done yet," he added.

Mathews also believes the bank boards still need spring cleaning. "Get them out. Empty the desks. At this stage it's like a piebald pony -- you don't know what you have. There's a couple still there from yesteryear, a few fresh faces and then there are a few who come from the twilight zone."

Mentioned earlier were the ructions Mathews caused recently trying to get Patrick Honohan to appear before the Oireachtas finance committee. And, it has to be said, he's less than effusive about the governor of the Central Bank. "He's an intelligent economist," Mathews says, "but as regards negotiations, some people, when they're in an outnumbered situation, do feel restricted.

"I don't see him as a negotiator. I think that the representations on behalf of the country fall short of what's needed. I've said it all along that the facts show that the country has been actually stuffed by the ECB and the Europeans. Losses in private banks and their investors have been force-fed on to this country and it was done to stave off serious damage to international bankers and businesses. Even the troika negotiations,

the original ones, fell way short, and didn't demonstrate any command of subject, or any robustness. The outcome was pathetic."

Frustration with the banks can become so much for him, even the opposition criticism of the financial sector can make sense. "I nearly find myself nodding when I hear the people who are from the United Left Alliance," he says.

What is his master plan that is getting him into so much trouble? His big idea involves a mass write-down of our bank debt of up to €75bn. "There's justification insisting on €75bn. It's funded by exceptional liquidity assistance that needs to be written down so that the promissory notes which are the other side of the balance sheet can be literally torn up or set aside for keeps."

He believes that this promissory-note debt needs to be erased. "The provenance of that debt is odious. It arose because both banks were bust. The ECB insisted that the creditors in the form of senior bond holders would get redeemed in full. The only way that could happen was by advances from the ECB and Irish Central Bank under exceptional liquidity assistance. That could only happen when they contrived a thing called promissory notes because the promissory notes could be used to repay that."

As well as erasing promissory-note debt, he wants business and personal loans restructured. "The average levels of debt write-down needed is going to be in the order of 30 per cent. That's an lot of write-down to calibrate back to repayable levels.

"The loan restructuring among households and businesses that fell too deep into debt needs to be recalibrated case by case, using further capitalisation through creditor write-down by the banks. If that can be achieved, the capacity for households to start spending again at normal levels to pay the bills, pay the ESB, can happen."

But if he feels so strongly about debt write-down and it's clearly not happening, and not being taken seriously by the upper echelons in Fine Gael, then what's the point of staying in the party? "It's like watching a football match -- if it's going nowhere, you begin to lose confidence."

So why doesn't he walk? "I think politics has pragmatism to it as well as an ideology. Ideals are fine. They're worthy . . . life is a practical challenge. At the end of the day, it's about survival. One can stay on the team if the team, on balance, has a worthy agenda."

Mathews managed to get elected from a standing start as a TD, so is he keen for further advancement? "There's always impatience, the impatience of a footballer who wants to get a few points on the board. You have to keep reminding colleagues on the pitch you're there."

Peter Mathews has enormous self-belief but the elephant in the room is that his economic policies are totally at variance with his own party. Maybe he should consider this quote from his literary hero PG Wodehouse, while he's still in the FG fold: "It's always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping."


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