Tuesday 28 January 2020

James Downey: Iraq probe exposes need for public bank inquiry

James Downey

WILL the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war tell us anything we don't know? Will it change anybody's mind about how British participation came about? Will its conclusions serve to protect future belligerents or sufferers from "collateral damage" from similar fiascos?

The answer to all three questions is "probably not".

I have English friends who insist that Tony Blair acted in good faith. They won't change their minds, and neither will I.

I believe that Blair decided long before the invasion to support George Bush regardless of UN resolutions and regardless of the evidence as to whether or not Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Some criticise John Chilcot and his colleagues for failing to ascertain whether Blair "signed in blood" a pact with Bush to overthrow Saddam. I don't know how anyone could prove such a proposition at this time. Most likely, in time to come, evidence will emerge from one or more insiders which will settle the question. Too late.

Of course there is another immediate way to find out: forensic questioning by skilled lawyers. At this inquiry, the questioning has been less than sharp, but I doubt if even the most pointed interrogation could shake the former prime minister. At one stage, he found himself in a difficulty about blatant contradictions in his statements. This polished performer wriggled out of it in one sentence.

So it is open to Chilcot to find that Blair was misled by faulty intelligence reports: that he truly believed in the presence of WMD in Iraq and did not participate in the invasion in order to change the regime. But maybe the inquiry will come to a contrary conclusion.

Chilcot is a retired mandarin, and the mandarins don't like Blair. They didn't like his style of "sofa government". They particularly disliked the extraordinary influence exerted by his director of communications, Alastair Campbell. That amounted to trespassing on their own patch.

Clare Short gave us an insight into the New Labour style in an appearance that equalled Blair's own for eloquence -- and theatricality. She described, graphically but evidently without exaggeration, being shouted down at a cabinet meeting. Great stuff.

But not new stuff. Everybody who takes an interest in these matters knows about presidential style and sofa government. Everybody knows that in Britain and elsewhere, power, over time, moved from parliament to the cabinet and from the cabinet to the prime minister. Everybody knows about inner circles and the exclusion of ministers from decision-making.

Here at home, we had a striking example not long ago. On the fateful night of September 29-30, 2008, the Taoiseach and the Finance Minister made one of the most important decisions in the history of the State. Then they held an "incorporeal" (delicious word) cabinet meeting. This meant ringing round other ministers, getting them out of bed and telling them what had been decided about an issue, the bank guarantee, which most of them could not possibly have understood, much less discussed. So much for cabinet government.

Lessons to be learned? Unusually, one lesson has in fact been learned: the severe restrictions on almost any government's freedom of action. It surfaced this week in the British White Paper on defence, which proposed that future military interventions must occur only in conjunction with other countries, such as France.

Here, I don't intend to try to tease out the implications for European defence on the one hand, or Britain's relations with the United States on the other. I only want to note two points. One, the White Paper proposals are clearly prompted, not directly by mistakes in Iraq but by the realities of world affairs. Two, they cannot solve the problems posed by current British engagement in Afghanistan.

The British public, stoic and warlike though they may be, are deeply upset by the casualty rate and by the evidence that their troops in Afghanistan are badly equipped.

All those deaths, and all those funerals, stir emotions. They did more than any other consideration to bring forth the enthusiastic applause for Clare Short from the soldiers' families.

In addition, her appearance (as well as those of other witnesses, like the dissenting lawyers) did something to give them a degree of catharsis. And this in itself provides a justification for public inquiries.

The Chilcot version is not a circus or a parade of people judged guilty in advance. It is polite, low-key, civilised. It adds to the public's knowledge and fortifies, at least a little, their confidence in the possibility of justice.

And that is why our own Government has committed a gross error in deciding that the inquiry into the banking collapse should be held chiefly in secret.

It is not sufficient -- not even accurate -- to argue that we know how the calamity came to pass.

We want to know a great deal more than the faults of bankers or developers.

We want to know about motives, and about the interface of politics and finance.

We want to know how the property bubble was not merely tolerated but encouraged. And we want to hear admissions of mistakes and of responsibility.

Chilcot has given the British public, and the wider world, a close look at the players in the Iraq affair. We deserve an equally close look at the players in our own fiasco. And if we got it, we would have in one way an advantage over our British friends.

Chilcot cannot protect them from future follies. An Irish public inquiry might, just might, afford us some protection. It could not protect us from the unpredictable. But it might help to warn us to guard against a more real and present danger: letting our rulers ready themselves to make the same mistakes all over again.

jdowney@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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