Wednesday 24 April 2019

Whistleblower's dire warnings silenced by senior Finance chiefs

Repeated cautions of a crash by Department of Finance official were persistently removed from public statements, reveal Daniel McConnell and Tom Lyons

Daniel McConnell and Tom Lyons

It was 2005 and Ireland was a country in the middle of a property boom. The nation was addicted to cheap money and, based on the belief that prices would keep on rising, demand exploded.



House prices had risen by 270 per cent in the previous decade, the average price of a house in Ireland had gone from £75,000 to €280,000 and the number of housing completions had soared from 33,700 in 1996 to 87,000 in 2005.

Worse, the arrival of 100 per cent mortgages and a raft of property-related tax breaks poured fuel on the fire that would two years later destroy the country.

Officially, at the time, the Department of Finance and its then minister, Brian Cowen, lionised the success story of Ireland's property boom. They said the boom was based on sound fundamentals, a rapidly increasing population and full employment.

"There is no reason to believe that any of the fundamental driving factors are about to go into reverse," Mr Cowen said many times in speeches at the time.

However, top-secret internal emails and documents obtained by the Sunday Independent reveal that an isolated courageous voice within that department was screaming for the madness to stop.

But the warnings were dismissed and erased from public statements by senior officials, some of whom are still occupying top posts in the department today.

The scandal of the cover-up within the Department of Finance is documented in full in a file compiled by mid-ranking official Marie Mackle, which she had intended to reach the Public Accounts Committee, other TDs, Transparency Ireland and also the various investigations into banking in 2010. She wanted the truth to out.

It must be stated clearly that Ms Mackle did not supply the file to this newspaper.

These secret emails show how her crucial warnings to her superiors, throughout 2005 and 2006 -- at the height of the boom -- that Ireland was heading for an economic crash were erased from public statements made by Mr Cowen and the department.

Time and time again, always basing her observations on reports from bodies like the ESRI, the OECD, the IMF and the Central Bank, Ms Mackle drafted warnings only for her bosses, who noted her objections countless times, to dismiss them.

More alarmingly, the documents catalogue beyond doubt how Ms Mackle's warnings were systematically removed and erased from draft answers to Parliamentary Questions from opposition TDs, who had begun to ask questions about the government's reliance on property-based taxes.

Today, four years on from the crash, with the country's sovereignty surrendered, Ms Mackle feels she is an isolated and alienated figure within her department for attempting to tell the truth.

HOW MACKLE WAS IGNORED/HOW HER CONCERNS WERE CENSORED

According to the documents, Ms Mackle began raising concerns that Ireland was facing a property crash in January 2005.

The assistant principal officer, who repeatedly stated she had only a BA in economics and "is not an expert", said that evidence from various bodies like the IMF, the OECD and the Central Bank warning of great risks "deserved attention".

In an email to her immediate boss, Barra O Murchadha (who has since retired), Ms Mackle, in compiling a reply to a Parliamentary Question (PQ), outlined her concerns -- but ultimately fell back into line and produced an "official" reply, without her concerns mentioned.

"Barra, I have reservations about the minister ignoring the possibility of a housing crash. I do have reservations about the final reply but am doing as directed in accordance with procedure," she wrote on January 28, 2005.

A month later, in another email to Mr O Murchadha, which was copied to Derek Moran, who is now assistant secretary at the Department of Finance, Ms Mackle again noted her concern about the risks of a housing crash, but conceded that he was her section head and ultimately had the call on what is to be included in the final reply.

"Barra, you asked this morning what the differences of opinion were about this PQ last time. I felt it should acknowledge the risks to the housing market. However, I am new to the area. As head of the section you decide what goes into the final reply and obviously I must do as directed," she wrote.

It has also evident that all and any hint of concern that a crash may have been imminent were removed from Ms Mackle's PQ draft replies.

In a reply to Fine Gael's Jim O'Keeffe in February 2005, who had asked about the exposure of the economy to a reversal in the housing market, Mr Cowen officially said: "Housing output has become a highly significant sector of the economy. A gradual easing back of housing output is envisaged in the coming years, although this is expected to be offset by other components of building and construction, assisted by a continuation of a strong public capital programme. Most commentators believe that the Irish housing market is underpinned by strong economic fundamentals and favourable demographics."

But in her draft reply, Ms Mackle said: "As pointed out by most forecasters, unexpectedly sharp falls do have the potential to reduce Irish growth prospects substantially and the economy remains quite exposed as a result. Standard and Poor's has stated that the ratings on Ireland could come under pressure should there be a sharp housing correction."

None of her criticisms made it into the official reply.

In 2006, Ms Mackle's objections became more pronounced, though so too did the resistance to her from above.

In background notes written in reply to questions from former Green Party leader Trevor Sargent and current Fine Gael Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan in March 2006, Ms Mackle's concerns escalated.

Notes were sent to her bosses David Hegarty and Derek Moran citing concerns in a Central Bank (CB) Economic Report about the economy. A clearly frustrated Ms Mackle called into question Mr Cowen's "soft stance" on the threat of a crash.

"I have difficulties with the line taken on debt, for reasons clear in the CB report. While personal views can't appear in a PQ, the minister appears to perhaps be taking a softer line than the CB on debt."

She called into question directions from senior taxation official Ronnie Downes -- who now regularly briefs the media on exchequer returns every quarter -- for ignoring criticisms raised by the ESRI, the IMF and the OECD on the Government's tax policy.

Mr Downes recommended omitting any reference to the criticisms by the various bodies.

"As regards the recommendations of the OECD and others about tax policy, I would recommend against making any reference to this issue in the PQ. It does not appear germane to the question and it is a sensitive policy area in any event," Mr Downes wrote in his email.

Undaunted, Ms Mackle produced an alternative reply which she said "is more trenchant but has a zero chance of being passed by the department. It has the benefit of being more up to date but which may prove less acceptable. It is inadequate to leave out references to the possibility of a house price crash. Personally I cannot endorse it. This may well be viewed as too trenchant a response for the minister," she said in her note.

She also highlighted her concerns with Mr Downes in an email in which she said: "The inclusion of any tax material in the reply by me should not be inferred as personal endorsement but the carrying out of instructions."

Ultimately, Ms Mackle's concerns were ignored and/or dismissed.

In his official reply into the Dail record, Mr Cowen said: "Ireland's fiscal performance is among the best in the developed world with Government indebtedness the second lowest in the euro area. Responsible budgetary policy has made a significant contribution to economic performance overall, to the maintenance of low unemployment and to the achievement of record employment levels."

In May 2006, an extraordinary series of emails was exchanged around the formation of a reply to a priority question from then Fine Gael TD Paul McGrath.

Again Ms Mackle raised concerns in her background notes and draft answers but again she was shot down by her superiors.

One email exchange between her and bosses Paul Shannon and Mr Moran showed clearly how her concerns were ignored and vanished from the official replies and how she was forced to adopt the "official position" which she totally disagreed with.

"As with the Paul McGrath PQ, two replies have been drafted. The first contains material from Paul which is as close as I can get to the official position. The second represents what I perceive to be a more accurate reply but may be unacceptable to the department. I have serious doubts and reservations about the past official position on the housing market," she wrote starkly.

She reiterated her concern in an email to Mr Downes. "The first 'official reply' should not be taken as a representative of my personal views as I do not agree with many aspects of it. I have serious reservations about the position taken on debt. The second reply I personally feel is more accurate but may prove unacceptable," she wrote. Mr Downes replied: "The first reply is acceptable. . . the second reply with reference to consideration given to broadening of the tax base is not appropriate from the tax side."

It is clear that Mr Moran was becoming annoyed at her persistence and delivered a put down to her saying that he did not want a series of emails from her, but just one email per question.

"For future reference I want only one reply to each question. . . (official). Answer is okay with me. . ." Mr Moran wrote.

Mr Cowen's official response to Mr McGrath contained none of Ms Mackle's concerns, but merely a reference to the "broad consensus of a soft landing".

A month later, when dealing with a PQ from Labour's Joan Burton, Ms Mackle was instructed by Mr Moran to issue a highly positive statement extolling the virtues of the broad consensus that there would be a "soft landing" in comparison to her by now well voiced concerns.

"Go back to them and say this. . . the large increase in new housing supply will restore equilibrium to the market. . . There is a broad consensus amongst commentators that the most likely outcome for the housing market is a 'soft landing'. The government continues to run a prudent, stability- orientated budgetary policy . . ." Mr Moran said to Ms Mackle.

PERSONAL FALLOUT

The personal fallout for Ms Mackle for speaking out has been harsh.

In November 2010 she prepared a 22-page report for a departmental review group into what went so badly wrong inside its Merrion Street walls.

Ms Mackle's report was entitled 'This material is not appropriate -- what happens to dissenting Department of Finance employees'.

The report was intended to feed into the Wright Report, an external review set up to try to strengthen the capacity of Ireland's failed and dysfunctional Department of Finance.

Ms Mackle's language reflected how difficult it has been for her within the department since it has been shown that her dissenting views were the right ones.

"I was expected to supply the departmental line as if I were an expert," she wrote.

"I repeatedly pointed out my shortcomings to the department," she said, in her submission.

She described how, for a brief period in 2005, she conformed with the "soft landing" consensus view of house prices and was rewarded with thanks and new-found "steady demand" for her work.

"However, later as I refused to endorse either it or fiscal policy I found myself progressively more isolated and criticised," she said.

In short, she said there was "progressive alienation as I told the department what they did not want to hear".

She said the conformist culture of the department meant it was not possible to get "involved," unless you were prepared to "rubber stamp" policy.

Ms Mackle claimed she was even told to stop placing her objections in writing as it was "damaging given FoI (Freedom of Information)".

"Criticism or silence when I disagreed with policy. Criticism for very act of putting objections in writing. Being written off as not fulfilling the requirements of my job," she said.

After her predictions that Ireland was on the brink of a property crash were shown to be true, Ms Mackle's real problems began, her submission stated.

"I paid the price for being a whistleblower," she said. "As matters stand currently, I am completely ostracised and my work is ignored."

Ms Mackle said she tried to change things by engaging with the Nyberg Commission -- led by Finnish financial expert Peter Nyberg -- into Ireland's banking collapse.

Here too, she faced problems, she outlined in a letter to her superiors in the Department of Finance -- which was also sent to Nyberg personally on March 2, 2011.

Ms Mackle said in this letter she feared that some of the documents she had hoped to highlight to Nyberg had not reached him and the Wright report too had failed to address some of her key concerns.

"I am disturbed to find that many issues I raised have been ignored," she said.

"The most serious of these is that the review group was supposed to explore what happened when people within the department disagreed with developments or the official line taken," she said.

"Instead, the report focused on top management's advice to government instead of focusing on dissension within the department itself," she said.

Contacted for comment on Friday, Ms Mackle, who did not supply her files to the Sunday Independent, said: "I am disappointed that individuals' names have been mentioned (in the Sunday Independent) but I am very glad this has come out. I have been trying to get this out for years."

Last week the Department of Finance refused to address specific questions asked by the Sunday Independent and instead supplied a statement of sorts.

"As you are aware, as part of Nyberg's inquiry into the banking crisis as set out in the introduction, a very large amount of documentation was analysed and many relevant people were interviewed," it said.

"Furthermore, as part of the Department of Finance Capacity Review, Rob Wright looked at policy advice over the past 10 years -- as part of this he examined three key areas including: 'Was the department aware of the risks of overheating in the property sector and did it provide advice appropriate to the circumstances'.

"In his work Mr Wright had full access to a wide range of documents and had detailed discussions with a wide range of individuals, including finance employees," it added.

"With regards to whistleblowers, Mr (Brendan) Howlin is bringing in Whistleblower legislation -- he spoke on the draft legislation at the Finance Committee during the week," it said.

A RARE CONTRARY VOICE

Ms Mackle is only the second person we know of to have challenged the dogmatic orthodoxy of the Department of Finance from within.

Robert Pye, a retired assistant principal in the department, said in a written submission to the Wright commission, which was set up to investigate how its civil servants failed, that he circulated seven papers in 2004 and 2005, warning a "major global shock could have a devastating impact on both our fiscal position and our banking system".

Mr Pye said he was told his concerns were "legitimate", but "simply untenable on political grounds".

Mr Pye described how good people were rebuked for questioning government policy and an environment of "unquestioning obedience" was promoted.

Ireland's downfall, he said, was due to an "appalling" inability to inform the government of the "sheer recklessness of its policies".

Tomorrow Ms Mackle will go to work as usual in the department.

If her voice had been listened to Ireland might not find itself in need of an overseas bailout. Nor find its young people emigrating again or its dole lines getting ever longer.

Sunday Independent

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