| 10.7°C Dublin

John Drennan: You can bank on an inquiry into how so much was lent by so few

THE wonder of it is that they thought they might actually get away with it. Of course, forcing politicians to institute inquiries into their own behaviour is like pulling a wisdom tooth with string and a doorknob, but the near collapse of our self-generated banking crisis threatened the very existence of the State.

This reality meant that in the long run, when it came to setting up an inquiry, the Government did not really have a choice.

Such a decision may even benefit Mr Cowen, for his initial reluctance meant the Taoiseach was already being found guilty of destroying the economy under the ageless quasi-judicial 'the innocent have nothing to fear' principle.

Of course, a continuing inquisitorial vacuum would also have left the Taoiseach wide open to months of moral showboating from Enda and Eamon about the latest episode of Cowen the Cowardly Taoiseach.

Ultimately the greatest political problem he faced was that while Ms Harney and FF had no problem seeing the reputation of politics falling further into the mire, those Green lost children of 'Garret the Good' are still far too enchanted by concepts like accountability and ethics for the Taoiseach's good.

And there was also the moral argument, for democracy surely is not worth a penny candle if it deliberately conspires with vested elites to hide the truth about how the country was bankrupted.

In spite of all these factors, the Taoiseach and his Minister for Finance put up a valiant battle, but even they must have known their arguments were built from straw.

Mr Cowen might have been worried about how too many questions might spoil 'confidence' in our banks, but our bankers' reputation already resembles the sort of girl who went behind the bicycle shed with every boy.

Brian Lenihan's warnings about the need to avoid a political circus or an 11-year tribunal were not only mere statements of the obvious, for of course we don't need circuses or barrister-fattening exercises.

Sadly they also utterly failed to recognise that justice, the social cohesion Mr Cowen talks about so often, and the pragmatic need to protect ourselves from any future similar debacle means we need to find out who was responsible for the greatest disaster Ireland has experienced since the Civil War.

The Finance Minister's argument was also compromised by the role played by the smirking belief of Fianna Fail over recent decades that accountability is some sort of 'circus' in getting us to our current 'we are where we are' status.

Now that the decision has been made, the sooner Mr Cowen establishes the dreaded inquiry the better it will be for, though we know an inquiry will hurt you more than us, Brian, it's still a risk we're willing to take.

In looking at how such an inquiry might proceed, so far most attention has been focused on the virtues of another Dirt-style investigation.

However, while this was moderately successful, the ongoing mendacity of the banks and the subsequent collapse of the broadly similar Abbeylara Inquiry suggest 'doing a Dirt' on the bankers may not be the fully correct response.

It also does not help that the broken state of accountability in Leinster House means we would need a referendum to give Dail committees the power to compel witnesses or to even make findings of fact before any inquiry could be fully established.

But engaging in the banking equivalent of the Murphy report into child abuse is also unlikely to be successful because it conducted its work in private and the Doubting Thomases of our wounded public are unlikely to trust such a process.

Of course, they are even less likely to favour a tribunal, but is the 11-year 'legal circus' argument yet another tribunal red herring?

It can, for example, be argued that it is implausible that we would once again devise a mess like the planning and payments debacle.

And it should also be noted that not all tribunals are the same, for the Finlay Tribunal into the Hepatitis C scandal finished its work in a year and cost the taxpayers just under €6m.

This, of course, did not happen by accident for it had tight terms of reference, the full support of the government and was run by a highly respected former chief justice of the Supreme Court.

It also helped that when it came to co-operating with the tribunal, the State was in charge of the purse strings of the organisation that was being inquired into.

Of course, if we do go down the dog-eared old tribunal road, this does not mean we cannot incorporate certain aspects of Dirt into any inquiry.

However, if we are to set our politicians on the bankers, any inquiry should be chaired by a respected judge who can provide the legal precision to fireproof it against legal challenges, secure the rights of witnesses, dampen down the baser political instincts of our TDs and write the actual report.

The public questioning, however, could be carried out by a cross-party team of politicians who would be briefed by the inquiry's private investigators.

Such a process would instill an air of democratic legitimacy and possibly subject our bankers and politicians to a rather more rigorous school of questioning than that practised by the legal profession.

It would also enhance public interest in the hearings for while few people would still recognise Des O'Neill everybody knows Pat Rabbitte.

There might even be a plus side in it for Mr Cowen as an inquiry might keep George Lee, Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte, Michael Noonan, Sean Sherlock, and some of the more troubled government backbenchers such as Ned O'Keeffe, Michael McGrath, Sean Fleming and Ciaran Cuffe, nice and busy for some time.

Ultimately the most critical aspect of any such inquiry would be its terms of reference.

Any probe would have to carefully restrict the amount of issues it would investigate for if every dodgy transaction by our banks was trawled into we would sink into a bottomless pit.

Such an inquiry should therefore focus on the boardroom and the role of our top regulators, civil servants builders and politicians rather than the cowboys on the trading desks, and confine its work to a two-year span dating back from the night of that infamous banking guarantee.

Happily, since we are bankrolling the banks, there should be no problem with co-operation for Mr Lenihan can tell the fat cats that if they want to get paid next month then, like any police tout, they had better co-operate.

Of course, should any of our top builders object to being questioned a few well- directed points about how the lads are being looked after by Nama should soften any coughs and if this is unfair, as you are belatedly finding out lads, life generally is.

Sadly our Taoiseach may be equally unhappy over such a radical departure from the cosy relationships between fiscal and political cronies.

But it's called accepting responsibility, Brian, and after 20 years of gallivanting around like an Offaly wild colonial boy it's time to accept it Mr Cowen.

Sunday Independent