Friday 19 April 2019

Dramatic denials? Smoking guns? Not at this inquiry

Alan Gray
Alan Gray

Lise Hand

It's probably our own fault. We giddily assumed that the public sessions of the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry were going to be like a brilliant telly box-set.

It would be filled with exciting episodes featuring smoking guns and gobsmacking revelations and dramatic denials. Penitent bankers would weep and rend their bespoke pinstripe suits over how their greed-filled financial institutions banjaxed the country. And while tucking into buckets of popcorn, a gripped nation would learn the unholy truth behind the Night of the Bank Guarantee.

It's only a wonder that as the curtain falls today on the inquiry's public hearings, that a sedated electorate doesn't rise up and demand its money back (the cost of the inquiry, that is, for there's no point in asking for a return of the €64bn poured by us into the banking black hole - we ain't never seeing that again) given that the whole shebang has fallen seriously short in the entertainment department.

Bankers came and left with their garments intact, as did a triumvirate of Taoisigh (two former, one current). Vigilant legal-eagles circled the inquiry constantly which succeeded in putting the mockers on any craic.

However, there was always the (albeit supermodel-slim) possibility that the inquiry could finish with a flourish. While economics is a profession whose members are unlikely to run away and join Cirque du Soleil, former Central Bank board member Alan Gray had first-hand information about the high-wire act that was the bank guarantee. On the fateful night in question, September 29, 2008, Taoiseach Brian Cowen had stepped out of his office to phone his friend and adviser; also the economist had been present at the infamous Druid's Glen dinner attended by the then-Taoiseach, and Anglo boss Sean FitzPatrick, amongst others.

While there wasn't exactly a frisson as Alan Gray (every inch an economic egghead with wayward hair and tweed-style jacket) settled into his seat, there was a ripple of hope that he might inject a bit of colour into proceedings which have been decidedly, well, grey. Alas, there was no smoking gun produced from a pocket of the tweedy jacket to wave around the room. Alan Gray exuded all the theatrical charisma of Fr Stone on Craggy Island - though in fairness the last thing any Taoiseach needs as his country's banking system is staggering towards the cliffs is an excitable economist.

So had he huddled with anxious Anglo executives in Druid's Glen after the golf outing in July 2008, dispensing advice like snifters of cognac? Nope, nothing of the sort - in fact, banking hadn't been discussed by the group at all, he stated. "I was invited to outline any views I had on employment, on what was happening in the economy which is something many governments have done over a different period," he explained, adding solemnly: "I put in a lot of effort in advance of that meeting talking to international experts."

Nonetheless, Alan Gray did offer further insight into the mounting distress of the Anglo poohbahs as the bank teetered that September, and explained how Sean FitzPatrick and David Drumm showed up at his office unannounced. "They came to me on the day of the guarantee, I did not invite them to come," he told the committee members. "I believe they understood that the bank would not open the next day, and I think they were very keen to try and find any option or any channel to have their views aired," he added, with what was surely considerable understatement.

The economist explained that David Drumm had brought along a presentation to show him, but, well, time is money. "I told him I had a very busy day and I'd prefer he'd just tell me the purpose of the meeting, and he went through several points. I told him these were issues that they should talk directly to the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator about," he said, adding "categorically" that he never would have and never did make representations on the bankers' behalf.

The economist answered the questions methodically and meticulously. Glaciers advanced and retreated.

The IMF's Ajai Chopra is the star of the final act today. Here's hoping. Anyone for the last of the popcorn?

Irish Independent

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