Wednesday 20 November 2019

The night I witnessed Anglo's macho culture in full flight

Posters in front of the part-built Anglo Irish Bank office block in Dublin’s docklands: no expense should be spared in “the most serious investigation in the history of the State”.
Posters in front of the part-built Anglo Irish Bank office block in Dublin’s docklands: no expense should be spared in “the most serious investigation in the history of the State”.

You have to be up early to get your paper these days, there was a run on copies of the Irish Independent last week. After a daily drip feed of Anglo Tapes, the public staggered around in a state of shock glued to the television and radio and hungry for more.

Ordinary citizens, who live for the most part pre-occupied with their families and personal concerns and for whom politics and the corporate world is normally of peripheral interest, were aghast at what the tapes exposed.

There followed an unprecedented outpouring of national pain and anger even worse than at the time of the original bank collapse and bailout. Many vented their grief to the radio phone-in programmes. And it was not just a national story, there was huge global online traffic and media reaction.

Prior to the tapes, the public in the main had displayed a relatively passive acceptance of their fate, awful though it was. Like civilians in a war, people felt we were all in the same boat.

Many were dusting themselves down and making the best of things, being grateful for good health and small blessings.

As Finance Minister Michael Noonan memorably remarked last year when commenting on Greek civil unrest, we Irish tend not to "set fire to cars" in these circumstances.

But all that has changed. The reckless and arrogant exchanges broadcast into people's homes have had a dramatic impact. People are enraged that those complicit in such economic and social carnage could have been so dishonest in dealing with the regulatory authorities and the government.

We feel scorned and abused. Those of us in political and business circles at the time are retracing memories of the era. This writer had no Anglo dealings beyond being a deposit account holder at one stage. Others weren't so lucky and were burned when the bank's share value collapsed.

But many people in the property business were commercial customers as developers or investors. And all the professional legal and accounting firms made big money in the heady business dynamic generated by Anglo.

Rival banks abandoned all reason as they chased the deals in the swirl of Anglo's dust. Though now the epitome of a rogue bank, back then Anglo was the poster boy of the Celtic Tiger.

It was an era of casino banking. Some huge loans were allegedly authorised over the phone while developers cracked open bottles of champagne in city centre restaurants.

I have one flashback of the Anglo macho culture in full flight. I attended a corporate event linked to a rock concert. There was a candle-lit dinner. It was an elegant formal affair. One table stood out because of its central location and total male composition. Most other tables were mixed gender. On enquiry, I was told it was the Anglo boys.

Before long the noise from that table was difficult to ignore and requests to tone it down went unheeded. It was more akin to a decadent stag night than a corporate dinner. To use an Evelyn Waugh phrase, they were "baying for the sound of broken glass".

We were glad to escape outside to the concert and the legitimate din of the band under the night sky. Listening to the tapes I recalled this flashback of Anglo. The strutting declaratory style of the music could have been their soundtrack.

So after all the venting, where to from here?

The political response to date has been unsatisfactory. An Oireachtas inquiry will not satisfy the public need for accountability. All the signs are that it would deteriorate into a partisan and otherwise inadequate affair, given the constitutional limitations.

It would inevitably turn into a show trial of Fianna Fail for base political motives.

The single most important contribution politics could make at this stage is to expedite a criminal investigation. Mr Justice Peter Kelly complained last year that, notwithstanding the complexity of the issues, the investigation is "taking a very very long time".

If it is a matter of resources, no expense should be spared in what he described as "the most serious investigation in the history of the State".

The former DPP James Hamilton made some important observations on this over the weekend. We are still as a country woefully served by the capacity of our state services to detect, investigate and police white-collar crime.

If the ODCE, which is handling the Anglo criminal investigation, needs extra resources this should be done immediately whatever the cost.

In this case of national sabotage, justice delayed is justice denied. As economist Colm McCarthy has often said, anger is not a policy. We all have to move beyond anger and entrust this matter to the courts with due process intact.

Irish Independent

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