Thursday 21 November 2019

Bank probe: no TDs need apply

INTEGRITY: Former DPP James Hamilton would be a good choice to head up the proposed banking inquiry
INTEGRITY: Former DPP James Hamilton would be a good choice to head up the proposed banking inquiry

Shane Ross

WERE you listening to the guff from government ministers last week? All the pompous garbage about TDs having a constitutional duty to hold a bank inquiry?

They dismiss suggestions that TDs cannot be trusted. They hold up their hands in mock horror at the idea that deputies are already compromised by past statements or personal spats with banks.

Perish the thought. Ministers insist that TDs possess all the necessary qualities for an inquiry. As chairman they will seek a reliable, independent TD, naturally enough one with government sympathies. Luckily, they need look no further than Michael Lowry, whose battle with the banks to save his fridge business, gives him proven talent to preside over the probe. His umbilical cord with Fine Gael makes him ideal.

From the main opposition parties , no one has more on- the-ground experience of banks than the old guard of Sinn Fein. The unorthodox interaction of their IRA friends with bankers gives them an unmatched inside knowledge of bank vaults. Fortunately, none other than TD Caoimhghin O Caolain – one of their TDS without baggage–- is available. Caoimhghin was at one time – somewhat incongruously – a bank official himself.

The Government will need a majority. No better man to display his expertise than Minister of State John Perry, currently nursing the wounds of being sued by the banks for €1.3m. Perry would no doubt relish the chance of challenging his persecutors.

And what about Mick Wallace? Wallace has had numerous brushes with the banks. He will offer advice on the problems of deep debt and on any item about developers.

To advise on the dangers of TDs grandstanding, Fine Gael's loudest voice Bernard Durkan, a veteran of the Dirt banking inquiry, should shore up the government majority.

What a pity Fianna Fail's Beverley Flynn has retired. She could have brought all her knowledge of selling investment policies at National Irish Bank to the party.

The ministers are right. The Dail is an unappreciated treasure trove of TDs with banking experiences.

Last week, former Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), James Hamilton, gave an RTE interview pointing out the pitfalls of TDs holding an inquiry into banking. He did not name names. Instead, he offered a reasoned warning against politicians holding such probes.

Hamilton owns one of the best brains in the country, no longer of direct use to Ireland because the quirks of public service rules made it more attractive for him to retire early rather than soldier on.

Hamilton, still under 65, only rarely ventures into the limelight to share his wisdom these days. What a waste.

Last Sunday, he decided to dive deep into the Anglo Irish Bank tapes controversy. In the process, he torpedoed the credibility of current government plans for a banking inquiry.

Hamilton was always opinionated. I knew him well as a precocious young genius at TCD. He has been a friend ever since and has carried the same refreshing , almost reckless, integrity into active retirement.

As a young barrister he had a reputation for refusing to butter up solicitors in the competitive scramble for legal work. Hardly a prudent career move for a man not born with gold-plated legal connections, a disadvantage that may have persuaded him to head in the direction of the highest legal post in the land rather than sliding into silk and a place of privilege on the bench.

The DPP job does not merely require brains. It demands a super-integrity of an order not sought in many other public offices. Hamilton has it. The position is particularly precious because it is unlawful for politicians to try and influence the decisions of the DPP.

Thankfully, it is not illegal for a former DPP to comment on the antics of current politicians. Last Sunday Hamilton made it crystal clear what he thought of politicians holding an inquiry into banking parallel to criminal proceedings being taken against bankers. He did not like it.

He believes that at a minimum the criminal trials should be held first. In support, he cited the dangers of politicians "grandstanding" at hearings, that they could say things that were "prejudicial" to a fair trial. He went on to insist that if TDs wanted to "grandstand and put on a performance", they could hardly be stopped – even by a strong chairman.

Even more pertinently (highlighting the dangers of abuse of parliamentary privilege) he insisted that TDs "rightly have latitude about what they say" but warned of the pitfalls contained in that privilege – namely that immunity from defamation can be exploited by TDs.

Justice will then be frustrated as bankers arrive in the Four Courts in jig time, pleading that they have been defamed, so cannot now receive a fair trial.

The showmanship of TDs at an Oireachtas inquiry could ensure that guilty parties walk free. And then, in response to a later question, Hamilton pooh-poohed the Government's crazy idea of holding a repeat referendum to beef up the powers of an Oireachtas inquiry, insisting that "the decision had been made" by the people last year.

Referring to the rejection of that specific proposal by Ireland's citizens, he was emphatic that the "people had decided that this was not a function to entrust to politicians".

Pressed on this point by RTE's Richard Crowley, Hamilton asserted that the people's decision "was not an unreasonable one. They had grounds for concern. Yes."

Bingo. The former DPP was putting the boot into the Coalition.

Hamilton is right. Irish people have uncanny instincts. While they want to see guilty bankers behind bars, they fundamentally distrust their politicians' commitment to facilitate it. Indeed politicians' play-acting is likely to frustrate this.

Fanciful? Not at all. Remember former Tanaiste Mary Harney's public assertion that Charlie Haughey should go to jail? High Court Judge Kevin Haugh postponed the former Taoiseach's trial indefinitely because Harney had prejudiced the proceedings. Harney lifted Haughey beyond the arm of the law.

And what is the Government's response? It has reacted by rushing full speed ahead towards an Oireachtas banking inquiry. It is so intent on using it as a vehicle to discredit Fianna Fail that it is prepared to see guilty bankers cheat justice.

It is so determined to crucify political opponents that it will not allow any inquiry to consider activities of bankers, top civil servants or politicians, during its own term of office.

The inquiry will be limited to questioning Fianna Fail wrongs, not allowed to challenge the current Coalition's abject failure to clean up the banking culture or change the guard. Last week, two ministers – Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin – declined to countenance extending the inquiry to cover the second dark day of total chaos in the Department of Finance, just five months ago, the night when Anglo was liquidated by the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition.

There is an obvious solution: no TDs should apply.

Well, who else could sit in judgement?

Apart from the obvious merits of complete outsiders, who better to head up the inquiry than former DPP James Hamilton himself, or even the Chief Justice Susan Denham, one of the few judges whose political pedigree is a mystery?

Who better to join them than the Comptroller and Auditor-General Seamus McCarthy, a man who shuns the limelight? Why not put them beside other self-effacing experts like former AIB internal auditor and whistleblower Eugene McErlean?

If we need another banker, Professor Louden Ryan of Bank of Ireland has never been tainted with the excesses of his successors. Others beyond reproach include accountant Dr Niamh Brennan, whose professional and corporate governance skills are second to none.

Take your pick: former DPP Hamilton (or Chief Justice Susan Denham) in the chair flanked by the dull but worthy Comptroller, ex-AIB internal auditor Eugene McErlean, former Bank of Ireland Governor Professor Louden Ryan and Dr Niamh Brennan.

Alternatively, we could appoint the commercially savvy Michael Lowry , the controversial Mick Wallace, the battered John Perry, a couple of Sinn Feiners and Bernard Durkan, the great grandstander.

Irish Independent

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