Sunday 21 July 2019

Enda's Banking Inquiry lap of honour turns into ambush

MISFIRING: Enda Kenny tried to talk down the clock, attempting to smother any annoying questions with liberal use of the ‘competitiveness’ word
MISFIRING: Enda Kenny tried to talk down the clock, attempting to smother any annoying questions with liberal use of the ‘competitiveness’ word

Shane Ross

The Banking Inquiry script has gone horribly wrong. And last Thursday it hit rock bottom.

First, the witnesses solemnly swore by almighty God to tell the truth . . .

Next, they read statements loaded with political invective; then, the warring parties took lumps out of one another.

Finally, they defied all the protocols about no grandstanding, no bias and "leaving their club jerseys at the door".

They came in pairs on Thursday. Enda Kenny and Richard Bruton looked angelic, bosom buddies. The two men, who had fought such a bruising battle for the Fine Gael leadership, took the oath and put on a united front. They expected their short session to be a lap of honour. They would just have time to remind the world about what a shambolic economy Fianna Fail had bequeathed to them, to answer a few soft questions from their own side and they would be free to go. The opening shot in the election campaign would be a propaganda triumph.

Originally, it was not on the Government's agenda that any of its own people, least of all Kenny and Bruton, would have to turn up. After all, they had been in opposition at the time of the banking collapse.

But purely for the optics, to balance the endless days of nailing Fianna Fail to the cross, the coalition- dominated inquiry needed a token appearance from Fine Gael's Kenny and Bruton - followed by an even less happy couple, Labour's Joan Burton and Pat Rabbitte.

The appearances turned out to be far from token. None of the hapless quartet had a role in the banking catastrophe. Yet on Thursday they blew their chance of exploiting their distance from the scene of the crime. The instrument chosen by the coalition as the secret weapon to sink Fianna Fail in a banking swamp has turned out to be a boomerang.

In recent weeks, while both Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern have edged towards rehabilitation, Fine Gael and Labour have scored an own goal.

Enda Kenny foolishly took the battle to Fianna Fail. Bankers and developers watching online must have been salivating. The heat was off them. On Thursday it was crystal clear why the Government waited until late in the electoral cycle to launch the kangaroo court. Kenny hit Fianna Fail with both barrels. He rattled off a catalogue of woes inflicted by Fianna Fail. He spoke of "bloated" public finances, of government waste, of how the dire state of the economy was camouflaged by the taxes pouring in from the politically favoured, booming construction industry and of the crazy property tax incentives.

He was right in everything he said. Fianna Fail were culpable. They should not be trusted. They were responsible for wrecking the economy . . .

The Taoiseach was on a roll. The Independent and Fianna Fail members would be sorry they had asked him to give evidence on the grounds of balance . . . They could have their balance, but they would regret it.

Unfortunately for the Taoiseach, the Opposition sat lurking on the Banking Inquiry benches, holding a lethal grenade. Pearse Doherty was the first to pull the pin.

What, asked the Donegal man, were Enda's plans to broaden the tax base and curb runaway spending back in the days of danger? Had not Fine Gael promised in its 2007 manifesto actually to increase spending by €17bn over five years?

Kenny rabbitted on about "the gross wastage, the utter inefficiencies" of the Fianna Fail regime. Under pressure about FG's own wild spending numbers, he admitted glibly that the "figures speak for themselves".

He was similarly trapped when FF's Michael McGrath pointed out that Fine Gael voted against the boom time Fianna Fail Budgets because there was not enough spending. Kenny weakly replied that McGrath could "make his political points". In response to another below-the-belt blow about Fine Gael preferring to use its parliamentary time in opposition for greyhound doping rather than banking, Kenny muttered again about "waste" and the need for a "competitive" economy.

He was ambushed by better prepared questioners. Happily for Enda, after such a wounding grilling from mostly political foes -including Doherty, McGrath and Marc MacSharry - it was the turn of his own backbenchers.

We waited for the Fine Gael members on the Committee to lob up the soft questions. They never came.

The Taoiseach must have been surprised. Against all expectations the Fine Gael members bowled a few googlies. Eoghan Murphy, Kieran O'Donnell, Michael D'Arcy and John Paul Phelan refused to pull their punches.

Murphy asked questions about Fine Gael's knowledge of the dangers of the property tax breaks. O'Donnell asked why his own party had not taken the same dangers into their alternative budget calculations. Neither D'Arcy nor Phelan gave their leader any quarter. By the end of the session he was reeling. There is a limit to the number of times you can mutter the words "competitiveness, social partnership, benchmarking."

At one point his fellow party man O'Donnell, fearing Kenny was talking down the clock, had the temerity to interrupt his leader, when he was smothering the questioners with the "competitiveness" word.

Suddenly, the penny dropped. Kenny was not in home territory at all. The Fine Gael guys on the Banking Inquiry were not Kenny people. They were only available for the Inquiry because they had not received preferment in the Taoiseach's allocation of government posts.

O'Donnell, Phelan and D'Arcy had voted against Kenny in the leadership coup back in 2010. Eoghan Murphy was not in the Dail at the time, but he has been branded as the leader of the FG footballing five-a-side club - the backbench bunch regarded as FG dissidents. To their credit, the guys whose job was to bury Fianna Fail went walkabout.

Bruton and Kenny's defence to the charge that they were prepared to spend more recklessly than Fianna Fail was comical. Both men reached for the Bertie/Brian Cowen escape route. The Fine Gael leaders protested that they had relied on the ESRI and Department of Finance growth forecasts. Just like Bertie and Brian had done over recent weeks.

In its hour of need Fine Gael was giving its blessing to Fianna Fail's only convincing excuse. Bruton and Kenny were cornered.

The conclusion is awkward. If Fine Gael swallowed the line from the ESRI and the Department of Finance, does that not let Fianna Fail off the hook?

Of course it doesn't. The truth is that both parties were deluded. Or in the words of Senator Michael D'Arcy this was "auction politics". Reckless spending was common to all parties. If Fine Gael had got their hands on the loot they too might have blown the economy to Kingdom Come. They didn't.

The Fine Gael couple emerged battered and bruised. Bruton had been unable to rescue Kenny in his more vulnerable moments, but it was a bad day for both of them.

The awkward Labour couple were less vulnerable to attack for their past behaviour. As Joan Burton repeated, at least Labour had voted against the bank guarantee, while Fine Gael had trotted into the lobbies behind Fianna Fail.

Yet it was obvious from the start that Burton and Rabbitte regarded their appearances as a mere political joust. The atmosphere between the two socialists was akin to a couple of corpses in a deep freeze. The Tanaiste sat down beside the most talented of her backbenchers, a man she had sacked barely a year ago. She referred to him with deference throughout her presentation. He did not reciprocate the respect.

Burton treated the joust as she does Leaders' Questions in the Dail. Whatever the question, just keep talking. Say anything.

Rabbitte, the finest parliamentary performer of his generation, used his rhetorical skills to squash upstarts among the questioners.

Between the four of them they acted as undertakers for the Banking Inquiry. As a spectator sport Thursday's political circus was compelling. It was not a Banking Inquiry, but of course it was never meant to be. It was a political farce.

Sunday Independent

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