Tuesday 16 July 2019

Groundhog Day in the stillborn dungeons of democracy

FIRST WITNESS: Banking expert Peter Nyberg last week offered the opinion that it was unlikely that anything new would emerge from the banking inquiry. Photo: Tom Burke
FIRST WITNESS: Banking expert Peter Nyberg last week offered the opinion that it was unlikely that anything new would emerge from the banking inquiry. Photo: Tom Burke

Shane Ross

On Thursday evening, up popped the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan. It is no secret in government circles that the most popular member of the Cabinet is not easy to seduce with media opportunities. He is pretty choosy about jousting with journalists. He spares himself such dubious pleasures.

Michael appears on stage at seminal moments. He is happy to big up the Budget. He is not unknown to accept plaudits when good news is being dispensed. And he is political gold dust when trouble is brewing.

Last Thursday evening, two days after its public launch, the banking inquiry had capsized in rough waters. Michael the media maestro surfaced on both RTE's Drivetime and the 9pm RTE News to salvage the wreckage.

Two days earlier, the inquiry had been torpedoed. On the eve of the hearings, European Central Bank president Mario Draghi had written to inquiry chairman Ciaran Lynch with the killer news that the ECB would not be participating in its proceedings.

Neither Draghi, nor his predecessor Jean-Claude Trichet, nor any ECB point man, would be giving evidence.

When on Wednesday the proceedings started, the very first witness, banking expert Peter Nyberg, offered the opinion that it was unlikely that anything new would emerge from the inquiry.

The banking inquiry was stillborn. While the ECB, possibly the biggest player in the Irish banking collapse, has humiliated Ireland, the other big player - former finance minister Brian Lenihan - tragically died three-and-a-half years ago.

Not just Hamlet without the prince, but a whole Shakespearean tragedy missing its two most important actors.

Thursday's media was deeply disappointed by the inquiry's opening. Michael, the avuncular minister with the magic media touch, obviously sensed that the inquiry had already hit the rocks.

Thursday - a second chillingly boring day at the inquiry - was dominated by a dull Canadian former deputy finance minister, Rob Wright. Four years ago, Wright had written a report deeply critical of the Department of Finance. Noonan was provoked to come out to play, keen to reassure the nation that the problems identified by Wright had been addressed.

He was even keener to assert that the banking inquiry was still on course, despite Draghi's snub. He protested feebly that the ECB "should be represented". He responded to a question about the damning findings of the Wright report by claiming that his department had addressed the flaws found by the Canadian.

In answer to a more general challenge about the floundering inquiry, he praised its members insisting that the TDs of all parties were "very good people" adding that "they will handle it properly".

Noonan's reassurance is not convincing. The first two days of the proceedings exposed 11 good Dail deputies unable to ask the questions that are on the tips of the tongues of every member of the public.

They were hamstrung by the lawyers, not allowed to ask leading questions - nor indeed any question that would give the perception of bias. Nor were they permitted to name anyone or any institution involved in a current banking court case.

A lawyer sat perched permanently on the inquiry's podium with chairman Lynch, ready to warn him if any of his team stepped out of line.

The banking probe is paralysed by the fear that any step into the territory of perceived bias will provoke an injunction. And that will herald the end of the inquiry.

So there they were, fine parliamentarians like Joe Higgins, Michael McGrath, Pearse Doherty, John Paul Phelan, Kieran O'Donnell, Senators Sean Barrett and Michael Darcy, sanitising their questions to jump the legal hurdles.

If the TDs erred an inch from the legal straitjacket, the enforcer - chairman Lynch - was all over them like a rash. At one point on Thursday he told O'Donnell that everyone knew the rules and that he couldn't "say what you want to say".

At another point he heard Barrett uttering the adjective "bizarre" in describing a person's behaviour and warned him about using a judgemental adjective. He even stopped the low-key but effective O'Donnell in his tracks, muttering about "showboating".

Back in their plush homes in Foxrock and Dublin 4, retired bankers and their legal teams will have been watching every exchange with glee.

The bankers have little to fear. At the first sign of a departure from the rules, they will instruct their lawyers to press the injunction button.

The inquiry is on the run.

If bankers are delighted with the direction of the inquiry, any member of the public watching the proceedings will have felt cheated. And there is no doubt of the reaction from the media.

When I wandered into the inquiry in the Leinster House dungeons at lunchtime on Thursday, only three members of the press had toughed it out to 1.15pm. There was more interest in the humdrum activities at the dungeon next door, where the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was uncovering the re-emergence of bonuses at Nama. The banking inquiry was dying a death by lawyers, by the threat of court cases should any member express a view, by the six years that have passed since the main events, and by the boycott by the big guns from the ECB.

Worse still, the inquiry's lawyers have forbidden any of the 11 members to publicly express any view on its proceedings. Many have gone to ground, apparently cowed by legal threats of fire and brimstone in the Four Courts if they breach the guidelines.

One or two members are quietly promising to "stretch the rules to the limits" when the bankers, auditors and regulators appear.

I doubt if they will. It is looking more obvious that they are holding their fire for the appearance of the politicians. An ambush is being plotted. Whereas the bankers, auditors and regulators are being protected by all the legal constraints, the politicians are far less likely to take the legal road. They will be fair game.

Last week Ciaran Lynch opened the proceedings by declaring pie-in-the-sky nonsense. The Labour Party TD fantasised "this is an opportunity to leave our club jerseys at the committee room door..."

He went on to declare more noble aspirations. "This is an opportunity to demonstrate an example of Parliament at its best - thorough and impartial."

Lynch is a Labour TD with a vulnerable seat in Cork South Central. He is a mighty man, but he would need to be superhuman when his constituency rival - Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin - appears at the banking inquiry to give evidence.

Micheal was in the Cabinet at the height of the property madness. Will Lynch be asking him "impartial" questions? And will Micheal's other constituency colleague, Fianna Fail's Michael McGrath, remain silent, as Lynch and his Fine Gael coalition mates interrogate the Fianna Fail leader with vigour?

Or are we expected to believe that politicians will suddenly miraculously morph into impartial judges when their arch rivals appear, amid an election atmosphere?

The endgame is to discredit Fianna Fail. That is why the Cabinet of 2007 will be in the dock after Easter when the general election approaches. The bankers, regulators and auditors will escape rigorous questioning as the Government TDs wait in the long grass for the appearance of Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen and Micheal Martin.

A thoroughly cynical exercise has been launched. Political theatre has been hidden under the cover of a banking inquiry. But the Irish public has not been fooled.

Sunday Independent

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