How Bertie hammered a nail into the Inquiry's coffin
It was box office day at the Banking Inquiry. The biggest fish of all was on the menu. Members of the Inquiry were visibly excited. A few of the TDs had crossed swords with the star witness a few years ago. A good "performance" against Bertie was essential if they were to earn their party stripes. Yet as the Inquiry does not allow bias, they were, strictly speaking, neutral participants in pursuit of the truth. So on Thursday they all left their political baggage at the door of the dungeon. And if you believe that, you believe anything.
Bertie Ahern made monkeys of the TDs and Senators facing him. He made a mockery of the Inquiry itself. He exposed the fiasco of party politicians quizzing a mortal political enemy under the guise of a 'Banking Inquiry'.
Bertie had no friends on the Inquiry. Fianna Fail long ago distanced itself, forcing him to resign his membership following the Mahon Tribunal findings. He could not expect any quarter from Fianna Fail Inquiry members Michael McGrath or Marc MacSharry. Fine Gael and Labour loathe him. Socialist Joe Higgins has history, sparring against Bertie across the Dail floor. Pearse Doherty's Sinn Fein has Fianna Fail in its sights. So there was Bertie, all on his own, fighting a rearguard action against the magnificent 11. The result: a defeat for the 11 Inquiry members and a big loss for the Inquiry itself. The public must be puzzled.
Not that the Banking Inquiry is capturing the public imagination. On Thursday, after the appearance of the most eagerly anticipated witness of all, the anti-climax was palpable. The small, faithful bunch of journalists sat in the gallery. At the end of the session, 28 of the 36 seats were unoccupied. Not a single member of the public was present. There were four journalists, one official, two Inquiry investigators and me. And throughout the four-and-a-half-hour ordeal there were plenty of spare seats. The Inquiry is dying on its feet. It attracts none of the daily junkies enjoyed by the Tribunals. Even 'Box Office' Bertie could not draw a crowd. Indeed, he nearly sent the entire gathering to sleep.
I caught Marc MacSharry yawning as the session finished. The eyes of most members were glazed as proceedings drew towards an end. One member's eyelids constantly closed, no doubt his best defence in the face of Bertie's well-practised monotone mutterings.
The day started badly enough for the ex-Taoiseach. Doherty spotted that Bertie had plagiarised his own autobiography in his opening statement. It was a typical Bertie short cut, but he parried the question with surprising clarity. He had not changed his mind since it was written, so why alter it?
After that, it was plain sailing for the man who used to drive the opposition in the Dail bonkers with his unfathomable answers. He was sorry for his mistakes in the boom years BUT . . . And then came the long litany about how the Celtic Tiger had left a proud legacy of roads, hospitals, trains and other infrastructure. The boom was not all bad. Under Bertie Ahern, Ireland had enjoyed budget surpluses in every year bar one. He trotted out the now well-worn defences about the IMF and the OECD giving the economy the all-clear. He fingered the ESRI with its wildly optimistic growth projections. He insisted that an open economy like ours could not resist the global turmoil of 2008. He allocated a bit of blame to the bank, a bit to the regulator, spreading it all around the usual suspects. He took a bit himself, but not much.
Sounds familiar? Box Office Bertie was Bertie the bore on Thursday. His anaesthetic answers looked suspiciously deliberate. His responses were reminiscent of the replies given by his successor Brian Cowen over the previous two weeks.
But if Bertie was repetitive, the Inquiry members have become equally tedious in their predictability. Familiar questions about the property tax incentives and their role in fuelling the boom were easily deflected as Bertie replied that he merely extended them, simultaneously admitting that they had added to the property furnace. Like Cowen, he could not stop himself scoring a political point when casually putting it on the record that the urban tax breaks had been introduced by Fine Gael Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in the Eighties.
Like Cowen, he sent warning shots across the bows of Fine Gael members Kieran O'Donnell, John Paul Phelan and Eoghan Murphy when answering questions about excessive government spending in the Bertie years. Bertie made the entire Government contingent sit up in their seats when he riposted with the line that if he had listened to the Opposition (Fine Gael and Labour) during the boom he would have spent three times as much as he did. At that moment he went ahead on points.
The Coalition members resorted to the old canard of the Galway tent. Bertie totally irrelevantly responded that men met their wives-to-be there - an oblique reference to developer Sean Dunne's first encounter with his future bride, Gayle Killilea.
And when Labour senator Susan O'Keeffe acidly interjected that she did not realise that Fianna Fail had been involved in a 'dating' exercise and began to fillet the man from Drumcondra about guests at the tent buying "access" to him, Inquiry chairman Ciaran Lynch warned her to stop this line of questioning. Inquiry insiders are terrified of being injuncted by lawyers waiting in the wings.
Bertie had a clear advantage. If they started to display their political bias, he had them on the run. If he himself launched a political Scud, there were unlikely to be any consequences. The contortions necessary to set up a political trial have left the battle one-sided. There is little danger for the witnesses in showing their political colours. For the Inquiry there is the threat of the Four Courts. The Government's insistence that the probe must be peopled by politicians means that the witnesses enjoy an advantage. The questioners are neutered. That does not stop them trying to hang their opponents, but it gives canny players like Cowen and Ahern the edge.
No one knows how to play the rules better than Bertie. Last Thursday, a lone goalkeeper without anybody (least of all Fianna Fail) on his team, he left the 11 attackers flat-footed.
The Banking Inquiry is beginning to backfire. This Thursday its real political purpose will be confirmed when none other than Taoiseach Enda Kenny is accompanied to a session by his colleague Richard Bruton. Kenny has his talents, but banking is hardly his area of expertise. His presence is only for the optics. The Banking Inquiry is following the absurd demands of 'political balance'. And in an obvious twist of political acrobatics, the Fine Gael duo will be followed by Joan Burton, supported by former leader Pat Rabbitte. At least that should be political comedy as the Labour pair, hardly on speaking terms, will be holding hands for a brief public moment. The body language should be a howl.
Kenny is unlikely to be savaged by the government majority on the Inquiry team! Michael McGrath and Marc MacSharry may have a bit of fun, but he will emerge untouched. Others may enjoy the heroic efforts of Pat and Joan to put on a front of Labour unity. None of them should be there. There is a case for summoning Finance Minister Michael Noonan, but not for the quartet that have been called. They are merely a thin camouflage for the real targets, Cowen, McCreevy and Ahern.
Meanwhile, the so-called Banking Inquiry will have to manage without the key bankers! The appearances of Anglo's former top brass Sean Fitzpatrick, John Bowe, Pat Whelan and Willie McAteer have been stymied by the Director of Public Prosecutions. They were always peripheral to the real purpose: to remind the electorate of the excesses of Fianna Fail.
It's all politics now. The Banking Inquiry is dead in the water. Last week Bertie hammered a nail into its coffin.