Saturday 19 October 2019

Noonan's tour de force pulled the Banking Inquiry's teeth

Michael Noonan
Michael Noonan

Shane Ross

The worst wine was kept till last. The Banking Inquiry hit rock bottom. On Thursday afternoon it was Finance Minister Michael Noonan's turn for a grilling. In reality, his appearance as a witness was teed up as a lap of honour for the Fine Gael elder statesman . And so it proved. A political triumph for the minister made a mockery of the entire exercise.

Spare a thought for Kieran O'Donnell, possibly the best performer of all the TDs at the inquiry. No one was better equipped than Kieran to put the minister through his paces.

He is a qualified chartered accountant, articulate, calm but persistent. He is more familiar with finance than the minister himself. Indeed, if he had been on the other side of the heave against Enda in 2010, he might have been sitting in Michael's seat today. On Thursday afternoon, Kieran suffered from one severe handicap. He is from Limerick.

There is normally nothing much wrong with Limerick. Yet there was on Thursday. It is home to both O'Donnell and to Noonan.

Not only is Kieran from Michael Noonan's Limerick but he, like Michael, is a Fine Gael TD. Not only is he a Fine Gael TD but Kieran, the forensic inquisitor, shares a constituency with Thursday's star witness. They are fighting on the same electoral patch.

Worse still, while Kieran holds a vulnerable seat in Limerick, Michael's seat is safe as houses. At the last election, Noonan received the highest vote in the country (as a percentage of a quota) with a massive surplus. Michael gathered 13,291 votes, Kieran bagged just 5,405. Michael's surplus went (62pc) to Kieran, ensuring his election.

In the next election, the Limerick City contest will be much tighter. Both Fine Gael TDs are expected to lose votes to Sinn Fein.

Noonan will undoubtedly top the poll, but if both men lose a little ground, Kieran will be fighting for his seat. He will desperately need Michael's imprimateur. And his surplus. Not the most promising background for a full-frontal challenge to a witness.

Perhaps it was a coincidence that the brightest boy in the Banking Inquiry was relegated to the end of the queue on Thursday. O'Donnell would be committing political suicide in Limerick if he cut lumps out of Noonan up in Dublin. Imagine what the Limerick Leader would say if the local pretender savaged his senior minister. Imagine if Michael whispered the word 'disloyalty' to Fine Gael warlords in the village of Limerick. Imagine if the RTE cameras made a meal out of a Limerick spat at the Banking Inquiry. O'Donnell would be political toast. O'Donnell is a talented, impressive TD. It would be ironic if the Banking Inquiry torpedoed his career.

A Limerick duel was never going to happen. O'Donnell asked a few less than penetrating questions. It was left to Fianna Fail's Marc MacSharry to press the minister on his support for the bank guarantee when Noonan was opposition finance spokesman. Noonan dealt with it confidently, safe in the knowledge that none of the Fine Gael members were keen to pursue him on the delicate, but highly relevant, subject. Fine Gael TDs on the Banking Inquiry had voted for it themselves.

The inquiry is riddled with political minefields and similar no-go areas. Last week, no one demonstrated the political purpose of the inquiry more than Noonan himself.

The Finance Minister used the inquiry as a platform in the Government's re-election campaign. His opening words sounded more like a budget speech than a Banking Inquiry statement.

The minister deftly diverted into the area of how he had inherited not only a banking but a "fiscal" crisis. He related the familiar mantra of how "the country was left with a legacy of debt, rising unemployment, emigration of our young people on a scale not seen since the 1980s, falling living standards and a lack of trust in the political system". Decoded, the entire economic collapse was down to Fianna Fail.

Then he told us how Fine Gael and Labour had committed themselves to "restore the public finances, regain competitiveness, support the protection and creation of jobs, radically reform our system of public administration and rebuild Ireland's reputation on the international stage". He boasted of "the reversal of the minimum wage, the jobs initiative" and other claims that were a long way from a Banking Inquiry but likely to help the Coalition's re-election. Noonan was milking his moment at the inquiry to remind the electorate of Fianna Fail's deplorable record. Good politics but an abuse of the inquiry's limited time.

No one has enjoyed an easier ride at the inquiry than the Finance Minister. Sitting in the gallery, I expected him to be filleted about Fine Gael's support for the bank guarantee.

He must have feared too, a few questions about bank reform. No one asked why he had recently blinked first when the banks told him that he could stuff his objections to the penal variable mortgage rates they are inflicting on their victims. The banks have eyeballed him and he has emerged as weak in the face of their challenge.

Nor did a sinner ask him to end the reign of overpaid 'public interest' directors on the boards of banks, nor mention that many of the old names are re-emerging in important positions. The duopoly he has created, euphemistically known as the 'pillar bank' strategy, was never questioned.

It was the cosiest session yet. Initially Pearse Doherty and Joe Higgins flew the flag for accountability, but as the proceedings approached closure, the 'inquiry' resembled the dialogue of a few friends exchanging views in a public house or an uncle explaining his trade to his favourite nephews and his niece.

The mood at the inquiry was defused by the inevitable: virtually everyone in Leinster House knows and likes Michael Noonan. He is clubbable, highly amusing, decent and disarming in his lack of pomp or self-importance.

Inbuilt political incest may be the main reason why the inquiry has failed, but there are others. The sad death of Brian Lenihan robbed us of an utterly reliable witness. The absence of the key Anglo players makes its findings virtually meaningless. It was roundly snubbed by a European Central Bank boycott and treated with contempt by former ECB president, Jean Claude Trichet.

The legal restrictions on permitted questions and the overhanging threat of court cases crippled it at birth. The requirement that politicians should be devoid of bias, not only against the bankers but also against their political enemies, is pure fantasy. The final report cannot make any adverse findings of fact against individuals.

The chairman, Ciaran Lynch, flanked by a legal eagle at all times, acted more like a gatekeeper guarding the rights of bankers than an impartial arbiter on procedure. The nonsensical imperative to give every member a turn to query each witness never allowed enough time for lines of questioning to develop. Wily witnesses merely talked out the time. And, of course, the drama opened five years too late, the consequence of the Coalition's obsession with reminding voters of the sins of Fianna Fail close to election day.

It could have been so different. The report could have been done and dusted in 2009, long before the court cases began. It could have been an inquiry carried out by disinterested banking experts, if necessary drawn from abroad, forensic accountants, academics, judges, young entrepreneurs, consumer champions and even by victims of the banks. They would not have given Noonan such an easy ride last week.

They could have asked another man from Limerick, Vincent Browne, to take the chair. Vincent is equally biased against everybody!

Bankers and politicians would have been treated with equal contempt. He would not have tolerated a lawyer glued to him at every hearing, whispering warnings into his ear.

As he departed on Thursday, Michael Noonan was asked if he had any final words. He congratulated the members.

"You have done a good job," he volunteered.

A great job for Fine Gael, maybe.

Sunday Independent

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