Set up for a fall, but slugger Cowen came out fighting
Charlie McCreevy was billed as the appetiser, Brian Cowen the hors d'oeuvres and Bertie Ahern the main course. At long last, the Banking Inquiry was set to gorge itself on the Fianna Fail carcases. Earlier witnesses, like the economists, the media, the regulators and the bankers themselves, were the warm-ups. The Banking Inquiry was never about the bankers. It was always about Fianna Fail.
The most cynical wheeze of this Government climaxed last week. Scarce State resources have been abused to damage the political opposition.
McCreevy refused to be a soft target. The former finance minister's spell at the top was too distant from the banking collapse for him to be wounded by the inquiry. McCreevy resigned as minister for finance in 2004, shafted by Bertie Ahern. Nevertheless, he was called as a witness to remind the voters of the dark days of Fianna Fail.
The big fish were always going to be Brian Cowen and Bertie. While Bertie will only be given a half day on July 16, Cowen will get two full sessions. The Coalition majority on the inquiry wanted to stretch out the FF appearances to embed the party's shameful role in the economic collapse deep in the public mind. No banker was given the same amount of time as Cowen. Ah well, you need a lot of time to nail the Biff to the cross.
The Coalition may live to regret it. The whole scam could boomerang.
Last Wednesday, McCreevy was defiant. He simply refused to take the blame for anything. He would not dream of apologising. He had left the economy in good shape.
On Thursday, his successor at finance, Brian Cowen, humbly agreed that McCreevy had bequeathed him a healthy economy. Indeed, Cowen kicked off with a whole heap of humility. And then, he settled in for a session of political knockabout.
Thursday was pure politics. The words 'bank' or 'banker' rarely featured on Cowen's first day in the box. Thursday was foretold as his day of destiny with the political hanging party. No sooner was Fine Gael's most numerate, but least political, TD Kieran O'Donnell, out of the traps than the jousting began.
Cowen, more than most, is the quintessential Fianna Fail tribesman. He saw O'Donnell and the other Government members there not as independent, media-shy TDs giving up their time in search of the truth about the bankers, but as political foes intent on drawing blood from an adversary.
He treated the chamber in the vaults of Leinster House as he had once treated the scene of past glories - the Dail itself - at Leaders' Questions. He knew many of the inquiry members from previous skirmishes. And in turn, most of them saw him as a potential political scalp.
O'Donnell is far too cerebral a creature to be part of a hanging party. He is a forensic figures man. When it comes to bankers' balance sheets, O'Donnell has few peers, but he looked uncomfortable trying to tackle Cowen in tribal political territory.
Cowen used O'Donnell's early line of questioning to turn the tables on Fine Gael. He recalled little Opposition concern and few Dail questions about banking in his day; he could not remember any of his now vocal opponents raising the topic of the capital adequacy of the banks.
When asked if he felt Bertie Ahern had put him under too much pressure to reform stamp duty, he insisted that he was delighted that his boss "never went so far as Labour and Fine Gael", adding gleefully, "it was really a crazy proposition they were coming up with". He was assertive and confident.
Suddenly, the Banking Inquiry had descended into raw politics. Chairman Ciaran Lynch resorted to his gavel for the first time in the inquiry as Cowen and O'Donnell sniped at each other.
Cowen was in his comfort zone. He had lured the Opposition into political combat. He baited his Fine Gael inquisitors, reminding them that they had not protested about the property reliefs and other incentive schemes at the time. When they queried his public expenditure splurges, he again jogged their memories that this was a recent line of attack. They were deathbed converts to fiscal rectitude.
Indeed, they had called for more spending in the middle of the crisis. They had based their 2007 election manifesto on the oldest trick in the world - fantasy forecasts of high growth - (Fine Gael had predicted 4.1pc growth per annum for the years 2008- 2013). He could not resist a gratuitous jibe at Taoiseach Enda Kenny insisting that the growth projection was relevant because "Mr Kenny might not know".
He had a lash at Labour when he referred to "people who call themselves social democrats".
After a humble start, a ritual apology and an admission of grave errors, Cowen was enjoying himself. The gloves were off. And Cowen is a street fighter par excellence.
When Joe Higgins, not a friendly face for Cowen, indulged himself in a colourful polemic about Cowen wearing bankers' clothes, the socialist TD was warned by chairman Ciaran Lynch. New boundaries were being crossed as old enemies took the chance to settle scores for the second-last time. Cowen did not need the chair's protection. He lashed out at Joe: "You are setting me up as some type of guy promoting cowboy speculators..."
Chairman Ciaran seemed to agree. Appealing to members not to lead witnesses, he warned Joe "this is not the Dail chamber".
Not on Thursday, anyway. Upstairs in the empty Dail chamber, there was a constant ringing of quorum bells. The only political game in town was down in the all-ticket spat in the dungeons. Cowen was box office.
Higgins switched his attack to the Fianna Fail tent at the Galway races. He was interested in the tent's connection to Fianna Fail fundraising. Fertile political territory, but hardly part of the Banking Inquiry unless you want to use the Galway festival to embarrass your political opponents. The thought would never have entered Higgins' head.
Fine Gael's John Paul Phelan took up the same theme in the afternoon. Cowen was ready with facts and figures: 80pc-90pc of party donations came from a one-day national collection and a members' draw; Fine Gael held similar events at Punchestown and nobody in the media whispered a word.
A less aggressive question from Marc MacSharry gave the ex-Taoiseach an opportunity to ramble on a bit about his favourite industrial relations theme: social partnership. Hardly relevant to a Banking Inquiry, but an opening for Cowen to preach a bit of political dogma. He seized it.
At the lunch break, the word went around Leinster House that the ex-Taoiseach was playing a blinder. Fianna Fail TDs were dancing jigs in the corridors. There was, after all the trauma and disgrace, a credible Fianna Fail narrative on the economic collapse.
They know they were bad, but they feel they can hold their heads a little higher this weekend. Cowen was coming out of his corner, fighting. He lifted party morale.
He was a little more subdued in the afternoon, but he is back this week.
More ominously, Enda Kenny is due on July 23. Richard Bruton will be alongside him to hold his hand. On that day, watch the Fianna Fail squad on the inquiry team turn the tables.
The Banking Inquiry has the potential to boomerang on its creators. The politicians who devised this vehicle for destroying their political opponents may rue the day. Far from destroying Fianna Fail, it may hasten their rehabilitation. What an ignominious achievement that would be.
Meanwhile, the forgotten bankers of the Banking Inquiry are sidelined, laughing…?