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Shane Ross: Sock it to the mandarins

Brian Lenihan could do the nation a great favour before he leaves office in three weeks' time. Whatever about the woeful state of the banks' balance sheets, he still has time to clean out the Augean stable and leave behind a noble legacy.

Lenihan is not the worst offender in the political crony stakes. His colleagues in Cabinet have left observers staggering at the brazen nature of their nakedly partisan appointments to quangos as they flee the stage.

There are two vacancies to be filled on the Bank of Ireland board and half a dozen between Anglo and AIB. Lenihan could fill them all.

If recent patronage is any guide, they will be stuffed with Fianna Fail loyalists. In response to criticism, the standard answer always emerges from Merrion Street that " the pool" of potential directors is small. Or even more weakly, that "membership of a political party should not debar anyone from being a director of a State board. That would be discrimination".

Maybe, but being a crony is often the only qualification for elevation to a quango. Sometimes I wonder if ministers simply survey the list of their political donors, the names of party campaign managers, their golfing chums and dish out the directorships.

Perhaps we should first test the contention that the pool of potential directors is small.

Has Brian Lenihan ever heard of Eugene McErlean?

McErlean is not a member of Fianna Fail. So he starts at a disadvantage. But McErlean was a banker. A good banker. A whistleblower to boot. He knows precisely where the AIB bodies are buried.

No need to put McErlean on the board of AIB -- just in case old sores might be re-opened -- but he knows how banks operate. As the former internal auditor of Allied Irish Banks, few people in Ireland have more banking experience or a cleaner record than Eugene.

There is a precedent. Tony Spollen, an earlier AIB whistleblower, was appointed to the board of the EBS by a Fianna Fail administration, but Tony has a rare double advantage. Apart from being qualified for the job, he is also part of the Fianna Fail Leinster House set and a Conor Lenihan groupie.

So Brian should tell the mandarins in the Department of Finance to stuff it; insisting that he is going to appoint a banker who knows something about banking, an honourable man who is not a Fianna Fail supporter and has never been a member of the golden circle.

Indeed, Eugene was a victim of the cabal that has ruled Ireland for decades.

The mandarins would go ape. Which is a very good reason for his appointment.

Once he has appointed Eugene as chairman of Bank of Ireland, Brian should swallow hard.

Time for courage. Time to bury old enmities.

Who better to chair Allied Irish Banks than David McWilliams?

Sadly, David turned away from the political road last week; but the nation should turn his decision to our advantage. David, too, is a banker. Once upon a time he worked for the Central Bank. He added to his experience by working for UBS bank and BNP. More recently, he became a prophet.

I do not know if David was a good central banker, but he is not a bad prophet. He made some pretty unpopular predictions about a housing bubble in 2007 at the height of the boom. He even forecast the collapse of the banks. No one was grateful then, but Lenihan could show his gratitude today.

McWilliams was spot on. While the big bankers' house- trained economists were ushering in decades of prosperity, David was wagging the finger. His analysis was right.

Lenihan even courted David, seeking his advice, with a result that left a sour taste lingering in the mouths of both men.

David has all the banking experience necessary, so he is unlikely to be appointed. He is no friend of Fianna Fail.

Nor is Emily O'Reilly. Indeed, O'Reilly has rubbed the Government up the wrong way in recent times. Just like any good Ombudsman should.

O'Reilly champions the interests of the consumer, she values the Freedom of Information Act and wants to see it extended, she has embarrassed the Government with several of her decisions. O'Reilly was appointed by Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy and has been spitting in the eye of the establishment ever since.

Exactly the type of director the banks need.

What chance has O'Reilly? Pretty well zero, because the mandarins would freak at this thorn in the side of the establishment. But surely if she is good enough to be Ombudsman, she is good enough for the board of a bank?

Hell will freeze over first.

Well, if not O'Reilly, how about Josephine Feehily, the head of the Revenue Commissioners? There is an unanswerable case for putting a taxman or taxwoman on the board of a major bank in view of the shenanigans practised by them, ducking and diving the tax authorities over the years.

Gentle Josephine, a Revenue Commissioner since 1998, would have rumbled a few bank scams in her day. The current bank regimes would loathe to see her on board, the best possible reason for her instant appointment.

Too many from the public sector? There is room for balance. Perhaps we could entice some masochist from the multinationals to help modernise the banks.

Let us send a few dynamos like John Herlihy from Google or Martin Murphy from Hewlett-Packard into the fray. Even Michael Cawley from Ryanair should be considered, assuming that his boss Michael O'Leary would laugh such an offer to scorn. Somehow Herlihy might be the most willing to endure purgatory -- he surprisingly accepted a job on the board of Greencore a few months ago.

Eddie O'Connor, the former Bord na Mona chief turned head of the super-successful Airtricity, would need his arm twisted, but could help to convert the contaminated culture.

The question is: how big is Brian? Is he big enough to bury past differences and leave office with the banks in good hands?

Perversely, if he marked his departure with appointments like those above, he would be doing the State a service. He could even be protecting us from the return of all the old trade union bosses so beloved of the quangos.

Make no mistake, if Fine Gael and Labour grab power there will be no stopping them from shoving their own cronies into positions of power. There will be blueshirts galore on the semi-state agencies. There will be beards in every boardroom. Imagine the return of David Begg to join his comrade Des Geraghty as a director of the Central Bank. Social partner Jack O'Connor could take the chair at EBS. Brother Billy Attley could bring his vast quango experience to bear on the board of the Irish Nationwide.

That is the alternative prospect. The social partners -- the poor souls whose snouts have so recently been removed from the quango trough -- will be "ever ready to accept" the baubles offered by the now nationalised banks.

Brian Lenihan had a bad week; but he has the chance to leave a lasting legacy.

This could be a first in the history of Irish banking: the Minister for Finance could stuff the banks' boards with people who are qualified for their jobs.

Sock it to the mandarins, Brian.

Sunday Indo Business