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Banking inquiry must be public

FINANCE Minister Brian Lenihan will bring to the Cabinet tomorrow his proposals for the shape of the inquiry into the collapse of the banking system. His colleagues have difficult and complex decisions to make. But one of them can be described very simply.

The Government agreed to hold the inquiry only under severe pressure from the Dail opposition parties, the Green ministers and the media. It put forward threadbare excuses, notably that the exercise could damage Ireland's international reputation.

In fact, the opposite is the truth. If properly devised and executed, the investigation can show our European Union partners and other powerful interests abroad that we are determined to get to the root causes of our financial and economic ills and guard against a repetition of the present crisis.

But in order to convince them -- and to convince an angry and deeply sceptical Irish public -- two conditions must be fulfilled.

The inquiry, or at any rate its key sessions, must take place in public. There may be a case for some private sessions, but no case has so far been made. Secondly, there must be a strict time limit.

Citizens dismayed by long-drawn-out tribunal proceedings admire the despatch and efficiency of American investigations. They want to see the witnesses live on television. They want to hear them questioned politely but firmly. They want to hear credible and understandable explanations.

Some argue that a public inquiry would turn into "an American-style circus". The US proceedings are not a circus, and there is no evidence that we need fear any such thing here.

The Government, meanwhile, should consider its own reputation. If it refuses to let the public see the proceedings, it will be suspected of a cover-up, or at least a damage-limitation exercise. For responsibility for the crisis does not lie only with bankers, developers and other such "usual suspects".

One of the key issues is failure of regulation -- for which the Government was responsible. Another is the fact that the downturn in the housing market began before, not after, the General Election of 2007.

Apart from some grudging mumblings about "mistakes", we have had no acknowledgment of the part politics has played in our woes. Now the Government has a chance to make some amends. Let it set up an inquiry designed to find the truth, and fitted for the task. And not flinch from the light that shines on itself.

Irish Independent