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Cronyism is par for the course

ONE summer day in 2008, Taoiseach Brian Cowen played golf with Sean FitzPatrick, then chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, at the upmarket Druids Glen. Then they dined together.

Nothing unusual about contact of this kind between a top politician and a top banker. And nothing unusual about combining business and pleasure. It happens every day.

But not every day is an ordinary day. There were few ordinary days in that fateful year. The date of the Druids Glen meeting was July 28, 2008, and it was preceded and followed by two dates that will go down in the history of the catastrophe that would overwhelm the banking system and the economy at large.

Four months earlier, stock markets around the world had suffered immense losses in the "St Patrick's Day Massacre". In Dublin, Anglo shares fell by more than 15pc. Mr FitzPatrick was so concerned for the future of the bank that he telephoned Mr Cowen, then Finance Minister, who was on a trip to Kuala Lumpur. Mr Cowen said he would pass the message on to the governor of the Central Bank.

Two months after the golf outing, with the entire system on the brink of collapse, the Government, now with Mr Cowen as Taoiseach, introduced the momentous guarantee aimed at saving the banks.

In the midst of such unprecedented events, is it conceivable that Mr Cowen and Mr FitzPatrick could meet in any context, formal or informal, without the subject cropping up?

Yesterday, in response to assertions made in 'The FitzPatrick Tapes', by Tom Lyons and Brian Carey, the Taoiseach said curtly that "the affairs of Anglo Irish Bank were not discussed". Social Protection Minister Eamon O Cuiv declared, rather bizarrely, that Druids Glen "would have been a most wrong place to have that type of discussion".

Spokespersons for the opposition parties took a different view. Fine Gael's Alan Shatter called the Taoiseach's statement "not believable". Labour's Joan Burton said it was "beyond belief that there was no discussion".

This is plain language indeed, and surely reflective of the likely public reaction. Were not Fianna Fail support at a record low, and were we not facing a general election in a couple of months, the incident could have provoked a political crisis. Questions will be asked again -- and this time must be answered -- about Fianna Fail ministers' relationships with movers and shakers in finance and big business. The secrecy that has surrounded so much of the banking saga will come under further criticism. At a personal level, Mr Cowen risks accusations of deliberate concealment of relevant facts.

At the same time, the anger and dismay that have characterised the public reaction to the crisis will be stoked up again, not least because Mr FitzPatrick has seized the opportunity, in his conversations with the authors of this book, to whinge, give offence and try to exculpate himself.

He offers an apology, but a qualified one. He says he does not deserve his punishment. (What punishment?) He calls himself "an obvious scapegoat" and "one of the biggest victims". Has he no sense of proportion? The biggest victims are those who have lost their businesses, their jobs, their homes and who live in trepidation for their children's future.

Mr Cowen, for his part, evidently lacks all understanding of how his actions and statements -- and so much else that emanates from his Government and his party -- are viewed by the genuine sufferers.

The Druids Glen incident will reinforce the belief that his Government has engaged in concealment as part of a corrupt relationship with property developers. Of that there is no evidence, but there is abundant evidence of harmful cronyism, which goes far beyond normal social contact.

There is also overwhelming evidence of arrogance at a most extraordinary level. At its worst, it seems to amount to an outright contempt that disregards every principle of democracy. It denies the people the right to know, on which so much depends. The only way to learn for the future is to understand what happened in the past.

Meanwhile, the Greens will utter their usual empty threats. The election will take place in due course. Mr Cowen will lose office. He cannot avoid that, but there is one way he can avoid further damage to his reputation. He can make a full statement, giving the Anglo facts. All of them.

Irish Independent