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Unity urgent on nightmare banks

When Alan Dukes speaks about the banking crisis, there is every reason to listen. Not only is he a distinguished economist; he is a former minister for finance and, most importantly, he is chairman of Anglo Irish Bank. He has seen that particular can of worms from the inside.

He said yesterday that there are more worms than in our worst nightmares. There could be a further €20bn to €40bn losses in the banking system, beyond those already covered, while €75bn in loans will be needed to fund a second NAMA for smaller loans.

This stark warning came on a day of remarkable developments in this horrendously complicated, but vital, debate. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan confirmed what appeared to be a throwaway remark on RTE's Frontline, saying that he had proposed negotiations on a reduced payment for the €20bn in unguaranteed bank bonds -- a "haircut" -- but that this had been rejected by the European Central Bank.

Goodbody Stockbrokers in a report said Ireland would not be able to repay all of the bank bonds in full. There would have to be a haircut, with lenders sharing some of the costs with the taxpayer.

In a separate report, NCB Stockbrokers gave the same warning as Mr Dukes, albeit a somewhat less dramatic one. They believe that Ireland will need more EU "bailout" funds beyond 2013. Its debt position makes it unlikely that the country can borrow all it needs on the financial markets, even after it has closed the deficit.

And the High Court approved the immediate sale of deposits at Anglo and Irish Nationwide. This poses no threat to the depositors, whose savings will simply be transferred to other institutions, although there will probably be complaints, but the rapid winding down of the banks will trigger losses which must be met now.

It may be recalled that Mr Dukes was a staunch advocate of keeping Anglo going as a reinvented bank. One explanation for his gloomy prognosis is that he is making the unpopular argument that closing banks quickly may cost more than working things off slowly.

With all this going on, one has sympathy with the chief executive of Bernardo's, Fergus Finlay, when he wishes the electioneering politicians would get away from the banks and concentrate on the poor and the many now at risk of poverty. At the same time, the size of the final bill for the banking crash will have more effect on poverty levels than anything else that a new government can do.

In that sense, the politicians are right to give it a lot of attention. The way they have done so, however, has added to the confusion and despair of the public. It has certainly done nothing to arrest the collapse of confidence which has seen deposits flood out of the Irish banks.

The absence of Enda Kenny from last night's TV debate does not help. Not only was it a Hamlet without the prince, it left unanswered the nagging question of whether this particular prince who would be king, is able to get on top of issues as complex as the banking crisis. We might have learnt something more about Mr Kenny had he taken part, but it is unlikely we would have been any wiser about the resolution of the banking collapse. That is a black mark against the whole political establishment.

If ever there was a case for all-party consensus in this small, closely integrated country, this is it. Whether the final figure is the official €45bn forecast, or Mr Dukes' gloomier estimate, all our futures are at stake. Yet not only do we not know what is going on, because of the disgraceful veil of secrecy surrounding the bank rescues, we do not know, among all the posturing and bickering, what the next government is actually going to do about it.

With three weeks to go, it is not too late for the major parties to "park" this issue by agreeing Ireland's national strategy on the banking costs. It will be the Irish negotiating position in Europe, because this has to be settled in Europe, but will be all the better for being a united stand, and should set a firm limit on how much the Irish citizen will be asked to pay under any circumstances.

Then, perhaps, we can indeed devote the rest of this election to those things where open disagreement is valuable, rather than damaging and dispiriting.

Irish Independent