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Andrew Lynch: Banking inquiry is doomed to failure before it even starts

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Brian Cowen.

Brian Cowen.

Brian Cowen.

Are we finally about to get an answer to the €64billion question?

Tomorrow the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry will hold its first public hearings to examine how our financial institutions collapsed and why taxpayers were left to pick up the tab.

Unfortunately, the omens are already terrible - because this looks suspiciously like a farcical show trial that will leave us no wiser than we were before.

In the words of former Labour senator James Heffernan to Enda Kenny earlier this year: "You've made a complete and utter balls of it."

The Inquiry is fatally hobbled by crazy legal restrictions, a desperate lack of focus and a totally unrealistic timetable.

Above all, it has been exposed as a nakedly political exercise that Fine Gael and Labour will use to score some cheap points off Fianna Fail.

In theory, a parliamentary banking inquiry sounds like a great idea. Three reports have already been written by financial experts, but their investigations were all carried out behind closed doors.

Most people will welcome a chance to see the whites of Brian Cowen's eyes as he and other key players behind the State bank guarantee are forced to answer questions in public.

confidentiality

Sadly, there is one basic problem. Even if Biffo (below) was keen to provide a blow-by-blow description of how the guarantee was made, he would be prevented by the constitutional restraint known as 'cabinet confidentiality'.

This applies to ministers and civil servants too, which means the crucial half-hour in Government Buildings on September 30, 2008 that cost us so dearly is likely to remain a mystery.

Cabinet confidentiality is by no means the only legal barrier that will likely turn our Oireachtas watchdogs into toothless mutts.

The Inquiry's internal documents make it clear that witnesses cannot be asked "leading questions" and must be given full notice of all the topics.

There are also some ongoing legal cases which will limit the scope of the Inquiry.

Another major headache for the Inquiry is that many of its key witnesses are simply not going to be there. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, for one.

Jean-Claude Trichet, the former ECB president whose threatening letters to Lenihan were recently revealed, has made it clear that he cannot be bothered to explain why he effectively held a gun to Ireland's head.

In other words, this will not be like an episode of Perry Mason in which dramatic revelations are made and the guilty party breaks down in tears.

Instead, Government TDs will make lots of self-righteous speeches before the disgraced ex-Taoisigh and bankers swan off to enjoy their pensions.

The only person who should really be afraid is Micheal Martin, since the hearings could be a powerful reminder of just how badly he and his Fianna Fail colleagues screwed up when they were last in power.

For Enda Kenny, this is really the whole point. The Taoiseach made his intentions pretty clear last June when senators failed to give him a government majority on the Inquiry team.

He simply added two people from Fine Gael and Labour, prompting Stephen Donnelly to resign in protest - even though the Wicklow independent's financial background made him ideally suited for the job.

laughter

Kenny has insisted that the Inquiry will be "free of any direction from government", a claim that prompted hysterical laughter from opposition TDs in the Dail. A Taoiseach who really had no interest in playing politics, of course, would have started the process immediately after his election in 2011.

If the trail goes any colder, the Oireachtas might as well try to find out who kidnapped Shergar or shot Michael Collins instead.

The Banking Inquiry's budget of €5million may not seem like much, but at a time when homeless people are dying on Leinster House's doorstep it is an awful lot to pay for yet another report that virtually nobody will read.

There is a chance we might not even get that, since the whole exercise will be null and void if a general election is called before its deadline of next November.

The Oireachtas Banking Inquiry looks set to be nothing more than a pantomime.

What a pity we can't boo it off the stage.


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