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Andrew Lynch: There's only one inquiry worth having on banks, Mr Cowen. Don't fluff it

Brian Cowen is on the verge of making a serious mistake. As the Dail prepares to resume tomorrow after its month-long winter break (well, it's not as if there's a recession on or anything), the pressure is mounting on the Taoiseach to announce some sort of inquiry into the banking crisis.

The chances are that he'll do just that before the week is out -- but if he doesn't get the format right, an official investigation could actually end up making the public's cynicism even worse.

So far, the leaks coming from Government Buildings are ominous. The word is that Cowen favours a system similar to the Murphy Commission, which investigated the Catholic Church's handling of child abuse in Dublin.

Evading

This would mean that all hearings are held in private, with nothing revealed until a report is issued at the end of the proceedings.

If the Taoiseach thinks this will be enough to stave off the accusations that he's evading responsibility for his own role in bringing about our economic downfall, then frankly he's about to get a rude awakening.

Along with all the other familiar names in politics, banking and the regulation sector, he owes the Irish people a full and frank explanation of what went wrong -- and doing it behind closed doors should not be an option.

At a time when the country's economic survival is still hanging in the balance, the last thing we need right now is a secretive, long drawn-out talking shop that will eventually issue some sort of half-hearted report telling us nothing we didn't know already and with all the interesting bits blacked out.

The only inquiry worth having is a fully independent one with the power to put the awkward questions that the public want answered.

Ideally, it should also lead to criminal prosecutions -- because after everything that's happened, it beggars belief that nobody in the banking sector has yet had their white collar felt.

It's not as if we don't have any experience in this area. In fact, the political system seems to have spent much of the last decade or so setting up official inquiries to investigate the sins of the past. At the very least, we should now know which model to avoid at all costs, with the Moriarty Tribunal due to issue its findings next month after a mere 12 years of lawyer-fattening hearings in Dublin Castle.

If the tribunal method is now widely discredited, however, there seems to be no consensus about what to put in its place. The obvious alternative is an Oireachtas inquiry such as the one that investigated the garda shooting of John Carthy in Abbeylara.

However, that quickly ran into difficulties over a row about its legal powers -- and it's still far from clear whether it would have the ability to summon the obvious witnesses and compel them to hand over the relevant paperwork.

In Britain right now, the Chilcot Inquiry is investigating the British government's decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

At the end of this month, Tony Blair will be grilled live on television for several hours about the military decisions he took on the basis of those non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Humility

He may or may not be put under pressure -- but as an example of leaders being held accountable for their actions, it's one that we could learn a lot from.

Instead of running away from a public inquiry, Brian Cowen should welcome the opportunity to put his side of the story.

He might even take the opportunity to admit that he made the odd mistake during his four years as Minister for Finance -- because frankly, a bit of humility would do him a lot more good than the bland denials of responsibility that have become his speciality.

The Taoiseach is about to take his first major decision of 2010. It's one that he can't afford to fluff.


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