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Bank probe prepares political gallows

Posted on: July 2nd, 2013


Forget the banking enquiry. Welcome to Ireland’s kangaroo court for financial felons.

 In the box will be the bankers, once again destined to cheat the gallows. But they are not the real kangaroos. The court will be set up to hang the bankers’ former friends. The real kangaroos will be the politicians who allowed bankers to run riot.

Bankers, developers, regulators, civil servants, Fianna Fail and the Greens are all culpable for the atrocity that devastated our citizens in 2008. We already know that. What we now want to know is what happened.

The release of the Anglo tapes last week makes a banking enquiry imperative. But it must be a banking enquiry, not a political hanging.

The Government has suddenly – five years too late – developed a voracious appetite for a “banking enquiry”. The Irish Independent’s scoop of the decade has thrown them a political lifeline. They are determined to exploit it to batter Fianna Fail.

They do not give a hoot about the bankers’ fate, although the hideous revelations in the Anglo tapes have guaranteed that all bankers will suffer collateral damage.

The present plan – of an Oireachtas committee probe – will give us the worst of all worlds. The bankers could escape, courtesy of the Four Courts, while the enquiry itself disintegrates into a political pantomime.

An Oireachtas committee will be set up to hold “hearings”. It will have a Fine Gael/ Labour chair flanked by a majority of loyal government TDs. The Opposition will be outgunned by over two to one.

The enquiry will start in the autumn or in early 2014. It will take about two years. All disputes will be decided by majority vote. Coincidentally, the two-year period will lead us right up to the general election.

Its terms of reference will be set by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore. Its timeline will not extend beyond the date of the fall of the last Government. It will not enquire into any events that have happened under Fine Gael and Labour. Recent evidence that nothing has changed in banking since their arrival will be excluded. While questions hanging over the night of February 7, 2013 – that saw the liquidation of Anglo – will wrongly be out of bounds, the night of the guarantee in September 2008 will rightly be minutely scrutinised.

The first witnesses called will be faceless civil servants, unknown regulators and dull central bankers. They will be subject to polite questioning from the TDs. Initially the enquiry will prove promising, without being sensational. Government spinners will applaud the “responsible and constructive” nature of the proceedings.

When the enquiry enters its second year, the bankers will be called. Injunctions will begin to fly, as well-heeled bankers – armed with expensive lawyers – prove that TDs on the enquiry team have all made prejudicial statements about them.

Bankers will be in and out of the High Court challenging the committee’s mandate and previous statements about them from individual members. Government spokesmen will insist that they “cannot interfere with or comment on legal proceedings”. The probe will be stalled.

Ireland’s bankers will be delighted with the lack of progress. The appearances of key bankers will be parked until the legal arguments are settled.

As the second half of 2015 approaches, the real targets will be called. They will be saved for the final six months. Paraded before the cameras will be no less a person than former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, followed by former Transport Minister Noel Dempsey and FF’s last Justice Minister, Dermot Ahern.

Such unwelcome reminders of the past will be resurrected to strike fear into the hearts of the Irish people. They will be quizzed about the night of the bank guarantee and any meetings they ever had with any bankers. As Christmas 2015 looms, Bertie Ahern himself will be summoned to put the ultimate frighteners on Ireland’s voters. Coalition committee members will take lumps out of him.

In January 2016, the committee will be granted an extension, just enough time to discredit any current Fianna Fail TDs who were in the Cabinet in September 2008.

The crack Fine Gael and Labour hit squad will seize the opportunity – grandstanding in front of the cameras – to savage minor players like former Fianna Fail ministers Willie O’Dea and Eamon O Cuiv.

Having battered Fianna Fail and sidelined the bankers, the enquiry will finally call in Micheal Martin, leader of Fianna Fail. They will remind the electorate of his time sharing power with villains such as Bertie Ahern, Cowen, Dempsey and Dermot Ahern. Under privilege they will give Martin a political grilling of which Vincent Browne would be proud.

The final witness will be Enda Kenny. His appearance will be a lap of honour. The Oireachtas committee will treat him with deference. He will explain that he was not in power at the time of the guarantee. Yet he will be able to tell them that when he came into office there were no records of how Fianna Fail and the bankers ruined Ireland. In that order.

The general election will follow within a month of Kenny giving his evidence. He will return to power in triumph. The bankers will escape. Fianna Fail will be decimated.

That narrative is far from fanciful. Last week Enda Kenny set the scene for the “independent” enquiry on banking. Responding to Micheal Martin, he cunningly linked the enquiry to the Anglo Irish Bank tapes. He pulled out a stinging phrase blaming “the axis of collusion” between Anglo, Fianna Fail and bankers in general.

He was plugging into public outrage to milk immediate political advantage. He has spotted a vehicle – a parliamentary enquiry – that will carry him over the line at the next election.

The bankers are rejoicing. Such political cynicism could let them off the hook.

And let us not be fooled by suggested variations on the narrative. Perhaps the Government will dress up the enquiry by granting the chair to a High Court judge, provided he or she is flanked by a safe majority of Coalition TDs. Of course, the chair will have to be a “Fine Gael” or “Labour” judge, a safe political appointee. The key terms of reference will remain the same: no investigations into banking since this Government came into office.

The Government’s response to the toxic tapes of the Anglo cowboys has been the most cynical exercise since the financial crisis broke.

Ministers have competed with each other to find the rhetoric of condemnation. Leo Varadkar found the tapes “stomach-churning”, even “gut-wrenching”, Alan Shatter was “nauseated”, Brendan Howlin was “personally sickened”. Ministerial vomit is spilling all over Government Buildings.

Come on, ministers. We all knew what these men were like. They thought they could walk on water.

Spare us the rhetoric. We are not simpletons. We can see the devious depths of the plan. The Government is prepared to risk bankers escaping scrutiny if they can be exploited as an instrument to destroy political opponents.

We need an enquiry made up of independent ordinary citizens, experts, outsiders, advised by lawyers and accountants if necessary. No TDs should apply.

Otherwise the bankers are likely to escape, rescued by the Four Courts or by the enquiry sinking into a political charade, constructed specifically to win a general election.

The Anglo leaks provided a new urgency for a banking enquiry. News that it would be stuffed with Fine Gael and Labour TDs is a godsend to bankers and mannah from heaven for ministers.

So, who was the source of the leaks?

Always ask: Cui bono? (Who benefits?)

Irish Independent