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Bankers Haunt Queen’s Visit

Posted on: May 22nd, 2011

Monday

A wonderful week is haunted by the ghosts of bankers past. The Queen may come and the Queen may go, but Ireland’s bankers are still calling the shots.

As I head for London on the early Cityjet flight I spot the first ghost. Former Bank of Ireland chief Richard Burrows is sitting at the front of the plane in the exclusive ‘Cityplus’ section.

I think of my 10,000 BoI shares — now worth €2,200 but once standing me at a dazzling €180,000. I wonder how much poor Richard is suffering since the glory days when he was drawing €512,000 a year from the bank while steering the small shareholders into the rocks?

Richard is far from heading for the rocks. He has landed on his feet. Straight from his disastrous reign at the bank, he is squatting in the chair of British American Tobacco, where he earns €643,000 a year. I hope he’s better at peddling nicotine than at lending to property developers.

‘Cityplus’ entitles Richard to all sorts of perks. According to the Cityjet desk, for a mere €120 you will get “better food and no one can sit beside you if it can be avoided”.

Richard can still duck contact with the rabble.

The man who cruised up to Government Buildings on that fateful 2008 September night of the bank guarantee to join AIB’s chairman Dermot Gleeson, Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan, is these days being met at City Airport by a chauffeur who ushers him into a sparkling Mercedes.

On the return journey I settle down, hoping for a banker-free zone. Suddenly I am aware of Ghost Number Two. Also jetting back to Dublin is none other than Dermot Gleeson, the former €475,000-a-year chairman of AIB, the man who ducked the egg at the AGM and presided over the destruction of Ireland’s biggest bank. Dermot and Richard were two of the quartet of bankers that landed Ireland with the bank guarantee on that dark autumn evening.

Two ghosts in one day is enough. There is a good life after banking. For some, but not for small shareholders.

Tuesday

After watching the Prime Time special on Monday night about taxis and how they can fly through the NCT test, coincidentally, my car is today being prepared for this ordeal.

It needs four new tyres, lights, the lot. Not much point in doing any of them when a brown envelope with €100 inside for the right NCT tester will do the trick. The bill for the required repairs is likely to exceed €500. So why not save €400? Taximen have done it.

Five NCT employees are swiftly suspended following the programme.

In the evening, a taxi taking me to RTE misses a turning on the M50. The bill doubles the norm. Genuine mistake, but not a clever day to rattle a customer.

The Queen’s visit gets off to a cracking start in the Aras and the Garden of Remembrance. Backstage William Hague and Eamon Gilmore are working like Trojans on the quiet agenda — future trade possibilities.

Wednesday

Bankers almost steal the limelight from the royal banquet.

Staggering news from AIB. They want to pay their next CEO above the €500,000 limit set by the Government. Are these guys serious?

You bet they are. Serious, but rich.

Enda Kenny fails to rule out a breach of the salary ceiling in the Dail. It becomes obvious during the day that the bankers will receive a sympathetic response to a plea for a breach from the mandarins. The Sir Humphreys always deliver to their old chums.

David Hodgkinson, the imported AIB chairman, has gone native. He reveals that AIB’s well- signalled change in management means minimum change in management. Promised reform of the bank at the top merely means reshuffling the deck.

Has AIB pulled yet another fast one? The old culture lives on. Six of their nine new appointments are internal! Of the other three, two are ” seconded” from PwC for a temporary little arrangement. Only one position is permanent.

Another coup for the spinners.

A reply from Finance Minister Michael Noonan to my Dail question about bank directors is even worse news. There will be a two-tier system of selecting new bank boards. The minister will have the option of appointing any of the 470 people who have responded to advertisements. Or he can simply parachute his own people into place.

Guess which route he will take? He is under no obligation to pick from the public applications.

Political appointments are alive and well. Fig leaves are the order of the day. Ministerial favourites will be able to dodge the screening process being used to filter independent candidates.

David Hodgkinson picked a good week to release this nasty little nugget and to duck the spotlight. The Queen rightly dominates the news agenda. Her speech in Dublin Castle is historic.

Thursday

Garret FitzGerald’s death stuns the Dail. Uncanny that he is departing in the week that his greatest work, his fight for pluralism and peace, is coming to fruition. He should have lived a few months longer to greet the Queen. Warm tributes (including one from me) gloss over his weakest point — his economic policy when Taoiseach — but that can wait. The Dail adjourns out of respect for a statesman.

In the afternoon many TDs head for Dublin’s Convention Centre. Down on the Liffey the royal couple are greeting the Great and the Good after seeing the pride of Irish produce and culture. A magnificent showpiece for Ireland is displayed by the Chieftains, Eimear Quinn, Riverdance etc. The high point is a welcome for the Queen from Olivia O’Leary.

Behind the scenes, the guest list has caused convulsions. All manner of noses are out of joint, not least scores of business people who failed to make the cut.

AIB’s David Hodgkinson seems to be the only banker to have broken through into the holy of holies to meet the Queen.

Richard Burrows is reported to have hit the reception, but at a lower level. In happier times. . .

TDs are divided into small groups to shake the royal hand. My “group leader” is the unlikely but charming Fianna Fail chief, Micheal Martin, who introduces me to herself.

Afterwards Fine Gael’s Sean Kelly tells me that Prince Philip took one look at him and Proinsias de Rossa and asked was it essential to sport a beard to be an MEP? Lucky he didn’t meet the bearded brother David Begg who was presented in a group of social partners. Philip is probably fortunate never to have heard of social partners.

Snipers were alerted to keep their sights on Group 11, which included Italia 90 veterans Eamon Dunphy and Jack Charlton. Happily, no hostilities were reported.

Friday

The week’s euphoria ends when RTE’s Morning Ireland presenter, Aine Lawlor, brings us down to earth with a thud. The fall of IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn could be bad news for Ireland. DSK was a dove about IMF lending to Europe. He was prepared to stand up to the ECB. Aine asks interviewee Martin Wolf of the Financial Times if DSK’s possible successor — French Finance minister Christine Lagarde — would be on our side.

The answer is far from reassuring, especially as she has been rattling the French sabre about the need for a hike in our corporate tax rate.

Give us the Queen any day. The “old enemy” suddenly seems benign beside our new European “friends”.