Last Wednesday morning I rose at an unearthly hour. The Bank of Ireland, with diabolical cunning, had decided to hold its AGM early in the morning. It was a 9.30am start for small shareholders in Dublin’s Burlington Hotel. The rush-hour traffic around the Burlington at that time of day would deter all but the most determined – or disillusioned – from attending. The price of overnight accommodation in Dublin would ensure that few from outside the capital could afford an overnight stop there.
The days of staying in the Burlington – or even less luxurious lodgings – are over for Bank of Ireland shareholders. Dividends are a distant memory.
I picked up dozens of proxies, left for me by small shareholders, who were unable to attend because of the expense or the awkward time of day. Numbers were well down.
Round One to the board.
Seated in the middle of the Burlington’s crowded Pembroke Room I looked at the backs of the heads of the shareholders in front of me. There was a sea of grey hair – or no hair. An uncanny number of the ears of shareholders were attached to hearing aids. Their clothes were drab. Bodies were slumped in the chairs. There was no shortage of senior citizens on crutches.
This was the most depressing gathering of beaten dockets I had ever attended. The average age must have been close to 70. Ireland’s ageing poor had come out to play.
Many of them pensioners, they had similar stories. Their life savings had been lost in the Bank of Ireland. They had depended on the board and management for dividends. Now they had nothing.
A few yards away, facing them, 14 plutocrats looked down on the battered rabble from their grand platform. Not one of them was less than a millionaire.
The personal wealth of the entire board runs into hundreds of millions. As each shareholder related their personal circumstances, the new Governor, Archie Kane, oozed unconvincing sympathy.
Kane, the man exuding such unctious mutterings, has snatched a package of €492,000 to represent the impoverished shareholders.
On Wednesday, the Government refused to stand in his way and voted for his re-election. It even voted for the re-election of the €843,000-a-year chief executive, Richie Boucher.
Michael Noonan, a humane and decent man, has made a dreadful mistake. Last Wednesday, he conclusively put the Government in the bankers’ corner. In the coming weeks, there will be some modest tinkering with the two men’s pay, but he has voted with the people’s shareholding to restore both bankers to positions that neither should hold.
On Wednesday, Noonan was a no-show at the AGM. No representative of the Department of Finance was in evidence at the slaughter of the small shareholders.
Despite the minister’s 15 per cent shareholding, held in trust for the nation, no one stood up to explain his voting decision. He voted by proxy, quietly, far away from the masses at the meeting, behind closed doors.
That is how things work in the cosy relationship between the minister, his mandarins and the banks.
Governor Archie Kane, a canny Scot, cleverly addressed his first AGM with soporific facts that would anaesthetise a caffeine addict.
He read a script full of “subordinated debt, asset-covered securities and Basel 3 regulations”. The assembled small shareholders hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.
Round 2 to the board.
Most of the initial questions from the floor were helpful to Kane and his crew. Shareholders queried obscure aspects of the accounts. One poor soul, confessing to being a member of Fianna Fail, praised the directors, particularly the performance of former Fianna Fail minister for Agriculture , Joe Walsh.
Round 3 to the board.
It was going Archie’s way. Until Archie fielded the inevitable question about Richie’s and his own remuneration. In a suicidal effort to dodge the big bullet, they sent Joe out to bat, armed with a well-rehearsed response.
Suddenly, we were launched into Planet Plutocrat. Joe was the pilot. God help us.
Joe Walsh, the €90,000-a-year part-time director, was selected by the other directors to justify the pay of Archie, the 10 grand-a-week part-timer, and Boucher, the 16 grand-a-week full-timer.
The board’s ignorance of local niceties was breathtaking. Not surprisingly, as eight out of 10 non-executive directors are based abroad.
Perhaps the new Scottish Governor has not followed Irish politics.
Perhaps he is not aware that Joe’s Fianna Fail pedigree is hardly the best sales platform for asserting financial rectitude, corporate governance and probity?
Joe of Fianna Fail gave the entire board a clean sheet. Ah well, went the board’s thinking, if the two boys’ pay is okay by Joe, it must be kosher.
Who better than a Fianna Fail minister, a cabinet member under Bertie Ahern and a junior minister under Charlie Haughey to give a character reference for Archie and Richie?
What could be more convincing than a Fianna Fail loyalist signalling the all-clear to the “rigorous” process that selected Archie?
Charlie and Bertie would be proud of Joe, their protege, ending up as boss of the pay awards at the Bank of Ireland. Didn’t Bertie make ex-TD Liam Lawlor of tribunal fame a member of the Oireachtas ethics committee?
From that moment, it was all downhill for the directors. Joe Walsh, nominated to the board by a Fianna Fail finance minister, was living proof that nothing has changed since the 2008 banking crisis.
Will the former regulator Patrick Neary now reappear on the board of AIB to give his blessing to the new corporate governance regime?
The questioning became more penetrating. Nearly all the shareholders (except those with disabilities) stood up to ask their questions. The directors remained seated.
Archie Kane failed to rise to his feet in response to questions. The arrogance began to show.
After three hours, Kane announced that there would be three more questions. He then closed the meeting with dozens of shareholders still waiting to query the board about the loss of their life savings.
He despatched them off for sausages and chips.
No meaningful questions were answered. Kane ducked all enquiries about his bizarre past. He refused to respond to queries about how he had pulled off a juicy €59,000 ‘consultancy’ deal to add to his monstrous €394,000 package for a part-time job.
He did not reply to my own probing about the circumstances of his departure from Lloyds TSB.
He ignored the key question about the sensational stripping of his performance bonus from Lloyds following the mis-selling of Personal Protection Insurance (PPI) when he was insurance director.
He merely told me that some of my facts were wrong, but then failed to identify the errors.
The Bank of Ireland is in bad hands. In the driving seat is Richie Boucher, the €843,000 full-timer who approved of the mad property frenzy.
In the chair is Governor Kane, the €492,000 part-timer who was surplus to requirements at Lloyds, but has somehow landed on his feet in Dublin, baggage and all.
In the background is the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan.
When the chips were down for Archie and Richie, Michael was not found wanting.