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Hand Back the Handshake

Posted on: August 22nd, 2010

Today I celebrate 25 years off the demon drink by listening to Miriam Meets on RTE radio. My wonderful 90-year-old mother took the programme by storm, telling Miriam O’Callaghan her version of our life story and pedigree. She was the star of a show which matches relations and friends in a threesome with Miriam.

With glorious insensitivity to my lifetime’s crusade against bankers, she revealed that banker’s blood runs through my veins. Her father worked for Lloyds Bank in the 1930s.

Happily, she kept a few secrets to herself. Being outed as a banker’s grandson is bad enough (in reality he was a magic grandfather) but the wily old bird — still by far the cleverest member of my family — taught me a lesson that the selective release of information is a skill that blossoms with age. Perhaps her top- secret code-breaking activities in the war years provided the discipline necessary for such discretion.

Modesty must have forced her not to plug the book she wrote about her Enniskerry garden — a monument to her later life’s work. So happily, no more family skeletons tumbled out of the cupboard.

Well, not until the autobiography.

Monday

Talking of books, today deputy business editor Nick Webb and I completed our book — an expose called Wasters — about the wanton waste, corruption and chronic cronyism in Irish public life.

Thanks to Penguin, we relate the secrets behind breaking the FAS scandal, about the deep throats who told us tales of corruption at the CIE-owned Iarnrod Eireann, about the tentacles of the Bertie Ahern school of political patronage and about the billions that have been wasted by junketeers, politicians, top trade unionists and other insiders. It is shocking stuff.

Monday afternoon is spent locking horns with our lawyers. As we have named names everywhere in the book, the lawyers are paranoid, demanding evidence to back the allegations line by line. Last year, the guys in the Four Courts took my book The Bankers to task, threatening to shred it to bits. This year, they are freaking. If writs do not fly when Wasters is published in six weeks’ time, we will be gobsmacked. Skin and hair will fly, anyway.

Tuesday

Billed as D-Day for Ireland in the bond markets. Fears that Ireland would be unable to raise €1.5bn are wide of the mark. Global investors oversubscribe more than three times for Irish debt. A sigh of relief can be heard among the mandarins.

While there is overwhelming market confidence in Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, there are backstage jitters about his backbenchers and his December Budget.

Critics are continually suggesting that the rising cost of the Anglo Irish-Nationwide bailout will force Lenihan to save more than the €3bn originally targeted; TDs sitting behind him in the Dail may not share his appetite for cuts in social welfare, health and education. The doomsday merchants forecast a budget defeat not from the Greens, but from flaky Fianna Fail backbenchers. If the Budget goes belly-up, so may the nation. Nowhere is there an iota of evidence that the markets would welcome a new coalition.

Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan shows his independence from all the political posturing by adding half-a-billion to the estimated bailout for Irish Nationwide on the very day that the mandarins of Merrion Street are seeking to raise global confidence. They must have been spitting blood in the direction of Beijing, the safe location chosen by the governor for the delivery of his unwelcome message. Good for the governor.

Wednesday

A sad occasion: the funeral of one of Ireland’s most understated businessmen.

Franz Winkelmann was treasurer of Trinity College Dublin, a sailor, music-lover and investment genius. Franz was on the board of Irish Glass Bottle, Merchants Warehousing (prior to Larry Goodman’s takeover) and several investment companies.

The skill of a funeral eulogy is to turn a sad occasion into a happy celebration. Franz’s son Adam combined humour with a summary of his father’s business career and his passion for jazz. To laughter from the congregation, he revealed that among Franz’s achievements was being a director of none other than Anglo Irish Bank, hastening to add that it was “a long time ago, for a very short time”. It is hard to remember now that in the days of Franz and chief executive Gerry Murphy, Anglo was a haven of probity.

********

Lunch in Leinster House with author Charles Lysaght, who wrote an intriguing article about his own brush with mortality in these pages six weeks ago. Happily, Charles is still with us in Ireland. Author of a brilliant biography of Brendan Bracken, Charles was president of the Cambridge Union back in 1964.

But he was not any old president. One of the scalps he managed to capture when running for the post was none other than that of the current Liberal Democrat Business Secretary in the UK cabinet.

According to the records of the Cambridge Union, Lysaght defeated a man named Vincent Cable by more than two to one. Today, the Business Secretary enjoys greater electoral comfort with a 12,000 majority in the constituency of Twickenham. Lysaght succeeded former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont in the job at the union and remembers another chancellor Kenneth Clarke (current UK Justice Secretary) as a “serious, driven” president. Joviality only became part of Clarke’s public persona much later on.

Thursday

Former Irish Nationwide boss Michael Fingleton has been “scooped” arriving in Dublin Airport by RTE’s business editor David Murphy. Today, Fingleton is lucky. He is wiped off the news bulletins by Bank of Scotland ‘s decision to abandon Ireland.

The bank’s press statement is a diabolical piece of spinning. The spinners invent a new adjective. Apparently there is no “scalable” growth in Ireland. It goes on, equally unconvincingly, to suggest that there will only be 36 job losses.

The bank massages the fate of the 800 remaining employees — marooned after it heads for the Highlands — with the message that they will be employed by a management services company set up to wind down the operation.

The bank boss, Joe Higgins, assures me on Newstalk’s mid- day programme with Damien Kiberd that there will be no compulsory redundancies for two and a half years: “spinner speak” for a 30-month stay of execution for the condemned 800. Those winding down the business will be digging their own graves.

The Bank of Scotland made its own contribution to the carnage. After initially posing as a consumer-friendly bank, it went native in 2006 and plunged headlong behind Anglo and the herd into the property abyss.

Worse still, Mark Duffy — the man who presided over most of the slaughter — walked away with a golden handshake. Already, €4.6bn of loans have been written off. Duffy, like Fingleton, should be asked to give his parting package back.

And where was the €150,000-a-year Bank of Scotland (Ireland) chairman Maurice Pratt last Thursday? Pratt was not so media-shy in his early days at C&C and IBEC.

Everything our hero touches turns to dust.

Depositors will be sent packing, left to the tender mercies of Bank of Ireland and AIB. Welcome to the return of the old duopoly.