WHAT a wonderful week for rogues. Anglo Irish, a rogue bank, was rewarded with a gift of €715m from Ireland’s taxpayers.
Greece, a rogue nation, was leading European nations on a merry dance. Silvio Berlusconi, the rogue from Rome, was still standing despite the mayhem he was causing in Cannes.
Law-abiding nations, compliant taxpayers and opposition politicians stood and stared. The rogues were setting the agenda. And winning. Good guys were on the back foot. Back in the Dail, the world was turning topsy turvy. Bad apples morphed into fresh fruit overnight. The establishment was being discredited. A handful of cowboys were coming good. Even my own prejudices were being challenged. A recent grudge was revised.
There is nothing like an oldfashioned grudge to keep a grumpy politician energised. Ever since I was trounced for the chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) by Fianna Fail’s John McGuinness, I have borne a megachip on my shoulder, secretly hoping that he would be hit by a hurricane or battered by a passing bus. Better still, maybe John’s super-toxic Fianna Fail would be declared an illegal organisation. John would go on the run. There would be a vacancy.
Enda would make the call, say sorry for his earlier mistake installing John, beg me to swallow my pride and take the prize. I would tell the Taoiseach to stuff the chair. Such are the fantasies of an embittered TD. The fantasies were put to flight last week when I kept rubbing shoulders with members of the non-toxic wing of Fianna Fail. It was all becoming a bit bewildering. A few weeks ago, the talented Michael McGrath upset my anti-Fianna Fail bias when he produced an enlightened Bill on mortgage arrears. Last Thursday, I found myself alongside two other members of the party’s untainted ranks.
Beside me at the PAC sat the distinctly non-toxic Sean Fleming. Opposite was my conqueror, the dynamic John McGuinness. I sat down and indulged myself in a little sulk, as John set the pace. McGuinness had confronted the sleepy committee culture in Leinster House by calling an immediate meeting of the PAC after a €3.6bn error in the nation’s accounts had been revealed.
Somewhere in the labyrinthine channels linking the dungeons of the Department of Finance, the NTMA and the CSO, the €3.6bn mistake had surfaced. The chairman wanted instant answers from the civil service, not the usual two-week plod towards an inconclusive enquiry. John managed to deliver the top brass of the trio for questioning. Eyebrows were raised at the absence from the witnesses list of NTMA boss John Corrigan. The non-toxic Sean Fleming expressed his displeasure at Corrigan’s absence. So did Kieran O’Donnell, Fine Gael’s ace accountant.
The NTMA pleaded that John had not been specifically requested to attend. The atmosphere bristled. McGuinness set the tone with a robust signal that the PAC should pull no punches. The star witness was undoubtedly Kevin Cardiff, the departing head of the Department of Finance. Kevin is hoping to retire to the less controversial pastures of the European Court of Auditors in February.
In the absence of Corrigan, Oliver Whelan batted for the NTMA, Two motionless corpses from the CSO sat silent, almost bystanders as first John, his party colleague Sean Fleming, then Fine Gael’s O’Donnell, Simon Harris and Eoghan Murphy, Labour’s Ann Ferris and the rest of us got stuck into Kevin and Oliver. Kevin told a tale of woe: the NTMA had emailed his underlings with the bad news as far back as August 2010. This distant date was dangerous territory for McGuinness as Fianna Fail had been in power when the €3.6bn was first spotted. His attachment to Fianna Fail and their cavalier attitude to public accounts had been the only argument against his chairmanship. But John let the questions flow. He was giving no cover to his political bosses.
Cardiff reported that the “double count” of the €3.6bn was first signalled by the NTMA to Finance at a “technical” level — mandarin-speak for middle management. He related how “the significance of the matter was not appreciated” back then, nor on the next occasion when “documentation” had been sent from the NTMA. The matter arose at least three more times, ending in the grenade exploding last week. Staff in both departments were aware of the cock-up.
Yet it took 15 months for a €3.6bn error to reach the desk of either NTMA boss John Corrigan or Ireland’s leading mandarin, Kevin Cardiff. The Minister for Finance was never within spitting distance of the exocet. Two of the most powerful institutions in the State were exposed by McGuinness’ committee. Kevin Cardiff was not alone in the firing line. If the NTMA had rumbled the mistake at middle management level, were they happy at the failure of the Department of Finance to address the horror on so many occasions? Why did they not beat down the door at Merrion Street demanding action or at least a response?
It was bad enough that Cardiff was kept in the dark, but why was Corrigan not informed? The top guys were kept out of the loop. How big a mistake in the general government debt is needed for them to be disturbed over their breakfasts? Under intense questioning Whelan insisted that telephone conversations back in March had left the NTMA with “impressions” that the little matter of the €3.6bn error had been dealt with by Finance. Nobody seemed to have checked. In NTMA land, telephonic “impressions” of the fate of a mere €3.6bn merit no follow through.
The behaviour of both institutions confirms the worst suspicions about the mandarins in Finance and the plutocrats in the overrated NTMA. They are a permanent government running insular empires. Politicians are a transient irritant. The less they are told, the better. After I had asked Kevin to delay his departure for the delights of Luxembourg with his “saddle-bags full” until the matter was resolved, he turned to McGuinness and took a swipe at the committee.
He disliked the direction of the questioning. He had served the committee and the State well. McGuinness listened. Then he pounced. The Department of Finance, he retaliated, had been given 22 recommendations by the PAC. Not one had been implemented. It was the signal for Mary Lou MacDonald to stick her stiletto into Kevin’s defences. She had no confidence in Cardiff. She wanted him to step down.
For once politicians of all parties were united against the powerhouses of the NTMA and the mighty mandarins squatting in the Finance fortress. McGuinness, a bright light from the Fianna Fail stable, had enforced accountability on pillars of rectitude. No one mentioned that Thursday was only a day after Anglo had scandalously handed over €715m to the bondholders. What was the role of Finance and the NTMA in this establishment debacle? Cardiff will shortly leave a destitute nation behind him.
The man whose department failed to act on warnings of a €3.6bn mistake will be auditing a quagmire of complex European economies with a potential for even bigger errors. The Greeks, with their weak record on accurate numbers, will not be shaking with fear as he approaches. And Berlusconi will celebrate his arrival with a few more bunga bunga parties.