GO on. Genuflect. The boys and girls from the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) are coming to tea.
Go on. Bow and scrape.
These guys are rocket scientists. They are the immortals of the Irish financial world. They have doctorates in derivatives, medals in management and degrees in debt. They salivate at the difference between GGD, GNP and GDP. Bores to beat the band, they float high above the radar, almost immune from financial flak.
You don’t mess with the immortals. Their dazzling expertise has captivated every finance minister, from Albert Reynolds to Michael Noonan.
Last week, even the Taoiseach was eating out of their hands. Poor Enda was dishing out the usual plaudits.
Replying to Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin in the Dail, Enda described personnel from the NTMA, now staffing the ineptly named quango NewEra, as “all exceptionally well qualified”.
Did he mean well paid?
Enda’s NewEra is in charge of selling state assets.
NewEra is part of the NTMA, which Enda asserts without evidence “has done a very good job”.
He went on to describe the recently appointed director of NewEra, “Dr” Eileen Fitzpatrick, as “very eminently qualified”, insisting that she “will do an excellent job”.
Unless he read last week’s column here he probably doesn’t know that her doctorate is in chemistry and that her skills — if any — are in investment management, mostly learned in the hallowed halls of AIB. Not to worry.
Eileen was quietly plucked out of the top ranks of the NTMA to fill a mega-vacancy in none other than the same NTMA. And Enda, like all his predecessors, just swears by the NTMA.
Eileen of the NTMA will be in charge of the NewEra unit, specialising in the sale of state assets. Enda did not offer an iota of evidence that she has a moment’s experience in this field.
Not to worry. She comes from the NTMA stable. No interviews. No competition. No advertisement. Lots of largesse. Huge salary. Bonuses in prospect.
An insider won the Lotto.
Sounds just like something the banks would do.
Of course, if such a secret recruitment process begs plenty of questions about the candidate, it begs even more about the agency that picked her — the outfit that controls Ireland’s assets.
Is the NTMA, long worshiped by ministers in awe of its specialist knowledge, really an empire-building superquango?
Time to find out. Last Thursday, the gents from the NTMA came to tea with the Dail’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC). Led by arch-insider John Corrigan, eight clean-shaven, grey-haired male plutocrats of a similar vintage took their seats and eyeballed us. John alone sported a beard.
The nine immortals sitting opposite us probably bagged total benefits of more than €3m in 2010’s tough times. Despite the NTMA’s culture of secrecy, we know — thanks to a question from TD Michael McGrath — that 14 of the top brass received more than €250,000 in that year of national sacrifice. The average salary of its 306 staff amounted to a staggering €98,000. And 84 per cent of them received added bonuses. The average bonus came to €7,681. Not a bad place to work.
The visitors to the PAC resembled the old Soviets squatting on the Kremlin wall. For some reason, the nine suits were not accompanied by their only female star, the “exceptionally well qualified” Dr Fitzpatrick, the director who was previously head of alternative asset investments.
So we had to proceed without the good doctor, despite her key role in the NTMA. Not to worry, John’s attendance opened the way to ask how he appointed her as boss of NewEra without interview, advertisement or job spec.
I asked him a few questions.
John was shirty. He is not used to being challenged. Ministers fawn in his presence, staff probably genuflect, while the media is dazzled by John’s jargon. Nevertheless, political jaws drop when his salary is discussed.
John started off calmly enough. No, there was not an interview for Eileen’s job; he called it “an internal transfer”. Jobs for the girl.
No, he would not reveal her salary. “It is not our practice.”
Suddenly he snapped.
After I prodded him about Eileen’s skills in the sale of semi-state assets, he went off message: “The manner in which you have criticised the person personally, both in the Dail yesterday and in your Sunday newspaper column, have been a source of great disquiet to me.”
Wow. I swear the boss’s beard bristled more violently than Siptu chief Jack O’Connor’s does in a gale force wind.
His outburst even prompted one of Fianna Fail’s most eloquent survivors, Sean Fleming, to tick him off. Fleming told him that TDs were designated to elicit answers from him and other public servants.
A few more questions hit the same stone wall. In answer to my question about Eileen’s skills in the state-assets field, he eventually asserted that she was “a person of the highest calibre”. I am sure she is.
John and Enda had delivered an identical — meaningless — message.
He added that she had been deeply involved in the National Pensions Reserve Fund Commission.
He even pleaded that he had consulted with the chairman of the NTMA’s advisory committee about her appointment. The chair had cleared it.
And who was that? None other than David Byrne, the protegee of Bertie Ahern, the man who somehow landed the gig as the €50,000-a-year chairman when Bertie was Taoiseach.
No doubt there was no open competition for that job either.
Perhaps David consulted with fellow advisory committee member, the €25,000-a-year Hugh Cooney, who was a contributor to another Taoiseach, Brian Cowen’s, political coffers.
David’s talents were recognised elsewhere by Bertie, not only as Attorney-General but also as European Commissioner. Hugh’s were rewarded by Brian Cowen when his Tanaiste Mary Coughlan made him chairman of another quango, Enterprise Ireland.
The NTMA and the party in government are often joined at the hip. When David and Hugh’s terms end next year, Fine Gael and Labour will be able to install a more sympathetic duo.
The NTMA rarely comes under political scrutiny. I doubt if any politician could tell me that the Pension Reserve Fund only beat inflation by a pitiful 0.6 per cent per annum over the last decade.
I doubt if the Taoiseach knows that they benchmark themselves against a pushover, Ireland’s managed pension funds. I doubt if he knows that the same funds are among the worst performers on the planet.
I doubt if he knew about Eileen’s indifferent record in the pension funds that she managed at AIB.
Ten days ago, when I privately asked two ministers about Eileen’s appointment, neither had ever heard of her.
Why should they? The NTMA is a sanctuary for Ireland’s financial immortals.
John Corrigan himself is paid a package that would make a banker blush. He earns €490,000 a year. He waived his bonus last year but in future he will be eligible for 80 per cent extra. He receives €28,000 a year in perks. He will retire on a generous pension.
Who would bother to be a banker with equally juicy jobs quietly on offer in the secretive arm of the state sector?
Who would be a pension-fund manager when you can hide in the NTMA, enriched by the people and protected by the Government?