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Nyberg Led Inside Bank Job

Posted on: April 24th, 2011

First, find a Finn. Then fly him into Dublin. Give him a whole pile of money, a cheque book and ask him to write a report about where the Irish banks went wrong.

It all started at the Department of Finance. Peter Nyberg was on a shortlist of candidates prepared by the mandarins for the approval of then-Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan. Nyberg seemed to tick all the boxes. The Finns had endured a similar financial crisis back in the Nineties. Peter was in the thick of it at the Bank of Finland. No better man. Peter the Finn won the raffle.

Peter is an outsider, an essential feature to give credibility to the investigation

So far so good.

The problem is that Peter the Finn was the only outsider.

The Department of Finance, being good mandarins, would never capture Peter — hook, line and sinker. Once appointed, he was his own man.

Nevertheless, he needed a little local help with his team.

It would be fascinating to know which gurus advised Peter on the right guys to choose as his “expert investigation team”. Whoever held his hand in those first days after he landed at Dublin Airport, he managed to pick a pretty reliable gang.

The key to the contents of the Nyberg report lies not with Nyberg, but with his choice of 14 people as co-investigators.

Peter’s first choice of the people to investigate Ireland’s banks was an army of Irish ex-bankers. They were joined by a couple of civil servants, plucked straight out of the other target of public scepticism — the Department of Finance.

The composition of the Nyberg team explains the soft language and lack of bite in the great man’s report. It pulls its punches. It spreads the blame. It refuses to name names. It reads like a mandarin’s masterpiece.

Of the 14 members of the team, the background of two remains a well-kept secret. Last week the Department of Finance was unable to tell me anything at all about Mary Lawlor or Denis O’Reilly — two of the investigators who were paid out of the public purse for their labours.

Of the remaining 12, there was a solicitor, a former IMF director, two officials from (guess where?) the Department of Finance and eight ex-bankers or people with banking experience. The entire administrative back- up team of five was drawn from Department of Finance staff.

Peter was surrounded by mandarins and bankers.

Two former career bankers in — of all banks — AIB were selected to examine the present banking crowd and to apportion blame. Pat O’Mahony, a one-time head of AIB’s entire branch network, a director of Ark Life Insurance was a past member of the AIB Group senior management team. Pat is a government favourite, having been appointed three times in a row to the chair of the Irish Medicines Board.

Another of Peter’s gang was Tom Noonan, a retired career banker with AIB. He happens to be brother of the current Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan. Two well-connected “investigators” took their places beside Peter.

The choice of two guys with AIB pedigrees as players in a probe where AIB was the chief suspect is a bit rich — but it did not deter Peter.

Next, he picked Jan de Chaumont, a senior manager in Bank of Scotland (Ireland), an outfit that is leaving Ireland after being stung in the property frenzy. Other former bank insiders included Thomas Foley, a one-time employee of KBC; Conor Holmes of First Active (later owned by Ulster Bank); and David McGee, the former boss of business banking at National Irish Bank (before he headed for its parent, National Australia Bank, in the mid-Nineties).

Little is known of the others like Michael Monaghan, although last October The Irish Times credited him as a man “who has a knowledge of banking”.

Even less informative is the career of Matt O’Driscoll, described in the same article as having “worked as a corporate banker after a stint at KPMG”.

Carefully placed among all those ex-bankers were Sean Kinsella and Jim Higgins, the two mandarins from the Department of Finance. The committee was almost complete.

Peter was working in his comfort zone. A Central Banker was surrounded by bankers and civil servants. Just like home.

Predictably enough, every party scrutinised was spared outright condemnation.

In its conclusions, the commission gave the big players the benefit of the doubt far too often, attributing mistakes more to “bad judgment than bad faith”. At worst, the main offenders were judged fools not knaves.

Charitable conclusions. So were the findings about “Groupthink” and the “herd instinct”. The authors of the report were bending over backwards to spread the blame as widely as possible. They even introduced the concept of “a national speculative mania”.

The end result was not exactly a whitewash. Nobody could whitewash the destruction of the Irish economy by a cabal of oligarchs — but the commission attempted to dilute the blame. The report was critical, but not damning.

Ironically, “Groupthink” was equally prevalent within the Nyberg Commission as in the Irish financial world, which it criticised. There was no minority report.

They even soft-pedalled on the bank boards.

The soft-pedalling disease is infectious. In the Dail last Wednesday, Finance Minister Michael Noonan responded to Nyberg by announcing that he would be asking the banks’ boards for a board renewal programme. No doubt his script was supplied by the mandarins.

Noonan, like Nyberg, has recognised a big problem — the directors of the banks themselves. Yet he reverted to the incestuous old formula of asking the directors to sort out the directors! Just as Nyberg asked bankers to probe the banks.

Noonan should shed his deference to the bankers’ boards. He will be asking the same board of AIB that approved the outrageous €3m exit package for ex-AIB boss Colm Doherty to produce a renewal plan. Perhaps they will want to bring back Eugene Sheehy and Dermot Gleeson?

Instead, the new minister should shun the mandarins and fire the public interest directors on all bank boards — including the former Labour leader Dick Spring and DAA boss Declan Collier. Both men approved Doherty’s package.

Peter Nyberg could have done it so differently. He could have asked Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, ISME chief Mark Fielding, former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness, Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, former AIB internal auditor Eugene McErlean, Assistant Garda Commissioner Martin Donnellan and others without banking baggage to join him on the commission. They would have produced a radically different report.

The bankers and the mandarins must be thanking their lucky stars that they found the Finn.