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Richie has a Hide Like a Rhino

Posted on: April 25th, 2010

Eoghan Harris raised the temperature in the Senate last Thursday morning. He moved the banking story on from the humiliating retreat of Bank of Ireland boss Richie Boucher.

Closing his eyes, speaking with a passion unmatched by anyone in the chamber, Harris let rip at some of Boucher’s boardroom buddies at Bank of Ireland.

He did not fillet the usual suspects. Instead Eoghan insisted that the two government nominees to the board were asleep on duty.

There was hidden bottle in Eoghan’s contribution. He himself was a Taoiseach’s nominee to the Senate so his Fianna Fail patrons must be none too pleased by his constant show of independence. Indeed Eoghan recently abandoned a seat on the government side and emigrated to join us on the independent benches (or, as some less charitable senators have remarked, the Sunday Independent benches).

Eoghan was not allowed to identify the two government nominees, but he queried how the duo were acting in the public interest by paying Richie Boucher’s €1.5m pension top-up.

If Eoghan had been allowed to name the two guys he might have found the answer. The two government nominees are Joe Walsh and Tom Considine.

Neither are — any longer — household names.

Joe Walsh was Minister for Agriculture under Bertie Ahern. Today he has wandered out to grass. He is grazing in some pretty lush pastures. He receives a pension as a Fianna Fail ex-minister of €73,191, a pension as a Fianna Fail ex-TD of €53,291 and has now been recruited to the Bank of Ireland board by his patrons in Fianna Fail — a gig carrying an income of €80,000.

So Joe is pretty comfortably off — maybe too comfortably off. The question must be asked: has Joe gone native since his arrival on the Bank of Ireland board? Is he merely a fig leaf for the public interest? Or has the €200,000-plus he receives from the taxpayer anaesthetised his antennae?

We do not know, because little has changed at BoI. It remains a secret society releasing as little information as possible. Last week they even refused to allow me, as a shareholder, to inspect Boucher’s contract.

Occasionally punters rumble some of the board cabal’s goings-on, when payments like Richie Boucher’s €1.5m pension top-up surface.

Boucher and the board obviously hoped to avoid a brouhaha. They probably managed to slip the payment past sleepy Joe and his fellow political nominee, Tom Considine, in the melee surrounding his appointment last year.

Tom comes from the cream of the civil service stable, the Department of Finance. We know little about Tom because no one ever knows much about the mandarins. That is the way they like to keep it. Tom was secretary-general at the Department of Finance.

He is probably an able guy, but the Department of Finance has been under the spotlight in recent times for failing to issue warnings about the banking crisis or the dangers of the property frenzy.

If Joe and Tom failed to twig Boucher’s pension coup because they were asleep on the job for several months, the Department of Finance has been asleep on the job for several years. Increasingly they are coming under the spotlight. It will be fascinating to hear what Taoiseach Brian Cowen tells the banking inquiries about the mandarins’ role in the years leading up to the banking crisis, especially during his period as Minister for Finance.

The mandarins were in the loop.

Joe’s and Tom’s original mistake was their failure to object to Boucher’s appointment on the grounds that he was an insider. Their second was to allow themselves to be hoodwinked into this platinum-plated pension deal.

Boucher’s super-package allowed him to retire in four years’ time — at the age of 55 — with an annual pension of €367,000.

Either they agreed to it, in which case they share culpability — or even worse, they never read the small print.

Only a plutocrat would allow the Boucher pension package to pass without question. The Bank of Ireland board remains a plutocrat’s paradise.

While Eoghan Harris pinpointed a real problem, several other senators welcomed Boucher’s decision to return the €1.5m to BoI. Mark Dearey, a decent Green with a dash of naivety, even described Boucher as “showing leadership”.

God bless his innocence.

Perhaps one or two senators swallowed all that guff in the BoI press release, claiming that Boucher was “sensitive to current comment and debate about my pension arrangements”.

I have news for my more innocent colleagues. Boucher has a hide as thick as the rhinos he left behind in his native Zambia. “Sensitive” is not a word in his lexicon.

Instinctively, he was impervious to public outrage. He was dragged kicking and screaming into the decision. He was forced to give up the €1.5m by the court of public opinion, by politicians reflecting this insanity, by media commentators and — dare I whisper it — by the bearded brother Jack O’Connor’s claim, that Boucher’s greed was about to sink the pay deal.

If he had not relented, it is likely that the Government would have been compelled to move against him. The entire board would probably have been called in and given its marching orders.

That should happen anyway. Nothing has changed at the Bank of Ireland. The same board — bar a token head or two — is in charge. The culture is untouched. Richie, the insider, is still in command, minus an outrageous pension deal.

Admittedly, he has conceded an inch or two of ground; but every silver lining has a cloud — no one seems to have noticed a depressing consequence of Richie’s waiver of the €1.5m. He is now no longer going to retire at 55. Richie is today set to continue to torment the nation for an extra five years as Bank of Ireland boss.

His term of office has been extended. He will receive his monstrous stipend of €623,000 for five added years. That makes over €3m extra for a guy who should be smelling the roses along with his predecessor Brian Goggin and former Bank of Ireland governor Richard Burrows.

Brian Cowen should now insist that Boucher’s promise to return the €1.5m is accompanied by a pledge to depart at the age of 55 at a lower pension. Preferably earlier.

And he should take a battalion of the old regime with him. Not just one or two disciples. Bank of Ireland and AIB need to be cleaned out wholesale, starting at the top. They are monsters stuffed with practitioners of the same rotten culture. There are dozens of mini-Richies ready to replace Boucher. Topping Richie will not change the banking culture.

Hercules of ancient Greece showed that you cannot kill a Hydra by chopping off its head. Every time Hercules cut off one of the Hydra’s nine heads, two more appeared. Eventually he called in his nephew Iolaus to help destroy the monster. Iolaus persuaded him to use a burning firebrand to scorch the neck stumps after each decapitation.

Hercules cut off the head and Iolaus cauterised the stumps.

Bank of Ireland needs to be cauterised.