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The Land With Two Brians

Posted on: March 22nd, 2009

LAST week was a tale of two Brians. Brawny Brian and Brainy Brian. Brian Cowen stormed the White House in Washington. Brian Lenihan headed for London.

Well, who did more for the cause of Ireland?

Brian Cowen was a guest of President Obama. Judging from the late arrival of the White House invitation to the Taoiseach, the new President did not rate Ireland at the top of his agenda. But happily Biffo finally managed to secure a White House pass, so the annual St Patrick’s Day bull went ahead.

Biffo’s trip was meant to promote trade between the US and Ireland. Superquango Enterprise Ireland arranged a squad of businesses to accompany him. Sometime during the trip Enterprise Ireland “announced” €100m of contracts between Irish and American companies.

Bingo. What a Taoiseach. What a man. He only needs to travel across the pond for 48 hours and trade between our two great nations rockets.

Of course all these contracts were arranged months in advance of the visit, but were neatly packaged up for a St Patrick’s Day special announcement to make the trip seem a success. Enterprise Ireland, the Taoiseach and the companies all did their patriotic duty on March 17. They were brilliant at the blarney. Great at throwing shapes.

The Taoiseach was accompanied by Hugh Cooney, chairman of Enterprise Ireland, who also happens to be a financial contributor to his political success. Mr Cooney would do better to stay at home and examine his superquango’s alarmingly high costs, instead of adding to them with a St Patrick’s Day extravaganza.

During his journey Mr Cooney delivered possibly the most indigestible statement of the year, no doubt written by one of those supernumeraries in the superquango.

Cliches galore were spouted out for lazy journalists to regurgitate. Phrases that have been dusted down thousands of times revealed the mental bankruptcy of Enterprise Ireland.

He referred to how “the growth in quality Irish consumer product sales has been matched and then outpaced by the surge in Irish industrial products and services in ICT, the life sciences and other high tech areas.” Ugh.

And more riveting still for his US audience’s ears must have been how: “Irish companies continue to move up the value chain.” The rusty old “value chain” was wheeled out. Or even Hugh’s revelation that “Ireland continues to offer quality, innovative and high-spec products and services across many industry sectors and verticals.”

“Verticals”? What in the name of God are “verticals”? I hope Mr Cooney knows. Anyway, as always, the Enterprise Ireland crew set up a great trip.

This side of the pond, Brian Lenihan, Minister for Finance, drew the short straw. None of that Capitol Hill shamrock palaver, he headed for London to celebrate the patron saint’s anniversary.

It was a normal working day. Lenihan took the opportunity to give an interview to the UK’s Financial Times in an attempt to counter the distrust that has marked British and European attitudes to Ireland’s banking antics.

Lenihan faced an uphill task. He was intent on undoing some of the damage inflicted by Anglo Irish on Ireland’s reputation. And he was trying to restore a little faith in the Irish economy.

Lenihan tip-toed carefully round the Anglo minefield. While he put his finger on two of Anglo’s sins, he coyly failed to name any sinners. First, he revealed that the malpractice of chief executives of banks becoming chairmen would be outlawed. Second, he spoke of banning cross-directorships in public companies. He drew the line at reminding his audience of the mysterious Anglo 10, of Sean Quinn, of Anglo directors concealing loans, or of the bank’s efforts to window dress its figures at its year’s end.

Such mortal sins are still too raw to mention to overseas sceptics. The venial sins are easier to include in the first confession. It was a skilful performance.

Brainy Brian had the harder St Patrick’s Day, but he did a better job for Ireland. He was not standing beside Barack Obama waving to non-existent crowds. He was announcing real measures, laws that will stop too much power falling into the hands of one man. Anglo was obviously the bank he had in mind. Not only did Sean Fitz ascend from the chief’s seat to the chairman’s slot, but he copper- bottomed his power base by sowing his board with cronies.

Cross-directorships were the norm in Anglo.

Sean Fitz was a master at weaving a web. In 2007 he was chairman of an Anglo board that included part-timers Gary McGann, Lar Bradshaw, Ned Sullivan and Fintan Drury. Not to mention a quartet of executive directors who held him in awe.

What do these four gents have in common? Well, Lar Bradshaw was chairman of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority with Sean as a director, Gary McGann is chief executive of Smurfit Kappa which Sean chaired, Ned Sullivan is chairman of Greencore where Sean was an ordinary director, and Fintan Drury’s Drury Sports Management was another company where Sean was on the board.

These are what Brian means by cross-directorships. The danger is that such links might result in this now departed body of men having greater loyalty to Sean than to Anglo. Or worse still, that Sean and Anglo were indistinguishable. Four out of six non-executive directors in Anglo had shared other boardrooms with Sean. Today they have all resigned. Brian will legislate to prevent this happening again.

The Minister for Finance won a positive Financial Times headline for his efforts. ‘Ireland plans crackdown on crony capitalism’ was about as good as we have enjoyed from the UK media for months.

Brian’s efforts are plucky but they are only a start. He will be judged on his achievements on the homefront. That means the economy as well as the banks.

Lenihan went on to stuff the old Regulator. He promised to advertise for a new boss at the Regulator’s office. He is going to employ an outsider who will not tolerate all those nine-to-fivers in the current outfit. (It seems 32-hour week workers are the norm at the Regulator’s office. No wonder they have never spotted a financial scandal. They are not in the office for long enough.)

He is going to give a reformed body the power to ensure that our property furnace is never allowed to take off again. Bravo. Such excesses must never be allowed to happen again.

Last week RTE’s Morning Ireland replayed a staggering clip of Eamon Dunphy’s interview with celebrity developer Paddy Kelly. After Mr Kelly had owned up to owing Anglo hundreds of millions, he admitted that it did not keep him awake at night. It is, after all, now Anglo’s problem.

Not quite. Unfortunately it is now the nation’s problem. That is why it is so important Lenihan drafts legislation which will give confidence to investors from abroad.

After that, he must convince them that the public finances are under control. In his budget on April 7 he should start with the quangos, not income taxes.

First candidate for the knife could be Brawny Brian’s Enterprise Ireland.