Don't expect corporate accountability without political accountability

Business Opinion: why do we expect a culture of accountability in corporate life when we don’t have much of one in political life?

Minister for Justic Alan Shatter (centre): showing all the obduracy of bankers Eugene Sheehy and Brian Goggin. Photograph: courtesy of RTÉ

Minister for Justic Alan Shatter (centre): showing all the obduracy of bankers Eugene Sheehy and Brian Goggin. Photograph: courtesy of RTÉ

Mon, Mar 31, 2014, 14:36

If you were Eugene Sheehy or Brian Goggin you might be forgiven for being a bit miffed at the way Eamon Gilmore and Enda Kenny are cleaving to Alan Shatter, given the enthusiasm with which they called for heads to roll back in 2008.

Some might argue that running a bank into the ground and presiding over a ministry that has seen public confidence in the Garda seriously undermined is not quite the same thing. You would be right. But that is not the point here. The issue is accountability at the top.

When they were in opposition, Gilmore, Kenny and their party colleagues made this point time and time again in connection with Sheehy, the then chief executive of AIB, and Goggin, his opposite number at Bank of Ireland.

You do not have to look too hard through the clippings to find members of the current Government taking the high moral ground on the issue.

In November 2009, Gilmore fulminated in the Dáil after Sheehy’s eventual departure that the old guard was still in charge at the banks. All 10 directors of AIB “who are there now were there then [the time of the banking guarantee] and in Bank of Ireland the figure is 11 of 13,” he preached.

Double standards
Leo Varadkar, now Minister for Transport, was not to be outdone. “This isn’t regime change, it’s business as usual for the banks. Brian Lenihan is working for the banks, not for us . . . The fat cats have won again,” railed the young firebrand whose recent enthusiasm for dispatching the Garda commissioner has not been matched by any apparent desire to see his colleague the Minister for Justice held to account.

The fact that nobody is very surprised by this display of double standards is in itself revelatory. We all seem to accept it as part and parcel of the cut and thrust of politics – and Irish politics in particular. Everything changes when you get into power and the accountability sought with such enthusiasm when in opposition becomes the irresponsible tub thumping of those who are out of power. We are not unique in this political phenomena, but we have made it something of an art form .

Hence the wagons are being circled around Shatter. All of the arguments that were trotted out for Sheedy and Goggin to be left in their posts – and which were derided by Fine Gael and Labour – are being recycled now in defence of one of their own. He is the best man to push through the reform agenda. There is no one else as capable as him to do the job, etc.

There may be some truth in all of this but, as was the case with the chief executives of the banks in 2008, the overriding issue is that something has gone very badly wrong and the person ultimately responsible has to be held to account.

The way in which things have now come full circle – with Shatter showing all the obduracy of Sheehy and Goggin – gives a valuable if somewhat belated insight into why the two bankers and their fellow directors found it so easy to hang on in the face of public anger.

They could justifiably argue that the people calling for their heads on behalf of the public – politicians and opposition politicians in particular – had no real right to do so.

Avoidance of accountability
A political class whose culture has made the avoidance of accountability not only acceptable, but standard practice, was really in no position to start demanding accountability from anyone, even the chief executives of banks that had to be bailed out by the taxpayer.

This is one of the paradoxes of Irish life. Why do we expect a culture of accountability to permeate corporate life when we don’t have much of one in political life? Politicians – in their role as the representatives of the people and lawmakers – are in theory the body that holds the corporate sphere to account.

It is something of a conundrum and the solution would seem to be that we can’t really expect higher standards of accountability in business unless we achieve them in politics. This is one of the reasons why we have elections and is worth remembering come the European and local ones in May.

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