Concern banking inquiry will only amount to a ‘show trial’

Row over composition of inquiry team remains unsettled and a further bout of bickering is in prospect over scope of its work

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, who defended the Government’s handling of the inquiry. Speaking in Limerick, he said: “Fianna Fáil pulled a stroke because Labour Senators were absent and fair dues to them. The stroke is now being reversed.”  Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, who defended the Government’s handling of the inquiry. Speaking in Limerick, he said: “Fianna Fáil pulled a stroke because Labour Senators were absent and fair dues to them. The stroke is now being reversed.” Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Tue, Jun 17, 2014, 01:00

The Oireachtas banking inquiry could hardly have got off to a worse start. The row over the composition of the inquiry team remains unsettled and a further bout of bickering is in prospect over the scope of its work.

This does not bode well for the investigation, which is supposed to provide unvarnished insight into the banking debacle and all that followed in its wake.

At stake is the very credibility of the exercise. It now falls to the inquiry chairman, Labour TD Ciarán Lynch, to clear up the present mess and set formal preparations in motion. With this in mind, Lynch has called the inquiry members to a private meeting in a Leinster House committee room on Thursday morning. It will be the first of many, although rapid progress seems unlikely.

Given the unedifying wrangle over membership, we can expect yet more fireworks when it comes to remit. The committee has yet to reach a point at which even draft terms of reference are under discussion.

At issue will be whether the inquiry largely confines itself to the State guarantee of 2008, something that reflects badly on the former Fianna Fáil government. For its part, Fianna Fáil would prefer a wider inquiry that also takes in the actions of the European Central Bank. Further friction is therefore inevitable.

After prolonged delay, it will still be quite some time before public hearings actually begin.

All of this is a great pity. Politicians may thrive on remorseless point-scoring, but it does very little for the people they serve.

Fateful events

Years have now passed since the fateful events which led to a €64 billion bailout being foisted on present and future generations of taxpayers.

Yet most of the main protagonists have never been held to account publicly for their actions. That remains the basic spur for the inquiry, even if the grand sweep of the narrative is clear enough.

The people do have a right to hear from former taoiseach Brian Cowen as to what was going on when the State guaranteed the banks. The same goes for former financial regulator Pat Neary, retired Central Bank governor John Hurley, and numerous other figures who headed the banks and building societies at the time or audited their books.

But in all of this – and in a parliamentary forum particularly – there is no getting away from the political dimension. On the day Lynch was appointed as inquiry chairman, it was Taoiseach Enda Kenny himself who bemoaned the “catastrophic consequences of the light- touch regulation introduced by Fianna Fáil over the years”. Many might agree. Yet such remarks, at the very outset of the inquiry process, set the tone for the debate that followed.

Although the inquiry is precluded from making findings of fact, there remains concern that the affair will amount to a show trial.

This, in turn, has prompted anxiety about witnesses hiding behind lawyers and legal niceties.

Aside from the prospect of drama in the committee chamber, the question arises as to whether anything approaching the truth can emerge from the exercise.

Shouting match

This may be a legitimate concern, for the last thing needed is a shouting match. That, however, is exactly what we have right now. The row stems from a major Government own goal in the Seanad, which led to an Opposition majority on the inquiry.

This prompted extraordinary interventions to ensure a Government majority. Fianna Fáil, which perceives itself to be a prime target for the inquiry, sensed blood. Ructions followed.

“Senators are like county councillors on steroids,” said one Government TD of the unruly scenes in the Upper House.