Likely ringfencing of Anglo from bank inquiry underlines Government concern

Belief in Coalition circles is Anglo case should be avoided until trials end

Mary Harney: said in an interview that Charles Haughey should be convicted of obstructing tribunal. Photograph:   Frank Miller

Mary Harney: said in an interview that Charles Haughey should be convicted of obstructing tribunal. Photograph: Frank Miller

Thu, Sep 19, 2013, 12:37

The likely ringfencing of the Anglo Irish Bank imbroglio from the rest of the banking inquiry comes amid concerns about avoiding jeopardising the trial of former Anglo chairman Seán FitzPatrick and two of his former colleagues.

Looming over this scene is the postponement of Charlie Haughey’s trial in the Circuit Criminal Court on charges of obstructing the McCracken tribunal.

In that case, Mr Haughey’s legal team cited a May 2000 interview in which then tánaiste Mary Harney said he should be convicted. Mr Justice Kevin Haugh found that there was “a real and substantial risk” that Mr Haughey would not receive a fair trial and postponed the proceedings indefinitely.

The Government is very anxious to avoid any repeat of a situation like that. This is all the more so given the intensity of public and political debate around the collapse of Anglo, displeasure at its multi-billion-euro bailout by taxpayers and the outcry over the “Anglo tapes”.


‘Anglo: the Musical’
When Anglo: the Musical was in rehearsal last year, warning letters were received from both the Director of Public Prosecutions and solicitors for Mr FitzPatrick. Mr FitzPatrick’s character was written out of the story and two songs were dropped.

At the same time, Ministers were warned to avoid straying onto dangerous ground in any comments on the production.

By coincidence yesterday, DPP Claire Loftus warned media and commentators generally against interfering with any accused person’s right to a fair trial.

In the foreword to the her 2012 annual report she said trials risked being postponed for a long period or even indefinitely because of prejudicial material. The message was clear enough.

With the horror story of Ireland’s banks set to come under the unforgiving gaze of a parliamentary inquiry within months, there is a danger that stray or angry words could have unintended consequences. The potential for trouble is only magnified by the possibility that the inquiry hearings might be televised.

Hence the belief in Government circles that the Anglo case should be avoided altogether until the trials are at an end. Common sense suggests this should be the case, but questions are raised as to the effectiveness of the inquiry at its outset.

After all, the fateful September 2008 guarantee was primarily designed to counter the accumulation of strain on Anglo and the consequent risk to the entire Irish banking system.

The guarantee itself “and events leading up to it” is first on the list of Government priorities for the inquiry. Second is the role of the banks themselves and their auditors. Third is the role of State institutions.

If Anglo is too hot to deal with while trials are ongoing, might the role of the State and its institutions be the first issue to come under scrutiny? The State and its servants might not like that.


Bypass
Yet it is difficult to see how the inquiry could delve into key events within Anglo in a meaningful way and simultaneously bypass issues linked to the trials, the defendants and the reflections of anyone who might be called as a witness.

In the Dáil yesterday evening, Taoiseach Enda Kenny alluded to the risks. “It is my earnest hope and expectation, a Cheann Comhairle, and that of the Government, that the important powers and the solemn responsibilities vested in and accruing to ordinary members of this House pursuant to the provisions of the new Act will be exercised prudently, will be exercised judiciously, having regard to pending criminal trials, but will also be implemented robustly and effectively.”

If the requirement for a meaningful inquiry is compelling, that should not be at the expense of court proceedings.