Drama’s representation of night of guarantee reminds us politicians play with live ammunition

There is no appetite for another expensive judicial tribunal

President Michael D Higgins speaking to Colin Murphy, writer of Guaranteed, at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire this week. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

President Michael D Higgins speaking to Colin Murphy, writer of Guaranteed, at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire this week. Photograph: Aidan Crawley


Stephen Collins

The explosion of public outrage at the revelations on the Anglo tapes has put the banking collapse back at the centre of the political stage. While the initial response by the Dáil did not augur well for the ability of politicians to get to the bottom of what happened it appears that a parliamentary inquiry is the only viable option.

The exchanges on the topic between Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin on Tuesday and the clash between Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton and Fianna Fáil frontbench spokesman Billy Kelleher illustrate the danger that an Oireachtas committee of inquiry could quickly descend into partisan name-calling.

However, it is difficult to see a workable alternative. There is no appetite at all for another horrendously expensive judicial tribunal and while a less expensive Commission of Inquiry is another option it would inevitably take years and could get bogged down in legal process.

If the politicians can be prevailed on to behave in a disciplined manner and work hard in an orderly inquiry designed to elicit the facts, rather than attempting to score points off each other, it could provide the quickest and fairest route to finding out what actually happened between 2008 and 2010.

Due to the failure of the referendum on parliamentary inquiries in 2011 an Oireachtas inquiry cannot go down the road of making adverse findings of fact against individuals who are not members of the Dáil or Seanad.

There is some talk about holding a rerun of that referendum to give the people another chance to confer those powers on politicians but the question arises as to whether a parliamentary inquiry established with the purpose of making adverse findings of fact about individuals can ever be workable due to the partisan nature of party politics.

In any case, given that that some of the individuals involved on the banking side are facing criminal proceedings, an Oireachtas inquiry bent on making findings of fact would inevitably run into conflict with the courts.

What has been lacking since the banking collapse and the EU bailout is a clear narrative of events so that people know exactly how all the actors in the drama played their parts. There have been a number of valuable inquiries into what happened but they were conducted in private and the role of named individuals was not explored.

The impact of the Anglo tapes has been to generate a public demand for an exact record of who did what and when. There is also a thirst for vengeance, but that has to be left to the courts. A proper parliamentary inquiry, as well as satisfying mere curiosity about what happened, might also prove to be an invaluable aid in ensuring that the same thing doesn’t happen again for the foreseeable future.

The DIRT inquiry of the 1990s is often cited as an example of what can be achieved even with the current legal and constitutional restrictions. That was a tightly focused inquiry based on a detailed report by the Comptroller and Auditor General and it was run under the strict legal supervision of one of the country’s top barristers, Frank Clarke, who is now a Supreme Court judge.

It also succeeded because the banks, for reasons of public relations, did not attempt to mount any legal challenge to the proceedings. Given the stakes involved for some of the individuals who might be called to give evidence into an inquiry into the banking collapse that willingness to co-operate might not apply.

Another inquiry that took place in the 1990s that is rarely mentioned could also provide a template. This was the 1995 report of a sub-committee of the Dáil Legislation and Security Committee into the events surrounding the collapse of the Albert Reynolds-led Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition and the role of the Brendan Smith case in the affair.

In a little over a month, between December 20th 1994 and January 26th 1995, the committee examined almost 20 of the key individuals involved from the former Taoiseach down. The witnesses appeared without legal representation and gave a detailed account of their role in the affair. A report which provided a full account of the dramatic events that led to the collapse of the Reynolds government was published a month later and the total cost was around €30,000.

While the committee was not able to make findings of fact it was able to ensure that a complete narrative of events was put into the public domain within months of the dramatic events that led to the only change of government without an election in the history of the state. A similar examination of the banking collapse would at least provide some clarity.

By a strange coincidence two valuable efforts at explaining the banking collapse emerged in the same week as the Anglo tapes. Colin Murphy’s play Guaranteed was a riveting dramatisation of the night of the guarantee and the events that led to it.

The author conceded in the programme notes that while the play was not always the literal truth it aimed to capture the essence of real events and that it certainly did. The scene in the cabinet room on the night of the guarantee was a reminder that Governments have to play with live ammunition.

The other exploration of what happened to Ireland in recent years was the publication of a book The Fall of the Celtic Tiger, by economists Donal Donovan and Antoin Murphy. Both stood out from the bulk of their colleagues for the authority and depth of their analysis as the crisis unfolded and their book is an invaluable account of recent Irish history.

Interestingly, their conclusion about the bank guarantee is not the popular one. “In the end, the decision, despite all its costly consequences, appears to have been the least-worst alternative facing the Government.”

Whatever happens next it is imperative that all the major actors in the drama say what happened. It may be five years after the event but better late than never. (ends)

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