The smartest guys in Ireland
The most unsettling aspect of the Anglo Irish Bank tapes is not the executives’ swearing, greed or arrogance. It’s that we know they were right to assume they could get away with anything
Bankers: David Drumm, Peter Fitzgerald and John Bowe. Treatment by Dearbhla Kelly/The Irish Times
“Slick and buccaneering”. In Patrick Honohan’s official report on the role of the Central Bank of Ireland in the implosion of the banking system, he explains that these were the terms regulators applied, privately, to the management of Anglo Irish Bank.
After the release of recordings of internal phone calls between some of those executives, Irish citizens might have added a few more terms: arrogant, cynical, greedy, contemptuous, myopic, feckless, amoral – and a string of unprintable ones besides.
For all the extenuating pleas of gallows humour, it seems clear that the men in Anglo were confident that, whoever got hung out to twist in the wind, it was not going to be them.
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Listening to the tapes, it is hard to remember that David Drumm, John Bowe and Peter Fitzgerald are not crazy or delusional. They are not in denial. They know very well that they have destroyed their bank and threatened the jobs of those who work for them. They know, too, that they are about to cost the Irish people many, many billions of euro. They know that they have screwed up monumentally.
In this light, the only thing that is really shocking about the tapes is what we do not hear. There is not a single moment of embarrassment or regret, not the slightest undertone of shame.
Nor is there even a sense of fear. These men are not worried about what is going to happen to them. A line of Peter Fitzgerald’s, referring in his boy’s-club manner to his boss, David Drumm, says it all: “As Drummer says to me, ‘Don’t worry: we’re going to be around a long time.’ ”
These are men who know that, whatever happens, they can play the system to their advantage. While Bowe singing “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” mockingly to Drumm might be the moment that will be remembered around Europe, for Irish people the real anthem here is not Der Deutschlandlied but Hakuna Matata. The chorus is Drummer’s line to Bowe: “I’m relaxed about it, John.”
Cost to taxpayers
The only expression of anxiety is Bowe’s admission of a concern that the authorities “might say the cost to the taxpayers is too high”, but it’s a concern that has already been allayed. There is already a confident belief that this obvious truth will be avoided by sucking the Central Bank in for a relatively small sum of liquidity and then forcing it to throw good money after bad: “You pull them in, you get them to write a big cheque.”
The guardians of the public interest are literally not a problem.
How do they deal with the knowledge that “the cost to the taxpayers” of their collective screw-up will probably be catastrophic? They wrap it in a language that distances themselves from any danger of moral responsibility.
The bankers are acutely self-conscious about language. Drumm even makes the point that, in dealing with authority, Anglo must control the linguistic agenda “because, if we stay in their language, nothing happens”.
But they also use language to control their own understanding of what they are doing. We hear different kinds of language on the tapes; four verbal strategies for avoiding any acknowledgment of the human suffering that is the price of their idiocy.
The first, favoured especially by Fitzgerald and Drumm, is the tough-guy Americanised business cliche: “Skin in the game”; “What’s the playbook like?”; “The donkey in the room”.
The second is macho vulgarity. Bowe talks of €7 billion as a figure he picked out of his a**e; Drumm gives orders to “stick the fingers up” to the regulator’s concerns about the abuse of the bank guarantee and peppers his conversation with lines that seem to come straight from the hustlers in David Mamet’s play Glengarry, Glen Ross: “Do you want the f***ing keys now? I can give them to you.” (We can hear the others, in their sycophantic desire to emulate Drummer, echoing his style among themselves.)
The third verbal strategy is surreal understatement: “I don’t think we’re an easy sell to anybody.”