Cliff Taylor: Banking inquiry comes too late to make real impact

All too often, legal and confidentiality issues hinder the effectiveness of investigations

Michael Fingleton, the former chief executive of Irish Nationwide Building Society, arrives at the Oireachtas banking inquiry. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Michael Fingleton, the former chief executive of Irish Nationwide Building Society, arrives at the Oireachtas banking inquiry. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

 

I was going to start this column by saying that the week ahead would be dominated by the report of the banking inquiry. But it probably won’t be. After all, there is an election on the way and the Six Nations will kick off shortly.

There will be a fuss about the report and its conclusions for a day or two after it is published on Wednesday, but it is now so long after the events being looked at that the conclusions will lose a lot of their impact.

And then, of course, there is the issue of the pitch on which the committee was forced to play and how it was restrained legally in how it could question witnesses and draw conclusions.

Strange indeed, for example, to see some things altered late in the day in the final report, following representations by some witnesses and reports that the documentations released may be restricted or redacted. Everything from Central Bank confidentiality rules to the need to bend over backwards when drawing conclusions seem to trump our right to know as much as possible.

We will see when the report is published just how much of the additional documentation provided to it the committee feels free to publish and how much is omitted or redacted.

Given the passage of time and the huge public interest, there is no good reason why most of the key documents received from the Central Bank, the Department of Finance and the financial institutions should not be published. However, the lawyers employed by all these bodies will have been pleading otherwise. And the right to “confidentiality” is a powerful weapon.

In some cases, this is appropriate. A person’s financial details, for example, should remain confidential unless there is a strong over-riding public interest. But in the case of institutions, the argument is surely different.

The Department of Finance, the Central Bank, the Financial Regulator and the banks were central to the mess that occurred, which cost us all dearly. There is little point in having such inquiries if they cannot publish relevant information from eight years ago or more.

Significant insights

The banking inquiry’s public hearings, involving 129 witnesses over 49 days, certainly had a value. Or at least some of them did. Although the round-robin questioning that allowed all the members to have their few minutes with each witness was far from ideal. But the constraints in seeking information and asking questions mean its ability to uncover striking new facts was limited.

If the inquiry had happened in the immediate wake of the catastrophic events, rather than years later after a number of other inquiries, it would have been more powerful and relevant.

One of the reasons for the delay was the “hear no evil, see no evil” approach on the part of our political system after the crisis first broke. At the very least, High Court inspectors should have been sent into Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide after the scale of the huge losses became clear.

In the event it never happened and the legal cases now under way will only ever give us a partial view of what happened inside Anglo. Meanwhile, eight years later and after a series of legal battles, the Central Bank is finally due to get under way with a probe of Irish Nationwide.

Time and again we see how legal challenges and confidentiality constraints hamper investigations into matters of public interest. The defeat of a proposed amendment to the Constitution in 2011 to allow Oireachtas inquiries raised questions. Legislation two years later allowed the banking inquiry to go ahead, but with significant restrictions.

Meanwhile, the fiasco over the proposed inquiry into IBRC and particularly the Sitserv transaction shows the problems facing another route of inquiry – commissions of investigation – when it comes to accessing information defined as confidential.

There simply has to be a better way to do these things, clearing away at least some of the mysterious fog of legal and confidentiality constraints in which inquiries seem to get lost. Assuming, of course, that we really want to know.

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