Bank of Ireland CEO departure a reminder of pay cap limitations

Cantillon: Francesca McDonagh joins Credit Suisse as bankers look to change pay rules

Paschal Donohoe was generous in his praise of departing Bank of Ireland chief executive Francesca McDonagh. Noting the lender had prospered under her watch over the past five years, he said she had been "instrumental in driving a change in culture within the bank", seeing through a badly needed IT transformation programme and also "playing a key role in helping customers and the country navigate their way through the recent Covid-19 crisis".

He could also have mentioned that her stewardship had allowed the State to net more than half a billion euro since last June selling down its stake in the bank from 13.9 per cent to less than 5 per cent now.

That brings to €6.5 billion the amount Ireland Inc has got back on its €4.7 billion bailout of Bank of Ireland.

Bonuses ban

But McDonagh's departure for Credit Suisse raises tricky issues for the Minister. It is an open secret that the Bank of Ireland boss was increasingly irritated by the continuing cap on executive pay and the effective ban on bonuses, not least as the bank has more than repaid its crisis-era debt.


In a media interview only last month, she said the restrictions were “out of step with reality” at a bank that expects to return fully to private ownership this year.

Accepting they it had been necessary at the time of the bank bailouts, she said it made no sense for Irish banks to now have to compete for talent “with one arm tied behind their back”.

Politically toxic

In her period as chief executive, she has seen two chief financial officers lured away – Myles O'Grady to an equivalent but better rewarded chief financial officer slot at Musgraves, and, before that, Andrew Keating to CRH as director of group finance.

AIB has also lost two chief executives – David Duffy and Bernard Byrne – and two chief financial officers (Mark Bourke and O'Grady) in recent years.

The message is clear: the pay restrictions need looking at if Irish banks are to recruit and retain top talent. The problem for Donohoe is that it remains politically toxic, not least as people have emerged from the gloom of the pandemic straight into a major cost-of-living squeeze. Sinn Féin would look to seize on any changes in the pay rules for bankers.

Change will have to come at some point, but it won’t be this side of a general election.