Banking inquiry: anticlimax as questions go unanswered

Report managed to land some blows but lacked killer punch

It started with a minority report, featuring Socialist TD Joe Higgins rather than Hollywood heart-throb Tom Cruise.

And it concluded in the audio-visual room of Leinster House with the unveiling of three volumes of the official final report of the Oireachtas banking inquiry by the nine members who were willing (or foolish enough, depending on your point of view) to put their names to these tomes.

Higgins had bailed out in December on “ideological” grounds. In a nutshell, he thinks it was all a capitalist conspiracy, with the Government preferring to serve the interests of bankers and developers/speculators rather than ordinary citizens.

He would have preferred various politicians, bankers, bondholders and developers be jailed instead of getting “golden pensions”.


Higgins was right to have reservations about the final banking report, although his own was really nothing more than a regurgitation of his entertaining rhetoric from the past seven years.

Mind made up

The Socialist TD clearly had his mind made up before this inquiry had even started and launched his own report because the committee didn’t give sufficient validation to his views, which are genuinely held.

Ironically, Higgins's launched his report in the five-star Merrion Hotel, which is part-owned by former AIB chairman Lochlann Quinn.

Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty, who asked some of the sharpest questions during the public hearings, also outlined his own reasons for not signing the report. But the main action was in Leinster House.

Chairman Ciarán Lynch and the other committee members attempted gamely to put a positive spin on the 456-page main report and their 29 recommendations.

Lynch said the inquiry had exploded two myths: that the guarantee was hastily fashioned on the night of September 29th, 2008, in response to the unfolding crisis; and that Ireland was bounced into a bailout.

Work on a possible guarantee began in January 2008, according to the inquiry, while a bailout was inevitable given the parlous state of the exchequer finances. It was merely a question of timing.

The committee found that policy failures by politicians, weak regulation and poor commercial lending by the banks over a period of years contrived to create two crises – one banking and one fiscal.

The European Central Bank was placed firmly in the firing line for leaving Ireland to paddle its own canoe at the time of the crash in September 2008, and for twice blocking attempts by the Government around 2010-11 to implement burden sharing with bondholders.

There were sharp words for the ECB’s lack of co-operation with the inquiry and a recommendation that the Government should “seek to have the relevant statutes examined and if necessary amended to allow the ECB to participate in parliamentary inquiries”.

Other recommendations worth noting include a call for the work of Nama to be reviewed at a future date to establish its effectiveness and to establish its impact on the property market, which developers such as Michael O'Flynn and Johnny Ronan have heavily criticised.

The committee also called for a commercial property price register to be introduced and for legislation to be enacted governing the powers of the Minister for Finance relating to directions given to the National Treasury Management Agency.

This was a report into the banking crisis yet not one banker is held to account for their actions or decisions around the time of the crash. This was not the fault of the committee members, who were hamstrung by the 2013 legislation which meant they could not make findings of fact against individuals.

For legal reasons, the committee was prevented from calling many of the main actors on the banking stage at the time of the crisis, including former Anglo Irish Bank chairman Seán FitzPatrick, Anglo's former finance chief Willie McAteer, and former chief executive of Irish Life & Permanent Denis Casey.

David Drumm

It also chose not to do battle with the Director of Public Prosecutions when directed not to publish the statement the inquiry had been furnished with by David Drumm, Anglo’s former chief executive, who is currently in a US jail awaiting an extradition hearing.

As Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath put it, the committee could only “scratch at the surface” of Anglo.

The banking inquiry was the first to roadtest the complex legislation that now covers parliamentary inquiries. Lynch and his committee have published a number of recommendations on the legislation, that might yet be the best legacy of their work if it improves the framework for future committees.

Yesterday’s release of thousands of supporting documents used by the committee in its work, yielded at least one nugget: namely that the NTMA advised the Government in March 2011 that a haircut of €9.1 billion could be imposed on senior bondholders across the six covered institutions.

The NTMA’s view was that the markets had already priced in such burden-sharing in the respective bonds and advised that “immediate steps” should be taken, subject to a potential “adverse reaction from the external authorities”.

This haircut was never imposed.

In his evidence, the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan had told the inquiry how on March 31st, 2011, he had intended to announce burden-sharing of €3.7 billion of unsecured unguaranteed senior debt in Anglo and Irish Nationwide in early 2011. But Jean-Claude Trichet warned him a bomb would go off in Dublin if he proceeded, and the threat by the ECB to withdraw emergency liquidity support from the Irish banks, which was a multiple of the haircut that was proposed, was deemed too big a risk and so Noonan ditched the plan.

Hang in the air

What of the various recommendations? Will they be allowed to hang in the air like so many have before from various tribunals?

Fine Gael’s Kieran O’Donnell said all of the members would seek to ensure the next administration would implement the recommendations. Given past experience, we can only wish them well with that endeavour.

The banking report lacked a killer punch but that’s not to say that it didn’t deliver any blows.

The public hearings forced many of the main players at the time of the crash to answer for themselves in public for the first time.

In addition, the thousands of core documents supporting the report shine an important light on the advice given, and decisions considered, around the time of the crash by the various banks, auditors, the department of finance, Central Bank of Ireland and other institutions. And yet there is a sense of disappointment about the whole thing. A sense of anticlimax. And a feeling that even if the committee had been given more time to round off its work, the final outcome would not have been much different.

The big shame about this inquiry is that many questions remain unanswered.

Ciarán Hancock

Ciarán Hancock

Ciarán Hancock is Business Editor of The Irish Times