Banking Inquiry: Return of Cowen no blockbuster

Little in the way of new information as last of box-office witnesses gives evidence

Former taoiseach Brian Cowen arriving to the Banking Inquiry at Leinster House. Photograph: Collins

Former taoiseach Brian Cowen arriving to the Banking Inquiry at Leinster House. Photograph: Collins

 

Brian Cowen: the Evidence – Part II.

This dealt with his time as Taoiseach from May 2008 to March 2011. There were three key themes: the night of the bank guarantee on September 29th 2008, the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank in January 2010 and the negotiations around our EU-IMF bailout programme in late 2010.

There was plenty of colour around these major events for the State if little by way of new information, other than the fact that €2 billion of deposits left Anglo on the day of the guarantee, while the National Treasury Management Agency was in favour of Anglo being nationalised, mirroring the views of former finance minister Brian Lenihan and senior department official Kevin Cardiff.

Cowen held tough to previous testimony that various social outings with Anglo executives had not involved any talk about the bank or its difficulties.

“As God is my witness, that is the truth,” he told Pearse Doherty of Sinn Féin.

He once again accepted responsibility for his part in the crisis but asserted that he had always sought to do what was “right for the country”.

Having spent more than 21 hours in front of the inquiry over two days, the picture you might draw is of a man who sleepwalked his way into the crisis in his time as minister for finance but who awoke in autumn 2008, in time for the bank decision guarantee, the nationalisation of Anglo and recapitalisation of other Irish banks, and the bailout negotiations.

Decisive

Not that this will mean much to those who lost jobs, are drowning in mortgage arrears or have had vital social services denied them.

Of course, Cowen had Lenihan by his side during his time as taoiseach and much of that drive to contain the crisis might be attributable to the late minister for finance’s work.

Cowen also praised the work of the then attorney general, Paul Gallagher, during the crisis years.

According to Cowen, it was “April-May” 2008 when consideration began to the possible need to prepare legislation for a guarantee of Irish banks. Up to that point, the nature of the “scoping” work being done by officials was around “institution-specific solutions” rather than systemic ones.

Cowen is satisfied the blanket bank guarantee of September 29th, 2008, was the best option at the time, given the information the government had to hand.

Open-ended guarantee

“We needed to get cash into the system quickly,” he said.

So he made the call for a blanket guarantee.

As it turned out, it was only a four-month stay of execution before Anglo was nationalised as corporate governance issued emerged and billions in corporate deposits were removed by customers.

He is clearly sore about the European Central Bank’s tactics in trying to bounce Ireland into a bailout in late 2010.

He accused the ECB of using selective briefings with media to undermine Ireland’s position as it sought to quietly scope out the terms of a possible bailout.

This shadow-boxing between the government and the ECB resulted in Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan taking to the RTÉ airwaves to put the public in the picture.

Cowen accepted he mishandled the situation but insisted he wasn’t trying to deceive the public. However, this probably sealed his fate, and that of Fianna Fáil, with the electorate.

Cowen was probably the last of the box-office attractions that will come before the committee, especially as many of the Anglo executives are trying desperately to dodge the inquiry.

Biffo’s evidence was entertaining if not exactly blockbuster material and the inquiry will do well to retain public interest from this onwards.