How elections got in the way of a good report

Ciarán Hancock: There was never going to be a silver bullet from the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry but there always needed to be a report

“The real strength of the inquiry is its ability not just to look at one document in isolation but to draw together the different strands from various sources, along with key public testimony, to get a better picture of what happened, to put in place the pieces of the jigsaw which made up the banking crisis. Over the coming months, the committee and its team will work on bringing together all of the ingredients for its final report.”

So said Ciarán Lynch, chairman of the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry, on the final day of public hearings on September 10th.

We now know that the 750-page draft report produced by its support staff did not meet this standard. It was not fit for purpose, according to many of the 11 committee members, who wanted to rip it up and start again.

They complained of it being long-winded and devoid of much relevant testimony, such as Michael Noonan's comment on the final day of hearings to the effect that former European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet had warned in March 2011 that a "bomb will go off" in Dublin if Anglo Irish Bank bondholders were burned, as the Government had planned.

After some emergency sessions, a report finalisation team, headed by Eoghan Murphy of Fine Gael and Labour Senator Susan O'Keeffe, looks set to produce a slimmed report by the weekend that could be published by the January 20th deadline.

New evidence

It will be less than half the size of the original draft and will focus on new evidence uncovered by the committee’s work, with little by way of context.

This is probably fair enough given the public’s appetite for something meaningful by way of conclusions or recommendations even if it renders the near four months of hearings in the so-called “context phase” as largely redundant.

There were many flaws in the design of the banking inquiry. It was set up too late in the life of the current Government given the breath and scope of work they were asked to undertake.

The clock was always ticking down to the general election, the calling of which would have resulted in the inquiry falling.

The committee was prevented by the DPP from calling various prime witnesses for fear it might interfere with legal proceedings being undertaken by the State. And no findings of fact can be made in circumstances were there is a conflict in evidence.

But the committee has to take some responsibility for its shortcomings, too. The context phase, which set the scene for the banking crisis, was too long- winded and involved a number of witnesses who were frankly irrelevant.

Unnecessary distraction

The allegations by the whistleblower, which were dismissed in a review by senior counsel Senan Allen, were badly handled, with the chairman and a couple of other committee members in receipt of the claims well before their fellow inquiry participants. This led to internal arguments and unnecessary distraction at a key time in the committee’s hearings.

Members should also have involved themselves more in the report writing stage of the inquiry’s work. If they had, the draft report that was provided to them on November 16th would not have come as such of a shock.

Chapter by chapter updates might have helped to flag the shortcomings in the report at an earlier stage. Too much faith was placed in the support staff to produce the report that committee members wanted.

Having sat through months of exhausting hearings, the members took their eyes off the ball, possibly because most of them were playing catch up in canvassing for the next election.

They should never have found themselves in this situation, frantically trying to cobble something together at the last minute because the original draft was so inadequate.

In the finish, the close proximity of the general election focused minds. As Michael McGrath said on Seán O’Rourke’s radio show yesterday, failure was not an option.

Voters would have been unforgiving with those committee members seeking election given that the bill for the inquiry will be close to €6 million.

There was never going to be a silver bullet from their work but there always needed to be a report.

Twitter: @CiaranHancock1