Will Irish banking inquiry provide the answers that people need?

Limitations placed on Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis in terms of who it can call and what questions it can ask

Finnish academic and finance expert Peter Nyberg, arriving at the opening of the banking inquiry  at Leinster House. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Finnish academic and finance expert Peter Nyberg, arriving at the opening of the banking inquiry at Leinster House. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty expects the public will be frustrated by what they see, while Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath believes there will be no “earth-shattering conclusions” from the Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis.

It’s hardly reassuring for taxpayers to hear such negativity from two of the most senior members of the very same committee on the eve of its first day of public hearings.

But such are the limitations that have been placed on the committee in terms of who it can call and what questions it can ask them that it makes you wonder if the whole exercise over the next 11 months will be worthwhile.

Peter Nyberg is first into the witness box today, if that’s not too grand a description. The Finnish academic and finance expert chaired a commission of inquiry in 2011 that laid out the reasons for the financial crash here.

The Nyberg commission conducted about 140 interviews on a confidential basis. This inquiry, chaired by Ciarán Lynch of the Labour Party, will be hoping to get many of the same people to say in public what they told Nyberg in private.

About 30 people will appear before the committee in this so-called context phase of the inquiry, which is expected to conclude before St Patrick’s Day, 2015.

It will then be on to the nexus phase, where bankers, politicians, auditors and such like will come before the committee from April onwards. This will be the meat and drink of the hearings.

Plenty of effort is being expended on the inquiry. Aside from the 11 members of the committee, a large team of staff has been assembled to see it through to its conclusion on November 30th, 2015.

My colleague Tom Lyons revealed last week that the top four investigators attached to the inquiry will be paid €566,119 between them. Nice money if you can get it.

Legal challenge

Legal advice to the committee has warned that a legal challenge could scupper the entire inquiry.

“If a person makes an application to court it will be necessary to park any issues related to that court application. It will not be possible to rule out a broad challenge which could halt the entire work of the inquiry,” the legal advice stated.

A general election in advance of the committee’s report being published would also scupper its work.

The committee is also going to steer clear of any criminal actions being taken by the Director of Public Prosecutions against various former bankers. This reduces the chances of former Anglo Irish Bank chairman Sean FitzPatrick and assorted other former executives of that bank, Irish Nationwide chief Michael Fingleton, and ex-Irish Life & Permanent boss Denis Casey and the company’s former finance chief Peter Fitzpatrick being called before the inquiry.

Former Anglo Irish Bank chief executive David Drumm is in the United States, while Central Bank Governor Patrick Honohan indicated recently that it was unlikely that European Central Bank president Mario Draghi would attending its hearings.

Former taoiseach

Eugene SheehyAIBColm DohertyBrian GogginBank of Ireland

Cowen might cite cabinet confidentiality in relation to certain questions but the former bankers won’t have any such limitations. We haven’t heard from Sheehy, Goggin et al in any meaningful way since they left the stage in 2009 with generous taxpayer-funded pensions, leaving the State to pick up a €25 billion bailout bill for their banks.

There’s a huge appetite among the public to have them account for their decisions and actions in the run-up to the crash, to see them in the flesh and hear their explanations.

Let’s hope they aren’t suffering the same memory losses as was experienced by former financial regulator Pat Neary, who himself receives a six-figure State-funded pension annually, at the Anglo trial earlier this year.

Will we learn anything new from the inquiry? That will be the acid test of the committee’s work. Doherty and McGrath appear sceptical. In which case it will be up to €6 million down the drain.

There’s no value-for-money metric that can be applied to the inquiry’s work.

However it will be worth the expense if we get some answers from the main players at the time and can finally put this sorry saga behind us. Don’t hold your breath though.

Twitter: @CiaranHancock1

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