Judge Judy-style Oireachtas inquiry would get Cowen off hook on banks


BUSINESS OPINION:IT’S STILL far from clear at this stage whether we will have some sort of inquiry into the collapse of the banking system. The intervention by the Green Party just before Christmas would seem to make an inquiry more likely. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the Taoiseach’s legendary stubbornness in this regard.

The case for an inquiry is, of course, overwhelming. During the next six months, the State will borrow in the region of €50 billion, which it will use to buy a mixture of good and rubbish assets off a broken banking system.

It is, arguably, the single biggest political act ever undertaken by any Irish government. Its consequences will mark – and potentially blight – the State and its citizens for generations.

We understand pretty well why we must do it: the banking system is broken and needs to be fixed. You can argue about how best to do it, but no solution is risk free or cheap.

The Government, however, had to make a decision and its choice is the National Asset Management Agency (Nama).

But what is truly amazing is that no explanation has been furnished to the people footing the bill – you the public – as to how this all came to pass. It’s something of an insult, but nothing new at the same time.

There is no official version of what actually went wrong with the Irish banking system. The closest thing is probably the comments made at various points by various Government Ministers over the last 1½ years.

None of them even comes close to putting a coherent shape on how our banks went bust. The vacuum has been filled by numerous articles, analysts’ reports, TV programmes and several books. A consensus has emerged, numerous individuals have been demonised, and now it appears we have accepted the media consensus as fact and moved on with Nama.

A journalist would be the first person to tell you how dangerous it is to rely on what can most kindly be described as the first draft of history.

Given the overwhelming logic for having some sort of official explanation for the banking catastrophe, one cannot escape that conclusion that the Government is just trying to avoid being held to account.

In the normal course of events, you would assume that any Government about to spent €50 billion of taxpayers’ money would be at least mildly curious about the causes of the disaster that necessitated it.

Presumably the partial picture they have in their heads of what went wrong is so damning as to discourage any further investigation. It’s not surprising given that they have been in power for 12 years, with the Taoiseach holding the finance brief at a critical juncture.

It is, of course, symptomatic of the national ambivalence when it comes to accountability, the most recent manifestation being the logical hoops through which various bishops are jumping to avoid paying the price for their incompetence or worse.

This brings us to the other amazing thing about the Government’s handling of the growing clamour for an official inquiry. And that is why they don’t grasp with two hands the chance for an inquiry by a Oireachtas committee. Anyone who has ever sat through such a committee will realise that getting to the facts of a matter is at best secondary to political consideration.

Even the Oireachtas committee system’s so called finest hour – the Public Accounts Committee’s investigation into Dirt accounts – was little more than political grandstanding.

The committee sat for countless days, called countless witnesses – along with their lawyers – and subjected them to the Judge Judy treatment.

Their efforts uncovered little that was not already detailed by the Comptroller Auditor General’s report into the issue, which underpinned their inquiry.

The one area into which the CAG could not stray – but did allude to – was strenuously avoided. The CAG report made it clear that every minister for finance during the relevant period was aware to some extent of the Dirt issue, but none of them tried to address the issue.

This manifest failure of senior politicians and the political system was simply sidestepped, as you might expect from an inquiry conducted by their peers.

An Oireachtas inquiry looks like the ideal solution to the problem confronting the Government. A Circus Maximus-style public torturing of various bankers and regulators will please the crowds and hopefully distract attention from a complete failure to hold any politician to account for their expensive incompetence.