A senior banker’s view on how Irish banks went bad

How did the many ‘decent honest bankers’ I knew let the crash happen? Nobody shouted stop

Gerry Moloney: banker turned author

Gerry Moloney: banker turned author

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A few years ago I was sitting reading my Irish Times on the train to Waterford when a passenger got on. Before he even sat down, he greeted the man sitting opposite me with ‘Did you see those f**kers in AIB are at it again?’ The reply was ‘Ah sure, all bankers are nothing but a pack of shysters’.

Nothing remarkable about that exchange you might say, but my immediate reaction was that it was extremely unfair to many ‘decent honest bankers’ I know. But on further reflection, an interesting question occurred to me: if there were as many ‘decent honest bankers’ around as I believed, how come the crash happened?

This in turn led me to the even more interesting question: how had the excesses of the Celtic Tiger boom years been allowed to happen? Why had the fail-safe mechanisms in the financial system not kicked in?

Most people have their own views as to what went wrong, usually focusing on widespread, unfettered greed meeting up with an erosion of ethical standards, accountability and weak governance – at all levels. In the financial world, safety checks around the management of conflicts of interest and the exercise of prudence became diluted or circumvented, and light-touch regulation was the order of the day.

In the relentless pursuit of making an easy fast buck, the customer became fair game, and the issue developed into a complex, full-scale crisis. And as HL Mencken once remarked, ‘for every complex problem there is a simple solution – and it’s wrong’.

So how then did so many ‘decent honest bankers’ apparently buy into this? I think a big clue lies in the innate wish of individuals to belong in whatever ‘social’ groups they find themselves members of.

Bankers are no different. They want to belong to the team and play by the rules as set out for them. Furthermore they are willing to make compromises to stay aboard, and will seek to accommodate requests or practices about which they may have some personal reservations. The alternative is to risk being regarded as an awkward employee (at best), and instead of being rewarded, risk banishment to the sideline – or further. They learn what pays is keeping the head down and not rocking boats. They learn that it pays to keep any moral reservations to themselves. Though understandable, this is acquiescence through inaction, or, to put it more strongly, moral cowardice.

At the time of my encounter on the Waterford train, I was considering writing a novel. Some years earlier when I left AIB, I decided I wanted to scale back my business commitments and try to engage my creative brain some more. I attended a short story writing class in UCD, and then joined a writing group.

Later I enrolled in the creative writing certificate course at NUI Maynooth, and it was there the idea of penning a novel was born. I struggled however to identify a theme that I was satisfied would sustain a full-length novel. I knew it needed to be something that I felt strongly about, and also it needed to have something to do with the frailties of the human condition.

My light bulb moment happened that morning on the Waterford train. Just what was it that prevented my ‘decent honest bankers’ from shouting ‘stop’ to the banking excesses during the Celtic Tiger years?

Accounts of these excesses have already been written, of course, such as Frank Connolly’s Nama Land and Dearbhail McDonald’s Bust. However, whilst these nonfiction works provide excellent insights into real events during those years, by their nature they do not (indeed could not) capture the thinking of the players they portray. If nothing else, libel laws would probably put paid to any meaningful attempts.

So I realised that with a fictionalised account, I would be able bring more focus to the moral dilemma that lay at the heart of the issue.

In my novel, I cast my protagonist as my ‘decent honest banker’. Initially he thinks he’s in control of his own destiny. However, as the action ratchets up, his sense of (misplaced) loyalty to his employer causes him to become increasingly enmeshed in a web of sleaze – insider trading, tax avoidance, circumvention of accounting standards etc. Personal crisis follows, and in his search for a resolution, he comes to realise that all of his escape options are going to cost him dear.

I also wanted to give the reader maximum insights into the protagonist’s mounting sense of entrapment, so I placed her in his head, by giving him an inner voice (borrowed from Leopold Bloom!). This device not only gives the reader access to the protagonist’s thought process, but also his double speak: voicing views which are contrary to what he actually believes.

For me as author, the most interesting aspect of the story was penning the protagonist’s inner struggle, and being a big Graham Greene fan stood me in good stead, eg The End of the Affair, and The Power and the Glory.

A writer must entertain and not bore his reader, of course, and so to keep her on board, A Game of Consequences clips along apace, and is injected with considerably wry humour – on the surface. Ever present, however, is the moral dilemma of what happens when one sleepwalks their way into issues and fails to take personal responsibility.

I’ve set my story in banking – partly because of my background – but it seems to me that this tale of our times could be as readily set in many other organisations where the actions of the few go unchallenged by the ‘great silent majority’ eg the paedophilia in the Church, or the phantom breathalysing in the Garda Síochána.

Do I think there could be another financial crisis? Well, given human nature’s predilection towards greed, and tendency to shirk taking personal responsibility, the potential is always there. However, the corrective actions taken by the regulator, albeit somewhat belatedly, make it highly unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future.
Gerry Moloney was formerly head of AIB’s stockbroking firm Allied Irish Securities and investment director of Enterprise Ireland. A Game of Consequences by Gerry Moloney is published by Austin Macauley

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