Golden boys still raking it in


POLITICS: Shane Ross and Nick Webb argue that many of the architects of the crisis are doing just fine

The Untouchables By Shane Ross and Nick Webb, Penguin Ireland, 298pp. €13.99

SHANE ROSS and Nick Webb’s previous book, Wasters, concerned the misuses of State funds, poor governance, organisational failure and cronyism in public bodies in Ireland. In The Untouchables they turn their attention to individuals in positions of power and influence, and the organisations they work for, who have managed to weather the present crisis somewhat better than might be expected.

Ross and Webb’s principal argument is that the blame for Ireland’s woes extends well beyond politicians and that, despite calamitous failures, most of the architects of the crisis remain in their posts or businesses, and the same mindsets predominate.

Precious little reform has taken place, they write, despite the election promises of Fine Gael and Labour for quick action. Fianna Fáil and the Greens may have paid the price for the disastrous decisions they made in the previous government, but their elite networks, political patronage and poor systems of governance and regulation mean many powerful individuals and vested interests continue to thrive.

Their examination focuses on eight main groups, with a chapter devoted to each. Their investigative strategy is to scrutinise the careers and networks of particular individuals and the relationships between different institutions (for example, political parties, businesses, government agencies), charting the tangled web of mutually supportive arrangements.

First under their forensic glare are senior civil servants, particularly those at the Department of Finance, and how senior managers have remained in their posts or have been promoted postcrash, with slow institutional reform. Next they turn to the bankers and the postbailout careers of several high-flying managers. This is followed by the work of highly connected political lobbyists who have successfully represented the interests of vested groups and also sought to protect their own endeavours from scrutiny.

The management boards of quangos are then examined with respect to patronage and interconnections. This is followed by a look at the fortunes of lawyers, accountants, consultants and auditors, many of whom advised the government and banks prior to the crisis and then swapped to advising how to undo the consequences of their previous counsel, and who also work for and give advice to multiple, competing interests, arguing that the use of robust systems of Chinese walls avoids conflicts of interest.

Next up are pension-fund managers who have lost a fortune from pension schemes but remain in post. This is followed by an examination of the role of Nama not only in protecting the interests of failed property developers, property companies and banks but also in employing their former staff – the architects of the property and banking crash – to perform due diligence and engage the services of the companies they previously worked for.

Lastly, they detail how the appointment of judges is actively shaped by political patronage and how the judiciary has worked to protect their own interests, such as pay and lack of oversight. In a final chapter they present a directory of the members of Ireland’s golden circle (a number of whom do not appear in the previous chapters).

Across the eight main chapters the weight of evidence Ross and Webb present is damning, leaving the reader in no doubt that there are serious problems of poor practice, conflicts of interest, cronyism and, at times, corruption at play with respect to corporate and institutional governance in Ireland. That said, there are four major shortcomings that somewhat weaken the overall impact.

First, the book assumes a certain level of knowledge of and familiarity with Irish life and politics and lacks contextualisation. There is no introductory chapter that discusses how governance, and corporate governance in particular, or wider political and business cultures, are constituted and operate in Ireland, or how Ireland compares with other countries.

Second, the analysis presented is limited. The material is largely descriptive, documenting various examples of problematic practices and outcomes, with a particular focus on certain individuals and organisations. It thus provides some empirical evidence but doesn’t seek to explain why such situations arise or how power is reproduced structurally.

The result is that the narrative rarely extends beyond an indignant list of supposed crimes and perpetrators, rather than seeking to make sense of the condition it portrays.

Third, I say “supposed crimes” because the evidence presented at times seems to consist of little more than conjecture and insinuation, no doubt for legal reasons. In these cases substantive proof of any wrong-doing or incompetence is assumed to be self-evident.

Fourth, the book fails to set out in detail what needs to happen to remedy the situation described. Ross and Webb might plead that their aim was to identify and report significant issues, not to prescribe solutions. Shane Ross, however, is a TD. It is the job of politicians to formulate and promote policy designed to tackle significant issues. As such, it is not enough to strongly imply that what is needed is transparent due process and better regulation. Instead, it needs to be explicitly detailed, accompanied by a set of specific policy and legislative changes needed to make all citizens touchable and accountable. As such, the book misses an important opportunity to set out a road map for reform.

Despite these shortcomings The Untouchables is a fascinating book that provides a public service in documenting and exposing poor governance and dodgy patronage that maintains the position of powerful individuals and vested interests in spite of their record. It is required reading for anyone interested in how crony capitalism and power work in practice in Ireland.

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