Banking inquiry was too tall an order from the start

It was set up too late in the Government’s term to complete the huge workload

Former taoiseach Brian Cowen  left the inquiry hearings without suffering further blows to his reputation. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Former taoiseach Brian Cowen left the inquiry hearings without suffering further blows to his reputation. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Talking privately to members of the banking inquiry in recent days, they sounded less like doctors trying to keep it alive and more like pathologists carrying out a postmortem. They have posited multiple reasons for its demise but the over-riding one was that it was too tall an order from the start.

The inquiry was established in November 2014 and began its public hearings in April of this year. Granted, the Commission of Investigation chaired by Peter Nyberg into the banking collapse (which has become the gold standard) completed its work in six months, but this was very much the exception rather than the rule.

The Fennelly and IBRC commissions have sought extensions and will be lucky to finish at the end of 2016. The Smithwick Tribunal into alleged Garda collusion in the shooting of two RUC officers was established in 2005 but did not report until the end of 2013. The Moriarty and planning tribunals both took more than 14 years to complete.

The banking inquiry was set up too late in the Government’s term to complete its huge workload. In the end there were 413 hours of evidence in addition to 69 private sessions.

One could question the need for the “context” phase, where authors of previous reports on the banking crisis – as well as journalists and commentators – were brought in, essentially, to repeat what they had said previously. What new knowledge did they impart?

It was only in the pretentiously named Nexus phase that bankers, regulators and decision-making politicians became involved. Another complication was that a whistleblower came forward with allegations that had to be investigated.

Why did it all happen so late in the cycle? The reason can be traced back to 2011 when the Government hurried in a referendum aimed at giving parliamentary inquiries more powers, but this failed to be passed. A banking inquiry was promised by the Coalition but the watered-down parliamentary inquiries legislation that finally emerged in 2013 was very limited in powers.

In addition, part of the political imperative for holding an inquiry (to remind everybody of Fianna Fáil profligacy) had passed. The anger towards Fianna Fáil had abated by the time it was held. Neither Bertie Ahern nor Brian Cowen walked out of the inquiry hearings having suffered any further blows to their reputation.

Limitations

The hearings exposed the limitations of the legislation. So much so that Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins said this week that no inquiry should ever be held again under the Act.

The net effect was that some members felt like eagles with clipped wings. For example, the Act expressly prohibited any findings of fact if those facts were “contradicted by any witness or other person giving evidence”.

In other words, the inquiry could not make a finding of fact that banks recklessly lent money. The reason? That assertion was contradicted by banking witnesses.

That said, some evidence was new and of immense importance when it came to understanding the bank collapse. Perhaps too much political stock was placed in the report rather than in the hearings. It could never be conclusive. It is also clear that some of the members had unrealistic expectations of what could be achieved.

Even so, why was it left to the investigation team to write it? They were financial investigators and civil servants, not authors or lawyers who were more used to writing such reports. The job was divided between multiple authors.

When they tried to marry their work, it was incoherent, contradictory, full of omissions and gaps. There were reportedly hundreds of amendments submitted by the 11 members to be considered too, but they now have been abandoned.

This was the first time an inquiry was held under the 2013 Act. It had to set out protocols and methodologies. At least a month had to be factored in to allow those named in the report to respond to its findings. Excerpts of the final report relating to them have to be physically delivered to everybody named.

If it were a commission of inquiry it would have been given a time extension of a year to complete its work, but it’s a parliamentary committee, and all of its work and functions will expire with the dissolution of the Dáil. That’s why it is all so desperate.

By the numbers

€4.942 million – The cost (as of September)

111 – Public hearing sessions

70 – Private sessions

413 – Hours of sitting in public session

42 – Witness statements

44 – Support staff

11 – Members

42,000 – The number of documents received

500,000+ – The number of pages

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