Miriam Lord: Brian Cowen turns former associates into roadkill over bank crash

‘Front-line folk are useful, when an urgent need arises to throw bodies under the bus’

Former taoiseach Brian Cowen speaks to the media as he arrives for his appearance before the Oireachtas banking inquiry at Leinster House on Thursday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times.

Former taoiseach Brian Cowen speaks to the media as he arrives for his appearance before the Oireachtas banking inquiry at Leinster House on Thursday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times.

 

Anglo Irish Bank was going down the tubes. Alarm bells were going off everywhere.

But it wasn’t Brian Cowen’s job to keep a watchful eye on what was happening. He was merely the minister for finance. He had “front-line people” to do that for him. Front- line folk are very useful, particularly when an urgent need arises to throw some bodies under the bus.

By the time Cowen finished the first of his two appearances before the Oireachtas banking inquiry, his top brass in the Department of Finance were flattened and covered in tyre marks. The regulators were mangled. The bankers ended up as roadkill. But Biffo made sure his bones remained unbroken.

He stressed he was not in Leinster House “to pass judgment on anybody else”. He was simply there to enlighten the inquiry about “contemporary thinking” in the higher echelons before and during the banking crisis.

If Charlie McCreevy made the blood boil during his stint before the committee on Tuesday, Cowen did a fine job of keeping the nation’s circulation on a steady simmer.

He was a much different kettle of fish from the evasive and self-regarding McCreevy. The former taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader began his 10 hours of testimony by supplying The Apology. This earned him valuable brownie points in the quest to find out who should carry the can for the catastrophe which brought the country to its knees.

It was a promising start.

Full responsibility

As head of government when the hurricane hit, he manfully accepted “full and complete responsibility for what happened”. Furthermore, he was “sorry that the policies we felt necessary to put in place in responding to the financial crisis brought with it hardship and distress to many people”.

But not sorry, it seems, for his government’s handling of the economy which contributed hugely to the need to put in place those policies. Oh, and lest there be any doubt, nothing he was to say was to be interpreted by anyone, in any way, as an attempt by him “to pass the buck”.

That being said, the buck immediately turned into a hot potato and he proceeded to palm it off in any direction he could.

For the morning session, Cowen dealt with his period in Finance from 2004 to 2007 and his pre-election giveaway budget. With hindsight, he may have been overly generous. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, as he kept reminding everyone. Did they remember Enda Kenny’s manifesto in 2007? If Fianna Fáil promised the stars, Enda offered the sun and the moon to go with them.

He wasn’t wrong. But Kenny wasn’t in power. He was.

The early part of his ministerial reign was an easy topic. He coped easily with the questions. The economy was flying. European neighbours couldn’t praise us enough at the time. And sure he made life easier for ordinary people.

When Fine Gael’s Kieran O’Donnell tried to mix it politically with him – “What about the young people” struggling to buy houses which kept soaring in value? – he slapped him down impressively. “Let me say, deputy, you have no monopoly on upset!”

Biffo had four years in solitary, dwelling about being upset. When he finally emerged from hibernation yesterday he was ready for the fight. Biffo skated through the opening phase. Helped by the determination of some of his interrogators to score political points. Joe Higgins was full of conspiracy theories about the Galway tent and the deals done there. “Mythology,” sniffed Cowen. If anything underhand was happening, they certainly wouldn’t have been inviting the media inside.

There was more than a touch of the McCreevys about him, however, despite the more nuanced performance. As the hours passed and issues moved to his post-2007 stewardship, gaps appeared.

By lunchtime the bullish Biffo was far more subdued, for all his gesticulating and table- banging. Things got far more interesting when the issue of Anglo, and his state of knowledge about the bank came up. In particular, how he dealt with the crisis which erupted there in 2008. It all seemed to kick off over St Patrick’s weekend. Bear Stearns collapsed in the US and the knock-on effect saw Anglo’s shares dramatically plummet. There were rumours about Seán Quinn’s massive debts. Seán FitzPatrick got on the blower to tell him about the whole mess. Biffo referred him to the regulator before going off to Vietnam on shamrock duty. He didn’t really think about keeping an eye on what was happening in the bank after that.

He had a lot of things on his mind. Not least, how to get rid of Bertie Ahern, who was making a holy show of Fianna Fáil in the Mahon tribunal. His return coincided with Gráinne Carruth’s devastating evidence. He paid a visit to Bertie, sealing Ahern’s fate and setting Cowen up for the top job.

Anglo dinner

A month later and he was about to become taoiseach. His mate in Anglo, Fintan Drury, who was also moving to a new job, got in touch. Would he fancy dinner with the Anglo guys, now that he was leaving Finance and becoming just a lowly taoiseach ?

They hadn’t met up until then. So off he went. They didn’t discuss banking. Definitely not. Not his business. It was just “a social event”.

Then again, he wasn’t made aware of any great crisis. Pearse Doherty was agog. Here he was, an outgoing minister for finance, about to become the boss, with an international economic crisis in full swing, serious concerns about Ireland’s economy and Anglo having just suffered a massive share drop. Did he not think to ask a few questions?

No, he didn’t. It was an informal event. He didn’t want to interfere with regulators. “I was being informed, generally.”

If nothing else, it says a lot about Cowen’s judgment.

Nobody ever approached him asking about a bank guarantee. Like McCreevy, he also suffered from bubble blindness. He’s adamant that none of his policies contributed to the property madness. “We set out to ensure that we could ease the bubble back on a soft landing projection, as was suggested would happen.”

But then he admitted his department never produced a document saying there would be a soft landing. But somebody must have convinced him of it.

But hey, he apologised. And that’s all that matters. Isn’t it?