The €7bn man sliced up in bank operation

 

DÁIL SKETCH:“Stand aside Nurse Cowen!” he cried, “I’m going deep into the banking system . . .” Oh, how we swooned back in September, when a masterful Minister for Finance took control of the situation, declaring he was about to perform a spot of open heart surgery on our ailing financial institutions.

Sadly, by yesterday afternoon, Brian’s brave boast had more than a touch of Walter Mitty about it.

Of course, such an operation was impossible – the patient didn’t have a heart in the first place.

Lenihan should have carried out keyhole surgery on their bottom line. And if that didn’t work, prescribed some vigorous intervention via the long arm of the law.

Two things Lenihan is not. He is not a surgeon, and he is not an economist. However, he has theatre nurses in his department to advise him what to do. As we discovered yesterday, these officials also come in handy when the Minister needs to be bailed out of a very embarrassing situation. As in: “I did read extensive parts of the report, which my officials outlined to me were of fundamental importance.” But he didn’t read the bit to do with Anglo Irish Bank cooking its books so the balance sheet would look good.

But Brian is a very busy man. One can appreciate the volume of paper that lands on his desk every day. Apparently, he was too busy to read a 120-page consultant’s report into the state of Anglo Irish Bank. A bank on the verge of going bust; a bad bank whose deposits he had already guaranteed and would be eventually forced to nationalise; a very bad bank that the dogs in the street were barking about when the report arrived in his office.

Two things Lenihan most definitely is: an experienced senior counsel and the current Minister for Finance.

He tells an astonished Dáil that his officials never alerted him to a dodgy €7 billion transaction on the books of Anglo Irish, even though they were concerned enough to refer the matter to the financial regulator.

Senior counsel Lenihan never thought to ask them why they were calling in the regulator, and the advisers never thought to tell him why they had been “concerned.” Did they think he couldn’t handle the truth? Opposition deputies didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Meanwhile, Lenihan sat on his own on the Government front bench. His Cabinet colleagues were closeted at a meeting, trying to finalise the deal to recapitalise AIB and the Bank of Ireland. He looked very lonely.

Later on around Leinster House, some Government TDs were trying their best to defend their Minister. “Do you read all the way to the end of an article in the newspaper?” demanded one.

In mitigation, senior counsel Lenihan pleaded that the consultant’s report by PricewaterhouseCoopers concerned all the financial institutions that came under the Government’s bank guarantee.

A hundred and twenty pages on each one, no less, said Brian. “So it’s a very long report.” The man is a lawyer – a silk, no less. These guys are supposed to eat complex briefs for breakfast. It’s their job. But this one was too complicated for Lenihan, who never read the relevant passage on the seven billion “digout to beat all digouts”, as Eamon Gilmore called it earlier in the day.

This is the same PWC report that the two Brians and their Ministers kept roaring about in recent months when the Opposition dared to ask how their investigation into the banks was coming along. This PWC report was the cats pyjamas. Until yesterday, when the Minister for Finance said he didn’t read it all.

Some people are very suspicious about this. They are asking whether it is more convenient for the Minister to say he only read extracts from the report, depending on his advisers to keep him up to speed.

This way, when more terrible news comes down the line and it may or may not have been flagged by the PWC report, the Minister can say it was not in the part he managed to read.

In the case of the Anglo seven billion, it appears that some stupid civil servant forgot to circle the relevant passage with the big red crayon, and so, senior counsel Lenihan never read it.

Things are fine in the Dáil when there’s a big row going on. But as the story of what Brian didn’t know unfolded yesterday afternoon, the Minister was treated to the ultimate indignity – deputies were openly laughing at him. They nearly needed oxygen when he was asked if he had ever met Anglo’s former CEO, Seán FitzPatrick. Only the once, admitted the Minister. When Anglo-Irish were trying to buy the Irish Nationwide building society.

In the face of such derision, Lenihan tried to row back a little on his state of knowledge. But the damage was done. Not least because he also told the Dáil that he didn’t tell his Taoiseach either about the seven billion.

The explanation was bizarre. It was to do with protecting customer confidentiality. What did he think his Taoiseach was going to do? Rent another lorry, go to Tullamore and sing the details of the transaction from the back of it?

Lenihan’s dreadful day finished with a row. The Labour Party accused him of running out of the chamber without answering all the questions. Deputy Róisín Shortall got very annoyed. She accused the Ceann Comhairle of letting Lenihan “skulk” away under his cover.

Then the Ceann Comhairle got annoyed and demanded an apology. There was none forthcoming, so Róisín was asked to leave the chamber. She refused, and staged a brief sit-in, with her party colleagues remaining supportively with her.

Eventually, Labour walked out, all trying their best not to smirk.

Still, every cloud has a silver lining. For once, a different Brian was suffering in the Dáil.