The golf game between bankers and taoiseach that entered political mythology

Séan FizPatrick and two of the bank’s directors played golf with Brian Cowen

Former taoiseach Brian Cowen at his final press conference in September 2009. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Former taoiseach Brian Cowen at his final press conference in September 2009. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

The government led by Brian Cowen was already doomed when, in January of 2011, it was revealed that the then taoiseach had played golf with the chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, Seán FitzPatrick, and two of the bank’s directors just weeks before the 2008 bank guarantee which – disastrously – tethered the financial fortunes of the State to the doomed bank.

For many people, the July golf outing at Druid’s Glen in Wicklow was the perfect summary of the closeness of banking and property development to politics and regulators that had led the country to disaster. They were all in it together. Of course they were playing golf with each other.

Within weeks the coalition government had fallen apart, and Cowen had resigned as leader of his party, remaining in office only until a general election would supply the country with a new government. The election would see a massacre of epic proportions from which Fianna Fáil would never fully recover.

The golf game entered political mythology. All the participants would swear that banking matters were not discussed, but rather the conversations – which began during a meeting in FitzPatrick’s house in Greystones before the lads hit the fairways – centred on the general economic situation in the country at the time.

Fateful

In hindsight, we may have all been better off if the affairs of Anglo Irish Bank had been discussed during the round; it might not have done anything for anyone’s scores, but if the bankers had told the politicians about the true state of affairs at Anglo that fateful summer, perhaps the guarantee, which ultimately cost the State about €34 billion, wouldn’t have been supplied. At least not to Anglo.

And yet, the Cowen-FitzPatrick golf game was the perfect illustration of the banking-property-politics nexus that had driven the latter part of the spectacular economic boom and was now on the verge of imploding into a cataclysmic bust.

Anglo had mushroomed in size on the back of massive property lending in a booming economy. That economic boom didn’t just deliver bonuses for the bankers, though; it delivered re-election twice for Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil, in 2002 and 2007. It was this co-incidence of interests between the bankers, the builders and the politicians, while regulators and auditors took everyone’s word for everything, that meant there was no hearing for those who urged caution. When economists like UCD professor Morgan Kelly urged caution, Bertie Ahern joked that he didn’t understand why they didn’t commit suicide.

When Ahern, with his unerring timing, departed and Cowen took over, the bank had already begun a period of close contacts with government that would end in disaster for both. Shortly before he became taoiseach, invited by his close friend and adviser Fintan Drury – who was a member of the bank’s board – Cowen attended a dinner with senior Anglo figures at its St Stephen’s Green headquarters. FitzPatrick’s successor, David Drumm, would later claim that he had pressured Cowen to persuade the State’s treasury agency, the NTMA, to increase its deposits with the bank, already experiencing funding strains. Cowen would later deny this.

It is true that the political system as a whole failed in restraining itself and planning prudently for the future. But FitzPatrick will always be associated with Fianna Fáil, and his fall with that of the party. During the heady years of the Celtic Tiger, FitzPatrick’s links with government were probably no closer than the head of a major bank would expect. Then again, they didn’t have to be: the Fianna Fáil-led government had delivered everything – a booming economy, light-touch regulation, low taxes – that FitzPatrick could reasonably have wished for.

When the bust came, he went running to the State for help. It was forthcoming. And so FitzPatrick’s bank bankrupted not just itself, and its creator – it bankrupted the entire country.