Trust me, I'm a banker

 

Profile: As a high-flying barrister Dermot Gleeson had great success convincing juries but as chairman of AIB, he now has the tough job of reassuring a sceptical public, writes Paul Cullen.

As Icarus found to his cost, flying too high can have its disadvantages; after all, the higher you go, the further you have to fall. Dermot Gleeson, who is now AIB chairman after a brilliant career as a lawyer, might well ponder the fate of Icarus this weekend as he works out a strategy to save the bank from itself.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the future of Ireland's biggest bank is in jeopardy following the revelations of the past month. After all, the share price has been barely affected and its hold on the Irish market remains undented.

Yet the former Attorney General must know that there could be worse to come, as AIB's scandal-a-day performance starts to verge on the slapstick. Further controversy could damage the hitherto solid veneer of investor confidence, in which case the resultant slide would send Gleeson, the bank's top executives and its share price into freefall.

His job now is to steady the AIB ship. As chairman, he has to find a solution that deals with the scandals, and is seen to deal with them, while not interfering with the bullish formula that has made the bank so successful (and so error-prone).

So far, the 56-year-old Corkman has played for time, and kept a low profile. Having established an inquiry when the first scandal broke last month, he has steadfastly refused to break his silence until that report is ready. However, refusing this week to appear before a Dáil committee when the public is baying for the bank's blood on RTÉ's Liveline makes for poor optics.

Meanwhile, the scandals continue to mount in number and gravity.

The first scandal, in which the bank overcharged customers on foreign exchange transactions, could possibly be explained away, but what about the Faldor offshore investment scheme for the bank's senior managers? Several of the names outed as participants in this scheme have firmly resisted any attempt to shovel blame on them. Instead, they have pointed the accusatory finger back at AIB. While the bank said it told the Revenue about the scheme last year, it now seems this only happened because AIB was about to be rumbled.

Gleeson only took up the chairman's job last October, so the various crises are clearly not of his making. However, he was groomed for the job for over a year previously and has had a seat on the AIB board since May 2000. Before that, he represented the bank at the Dáil Public Accounts Committee hearings into the DIRT scandal. At the time of his appointment, AIB was quick to reject any suggestion that he was being rewarded for limiting the damage suffered by the bank at this inquiry.

The bank eventually made a €114 million settlement with the Revenue, the largest in the history of the State.

This wouldn't be the first time Gleeson has walked into someone else's mess. As Attorney General in the Rainbow Coalition between 1994 and 1997, he had the job of cleaning up after the controversy over the paedophile priest, Brendan Smyth, which caused the downfall of the previous Fianna Fáil/Labour government.

Initially things went from bad to worse, with controversy over the failure of his office to reply for six months to a letter seeking compensation for Smyth's victims. Eventually, though, Gleeson was credited with restoring confidence in the AG's office.

His stint as AG was more low-key than might have been expected from one of the country's most respected barristers. The divorce referendum put forward by his Government squeezed through by a whisker, but he was unable to provide legal advice in a variety of areas because of previous work carried out when he was a barrister. The Coalition had passed out of office before he could really make his mark on the job.

Even before he became the youngest person to be made a senior counsel at the age of 30, Gleeson has stood out from the rest of his peers for his work rate and his ability to master complex work. These qualities, combined with a general affability and an aversion to grandstanding, have made him both popular and admired.

He first came to public attention during the Beef Tribunal, when he represented beef baron Larry Goodman and his companies. Back in the early 1990s, he was commanding fees of over €3,000 a day, but Goodman must have thought him well worth the money, as the barrister harried hostile witnesses with a vigour and thoroughness that went well beyond the call of professional duties.

As the toast of the Law Library, he could choose what cases to take on. Legal sources say he was always careful to balance his career between lucrative commercial work and prestigious constitutional cases.

He gained a reputation for taking on "pro bono" (or, more accurately, "no foal, no fee") cases on behalf of "the little man" against international corporations. He represented the Tipperary farmer, John Hanrahan, in his long action against pharmaceutical company Merck Sharpe & Dohme. Hanrahan lost the case in the High Court but eventually won €3 million in damages on appeal to the Supreme Court. He also represented Margaret Best in her action against the Wellcome Foundation on behalf of her son, Kenneth Best, who she claimed had suffered brain damange as a result of an injection with an excessively toxic whooping cough vaccine when he was a baby. Again, Gleeson lost in the High Court, but won on appeal to the Supreme Court.

A commitment to public service is apparent from his work in chairing a commission on pay increases for senior civil servants, the judiciary and members of the Government, as well as a review of the Defence Forces which recommended that promotion should be on merit.

Gleeson attended Blackrock College, as did so many other figures in current banking controversies, including Michael Soden, the chief executive of Bank of Ireland who resigned last weekend after accessing an adult website at work.

At UCD, Gleeson studied economics and politics and became auditor of the L&H society, the traditional stomping ground for would-be young politicians. Although he didn't follow that path, his links to Fine Gael are established and he counts former leader John Bruton among his close friends. It was in Gleeson's Shrewsbury Road house that Bruton and Labour leader Dick Spring held talks on forming a government in 1994.

Chairing AIB on an annual salary of €217,000 amounts to a severe pay cut for Gleeson, but he also forms part of the consortium which owns the luxury Four Seasons hotel near his home in Ballsbridge.

He and his wife Darina McCluskey have four children and have over the years fostered a number of others. His pleasures, which include books, wine and story-telling, revolve around the home, rather than the pubs and expensive restaurants favoured by many high-earners in the Law Library.

While a distaste for the limelight sat well enough with his former roles, where no direct contact with the public was involved, as AIB chairman Gleeson will have to go public on the bank's problems soon.

In doing so, he will need every ounce of his lawyerly persuasiveness to convince a sceptical public.