The Oireachtas Banking Inquiry is barking up the wrong tree. What the public deserves but has never got is a detailed explanation of where the billions went that have been replaced by massive amounts of public money. For what exactly have we been forced to pay € 64 billion?
The question “who benefited?” has never been clearly answered. Without the hard facts of who got what, and who now has it, the rest is shadow-boxing.
The inquiry is like a group of people standing around a stable door after the horse has bolted; they are intrigued by how the door opened rather than by where the beast went or is. This might not matter if the banking crisis had not cost us €64 billion. What other parliament would not demand a written narrative of just where the billions went (and are now) that taxpayers have replaced in the banks’ vaults?
It is real money, and we are paying it at enormous cost in jobs, social services, education and other crippling national consequences for the future.
Already four inquiries have looked at the inept policy, procedures and poor regulation that allowed reckless lending. The Oireachtas inquiry is set to rehash what we already know from these. Its terms of reference confine it largely to process. Look closely at the four banking inquiries to date and you do not find a clear money trail.
How much exactly was for Irish and how much for foreign purposes; how much for local residential mortgages; and how much for commercial ventures? And who got the biggest chunks? The details are vague.
‘We all partied’
Part of the fairytale that “we all partied” is that the borrowed billions which taxpayers are now being forced to replace somehow went mainly to ordinary citizens for nice homes (as if homeowners were not mostly stuck with repaying their mortgages anyway). But what does it mean, for example, to read in Anglo-Irish Bank’s annual report for 2007 that at least one third of its “assets” (to the tune of some €25 billion) were then outside Ireland? And what was done to ensure that those who got big money spent it for the purposes specified? Might some borrowers still have control of billions, transferred legally as “fees” to related companies when their loans were not closely supervised? It would be nice to know.
As a communications professional I come at this not as a banker or accountant but as someone who wants to be told a story. And I have not yet heard it. The billions that taxpayers have in effect replaced are still out there somewhere. If God knows where, citizens do not.
If we could even hear in detail the story of (say) 50 of the largest borrowers and how their loans were monitored and where that money is now, it would clarify the crisis like nothing to date. It would focus minds on the need for a scale of reform in commercial and public life that is not yet evident. The privacy of big borrowers or the danger of prejudicing vaguely possible criminal proceedings pale into insignificance when it comes to the public good of knowing now why exactly we are spending €64 thousand million of scarce public money on banks.
Spill the beans
A robust Oireachtas inquiry would spill the beans. If there is a clear money-trail let citizens see it. We might not be able to get much of it back, but we would know what we are paying for.
It is often said that Bertie Ahern claimed that he went "up every tree" in north Dublin to check out allegations against Ray Burke before promoting him. But a contemporary report quotes a far more nuanced "Bertieism". Speaking on September 25th 1997 he was quoted as actually saying, "I have been just about up every tree in north Co Dublin chasing all kinds of things and at this stage about 20 issues have proved to be entirely false." Note the "just about" qualification, and the limited "20 issues" compared to "all kinds of things", and the confining of his search to a part of one county. The tree up which you do not climb may harbour the cat that got the cream.
And the tree up which the inquiry has chosen to bark is the wrong one when it comes to a clear explanation of who benefited (and to what extent) from the fiasco that has burdened future generations with a debt of €64 billion. Colum Kenny is a professor in the school of communications at DCU