Banking Inquiry: Bankers beware – we have grown cynical
Kathy Sheridan: ‘Any one of them who attempts political stunts, showboating or grandstanding should be cut off at the knees’
Ciarán Lynch, Chairman of the Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
The preamble is over. Today, a slick of smooth, supremely well-rehearsed bankers will begin to flow towards an airless, windowless committee room for this new, so-called Nexus phase of the banking inquiry. Demeanours will be humble and mea culpas will ring across the evening news.
The four-hour appearance in February of John FitzGerald, the former research professor at the ESRI, will have been scrutinised. He broke the record for the number of times he said he was sorry; he said “we were totally wrong”. The nation applauded. Sorted.
Bankers beware. We have grown too cynical as a nation – some might say too much so for our peace of mind – to be fooled by crocodile tears. Patently, John FitzGerald is no dissembler or bloated ego (of which the inquiry has had a few . . .) . Nor does he claim to be a Cassandra, who foresaw catastrophe but was doomed never to be believed. Yes he apologised convincingly and humbly but, crucially, willingly backed this up with hard information. He told the inquiry, for example, that in 2006, AIB asked the ESRI to carry out a stress test of the bank’s balance sheet, as it felt a similar exercise by the Central Bank had not been robust enough.
In a car crash of an interview in February 2009, the Bank of Ireland’s CEO, Brian Goggin – whose €4 million package had raised eyebrows a few years before – conceded that his package in 2009, would be “less than two million”. Less than two million. That interview took place amid negotiations over a taxpayer-funded bank bailout, in a week when shares in Bank of Ireland had plummeted to 51c from highs of almost €19 two years before, and at a time when blameless citizens were being terrorised into compliance with savage austerity measures. It was a breathtaking glimpse into an entitled mindset.
Extracting meaningful information from these men presents a monumental task for the inquiry. They’ve already said some lame version of sorry. When asked if he felt responsible for the collapse of AIB, for example, Sheehy said: “I issued letters of regret.” Asked if he owed the taxpayer an apology, Goggin replied : “Well, I’m not so sure that it actually comes to an apology as such. I mean I do regret some of our decisions. I have to balance that with lots and lots of very good decisions that we’ve made.” No doubt they will come armed with rigorously rehearsed, more humble versions. Let no inquiry member take the bait by asking for them. What purpose can it serve, beyond insulting us further and running down the clock?
So what else are they likely to say? If he had a regret, said Goggin in that interview, it was that he didn’t see the crash coming. “If I was kind of looking back and doing it again, [there] is a regret that I do have that I didn’t, perhaps, question in a more challenging way, the ultimate growth that Ireland was enjoying and the fact that it was unsustainable.”
The Bank of Ireland’s tough-talking CEO, Richie Boucher – the only senior banker from the guarantee era still standing — has let it be known that he’s happy to be the bank punchbag so he will probably admit to mistakes while trumpeting the bank’s recovery. It will be a noisy day out, but will it be productive?
And what do we, the citizens, want to learn from this inquiry after all? Many say they will rest only when they see individuals in the dock or the stocks. That cannot happen of course. The best they can do, is to embarrass people. Members of this Dáil are not allowed to make findings of fact; there can be no assessment of personal blame which could impugn the good name of individuals. Anyone baffled or frustrated by that might revisit the failed referendum on the 30th Amendment.
Perhaps it’s easier to say what we do not want from this. Given this one opportunity – however feeble – of getting at the truth, inquiry members owe it to present and future generations, and to themselves (because they must prove they can be trusted), to behave as our solemn, honourable, reflective representatives. Any one of them who attempts political stunts, showboating or grandstanding should be cut off at the knees.