Diarmaid Ferriter: Johnny Ronan’s faux patriotism is crass and self-serving

Nazi reference says much about the hubris, arrogance and delusion of aggrieved, self-pitying gamblers who strode the Celtic Tiger terrain

 

I made sure to save an electronic copy of property developer Johnny Ronan’s evidence to the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry before it was altered this week in response to controversy over his use of the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work will set you free”). Ronan asked that the phrase, used over the entrance of a number of Nazi concentration camps during the second World War, be removed. The banking inquiry, which in its own words, “normally rejects applications to amend statements once they have been submitted” has agreed to make an exception and redact it because “the phrase at issue contains no evidential value and has the potential to continue to cause offence”.

I would beg to differ with the assertion it “contains no evidential value”; the reason I would keep it is precisely because it contains much “evidential value” about the limitations of Ronan and the hubris, arrogance and delusion of aggrieved, self-pitying gamblers who strode the Celtic Tiger terrain like giants in a land of Lilliputians. It called to mind one of the observations in the 2010-11 report of the Commission of Investigation into the Banking Sector, Misjudging Risk: “When it all ended, suddenly and inexplicably, participants had difficulty accepting their appropriate share of the blame for something in which so many others were also involved and that seemed so reasonable at the time.”

Perspective matters little

National Asset Management Agency

According to Ronan, the company of which he was a 50 per cent shareholder, Treasury Holdings (TH), could have borrowed more if personal guarantees were offered for loans, but that a “conservative” approach was preferred. TH accumulated debts of £2.7 billion but in the world of the giants it is all relative isn’t it? Ronan’s primary grievance relates to the purchase of the Battersea power station in London; TH obtained the largest planning permission ever granted in central London to redevelop the station, which he said is going to be “one of the most profitable development projects in the world . . . we consistently projected a £4.2 billion profit on Battersea in business plans submitted to Nama. Nama never once disagreed with this forecast, which made its subsequent decision to move on Battersea [Nama sold it for £600 million] all the more baffling . . . The decision to enforce by Nama was one of the costliest decisions in the history of the Irish State.”

Pots and black kettles

Given the furore over his use of the Nazi slogan, what was often overlooked in the coverage was that he also translated the phrase into Irish for the Gaelic Lilliputians: “Tugann Saothar Saoirse.” Was this to emphasise what he sees as his patriotic credentials? His evidence continually emphasises the importance of the “ultimate return to the Irish taxpayer” as if this was the developer’s main mission. He also concluded that “we, as a nation need to learn from our mistakes”, but the “we, as a nation” is really about his relationship with Nama; there is no sense of a broader awareness.

Ronan’s evidence was given at the same time as homeless charities were decrying a homelessness problem so grave they consider it a “national emergency”; but it is “iconic” buildings and their potential for spectacular profit that primarily concerns Ronan. Choosing to dress this up as a lesson for “we, as a nation” is crass and self-serving, but not nearly as vile as using the phrase “Arbeit macht frei”. Ronan has since apologised for using this phrase, but he could not even manage that properly, telling us he used it because: “Nama promised its borrowers that they would be treated fairly if they co-operated, but that unfortunately was not the case . . . with all the consequences of that for Irish jobs and the taxpayer . . . The significance of this is not however comparable with the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime.”

You don’t say, Johnny.

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