Lenihan's paradise lost vision belies tragic truth


Unable to admit putting his country in this hideous mess, Brian Lenihan has turned further and further away from reality, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

WHEN SOMEONE says a thing once, it may be a slip of the tongue. When they repeat it, it is an indication of the way their mind is working.

Thus it is with a phrase that Brian Lenihan used twice last Thursday, when he was explaining why “the cheapest bank bailout in the world” has turned into a €50 billion nightmare. The glimpse it gives of what is going on at the back of his mind is truly terrifying.

Early in the day, on Morning Ireland, Lenihan remarked of his plan to pump another €3.7 billion into Allied Irish Banks (bringing the total so far to €7.2 billion) that it would help restore AIB to “its former greatness”. The phrase was so breathtakingly brainless that I assumed it was just one of those cliches that sometimes invades the mind when it is on rhetorical auto-pilot.

But, no. Later, on Prime Time, Lenihan announced that the entire banking system would be restored to “the greatness it once had”. Oh dear God – he really means “greatness”.

Do we really have to ask what constituted the “former greatness” of AIB? Was it the collusion with a massive tax fraud on the State in the 1980s and 1990s? Was it the overcharging of customers to the tune of €66 million? Was it the moving of the bank’s first three internal auditors – Tony Spollen, Ian Howley and Eugene McErlean – for the crime of uncovering shady practices? Was it the demented competition with Anglo Irish Bank to see who could shovel out money to ever more speculative developments in an ever more reckless manner?

And the greatness our banking system as a whole once had? The cronyism of overlapping boards? The grotesque salaries and bonuses for people who proved so wildly incompetent? The revolving doors through which regulators became bankers and vice versa? The cooking of the books?

The terrifying thing about all of this is the mentality it reveals. It helps explain why Brian Lenihan has made so many disastrous decisions and why he still can’t face up to the reality that the banks played him like a violin. In his head, there is a golden age of Irish banking, an age of greatness. What is driving State policy is the desire to restore that golden age.

He is spending €50 billion of our money to get us back to this lost paradise.

If you think the bankers were “great”, you can’t imagine some of them were crooks, that more of them chose to ignore crookery for the sake of convenience and that the entire system was hysterical with greed. You believe what they tell you. You trust their bona fides. You frame the whole problem in your own head as one of sorting out an essentially good system that just happens to have hit a bump in the road.

You think you are restoring a Gandon mansion to its pristine glory. You don’t realise that you have been suckered into buying a stinking money pit with floods in the basement, dry rot in the floorboards and death-watch beetles in the attic.

Brian Lenihan is a decent man and a genuine patriot. He really wants to do his best for his country and he has shown extraordinary courage in carrying on in the face of serious illness. But I think, in a sense, that this patriotism has become his problem. He can’t bear to face the brutal fact that he has landed the country he loves in such a mess.

In order to avoid the reality of what he did two years ago, when he trusted the bankers he so admired, he has constructed story after story – that the bailout would cost little or nothing, that the banks are essentially sound, that the cost would be manageable, that Anglo would go back to being a viable bank, that everything was great and will be so again.

When reality intrudes, he simply alters it to suit. He sincerely believes, for example, that Patrick Honohan’s report supported the Anglo bailout even though it did nothing of the kind.

At a human level, this is easy to understand. The cost of bailing out Anglo and Irish Nationwide (the two gangrenous limbs that needed to be cut off in order to save the rest of the system) is, on his own account, now between €35 billion and €40 billion – none of which can ever be recovered. It is a terrible thing to have been sucked, on false assumptions, into making such a catastrophic decision.

But it doesn’t make it any better to keep pretending that you didn’t make a mistake. Brian Lenihan owes his country the most painful service he could ever have to do it – an admission that he got things horribly wrong. And, as a consequence, a decision to stop pretending that we are restoring greatness when we are actually trying to survive a disaster.

In place of false pride, he must admit that we can’t do this on our own and need help from our European partners.

* This article was amended on October 15th, 2010

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