Sutherland could have led by example

IT WOULD be some comfort right now if there were a moratorium on the use of the word “we” by certain people, writes FINTAN O'…

IT WOULD be some comfort right now if there were a moratorium on the use of the word "we" by certain people, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

People like, for example, Peter Sutherland. He was pontificating on RTÉ Radio 1's This Weekprogramme on Sunday. Not about the "we" to which he actually belongs: Goldman Sachs, whose European operations he heads and whose behaviour he absolutely refused to discuss.

Sutherland was talking rather about another, more notional, “we”, a commonality of Irish interest that embraces everyone from himself to the old lady whose home help services are being slashed. “We,” he told us, “have to gird our loins to take tough decisions and see it through . . . This is where we show our mettle.”

This rallying cry might be more impressive if Sutherland had girded his own loins and shown some mettle when “we” really needed him to do so. He is one of the most distinguished Irishmen of his generation, a man of immense ability and capacity to lead. Precisely because he is idolised in the Irish business community, he had the opportunity to change the culture of Irish banking. Had he taken it, “we” would not be in the loin-girding business at the moment.


Actually, Sutherland had this opportunity twice – first when he was chairman of Allied Irish Banks from 1989 to 1993, and president of the Irish Bankers’ Federation (IBF).

As a former attorney general, he discovered something truly staggering: that his own bank had been colluding in a systematic fraud on the State through the organised evasion of Dirt tax. He was not responsible for that fraud, but he was responsible for what happened when the bank’s internal auditor, Tony Spollen, discovered it.

What did he do? As he explained to the Dáil’s public accounts committee (PAC): “The issue of non-resident accounts and Dirt was an issue which was essentially one for management. Management, as I understand it, believed that the issue was under control.”

He passed the Dirt issue to a sub-committee (headed by a participant in the Ansbacher scam) which decided that there was not a problem because AIB had an informal Dirt amnesty from the Revenue. (It didn’t.) Sutherland, as he put it himself, “did not intervene in any way”. All that really happened under his leadership was that the internal auditor Spollen was shifted out of his job, though Sutherland insisted that this had nothing to do with him either.

Sutherland had a second chance to face up to the scale and implications of the rottenness in Irish banking when the scandal emerged. During the PAC’s hearings and after its scathing report, he could have taken some personal responsibility and led a process of profound moral change. Instead, we learned what he really means by the word “we”. He threw his prestige behind AIB.

Of the handing over of the issue to a sub-committee, he said that “everyone, I think, was basically happy with the process”. He stood over his own behaviour, even with the benefit of hindsight: “If I were to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change one iota of the steps that we took in terms of having an objective analysis of the situation and coming to a fair and proper conclusion.”

He explained that he never raised the question of an industry-wide fraud on the State at the IBF when he was its president. Had he done so, he said, “It would have ended up simply with, I suspect, statements by all of the chief executives or chairmen: ‘Oh, yes, absolutely, we’re doing it the best we can’, and so on.”

When the PAC report was published, with its damning conclusion that “eminent” bank directors did little to enforce ethical standards, Sutherland had nothing to say. Given that he was the most eminent of all, that silence was one of the reasons why the culture of Irish banking remained so lethally intact.

And Sutherland has sailed blithely onwards, indefatigably smug and unshakeably self-assured. His “we” is now more copious, stretching as it does to the whole field of global finance capitalism.

He was a director of Royal Bank of Scotland when it engaged in the recklessness that has cost the British taxpayer at least £45 billion (€52.55 billion) so far, and sat on the remuneration committee that lavished huge bonuses on its chief executive.

He is a big figure in Goldman Sachs, a bank which Gordon Brown accused of “moral bankruptcy” for its decision to pay out bonuses of $5.4 billion (€4.2 billion) less than two years after it had to be bailed out by the US taxpayer.

This is the same Goldman Sachs that has been accused of helping Greece to hide the reality of its public finances – a subject Sutherland did not mention when he was urging fiscal responsibility on the Greeks on Sunday.

The illusion that Sutherland wishes to maintain is that there is a “we” that includes ordinary citizens and high-flyers of global finance in a shared pain. There is no such “we”.

There is just us and them.