Bowler takes a grilling but bank bash lacks egg-citment

NO eggs were thrown at the annual general meeting of Irish Life & Permanent in Dublin yesterday, but sadly the bank’s shareholders didn’t get to bring home the bacon either.

IL&P’s obligatory pantomime in Ballsbridge was less egg-citing than its AIB counterpart earlier this week, although shareholders turned out in force to ensure that something – or more precisely, someone – might be grilled over the dramatic downturn in the bank’s share price.

Certainly, many felt that chairperson Gillian Bowler and her board had made a right omelette of the institution’s recent performance, especially their failure to be aware of its controversial €7.5 billion loan to Anglo Irish Bank last September.

The “green jersey” bailout for the country’s favourite villain, Anglo’s Seán FitzPatrick, led to the resignation of three senior IL&P executives when the matter emerged in public last February.

“Such transactions were wrong – pure and simple,” said Bowler, who apologised for misguided loyalty to fellow bankers. “Neither I nor the board were ever informed of those transactions as we should have been. And if we had been informed, we would have insisted they be stopped.”

Bowler, one of the poster girls for the Celtic Tiger era, faced the music with her usual aplomb, stoutly resisting calls for her own resignation and to turn down her annual €288,000 salary, which someone helpfully pointed out was more than that US president, Barack Obama, earned.

A light-hearted remark by shareholder, Patrick O’Rourke, that the board need have no fear of flying eggs, was greeted with a stony-faced silence by Bowler, although she subsequently relaxed when asked by another speaker if she preferred hers “scrambled or fried.”

Some shareholders might have had their gloves off for the well-respected businesswoman, but you knew Bowler was also prepared for a fight as the trademark pair of sunglasses were missing off her own forehead.

While she enjoyed the support of roughly half of the 400 shareholders in the RDS, the more vocal section clearly felt her favourite fashion accessories were more blinkers than trendy shades.

Informed by one shareholder that she should resign because she was not up to the job in light of the Anglo loan, the Budget Travel founder effectively suggested the easiest thing would have been to jump on one of her own charters to the Costa del Bankers.

In a feisty, spirited defence of her own role, Bowler said she had offered her resignation last February, because she had been reared to believe that it was the honourable thing to do.

However, it had not been accepted and she realised she now had an obligation to help restore the bank to its once-proud position.

“I am a fighter and I intend to deliver to shareholders,” said the businesswoman.

Bowler also correctly pointed out that IL&P had not engaged in the reckless lending to property developers like many other banks. She claimed her own business experience in the travel trade, engineering and laundries (stop sniggering at the back) made her perfectly suited to act as chair of a financial institution like IL&P.

However, Bowler warned she was constrained by what she could say about the Anglo loan as lawyers were in the audience – an observation that clearly struck greater fear in the IL&P directors than any egg-throwing pensioners.

The owner of Phoenix magazine and IL&P shareholder, John Mulcahy, caused a minor security alert as he swatted away bouncers to take the podium to ask Bowler not to seek re-election. He also expressed regret at the bank’s lending policy which had gone from “established caution to riotous irresponsibility.”

Not all the anger was directed at Bowler as other speakers rounded on the board of directors who sat invisibly in the front row of the audience.

Invited to show their faces, the group stood up and turned 180 degrees in unison with all the enthusiasm of a bunch of innocent by-standers asked to fill out a police identity parade.

They included the hapless, former head of the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority, Liam O’Reilly, who was described by one shareholder as “a toxic director” for sitting on his hands while Seánie Fitz and his cronies made financial hay.

But even the novelty of electronic voting at the AGM couldn’t cause too much excitement for the audience who, mindful of the Government’s costly dalliance with such technology, demanded “a paper trail” of the various elections. Cynics could be forgiven for thinking the hand-held devices had been bought as a job lot from salesmen bearing a faint resemblance to Martin Cullen and Noel Dempsey.

After the three-hour meeting, Bowler repeated her view that the size, nature and brevity of the Anglo loan had been exceptional.

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said of yesterday’s AGM.

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