Anglo tapes bring us more theatre

The infamous bank guarantee scheme is the basis for a new play, writes Kyran Fitzgerald

Anglo tapes bring us more theatre

THIS week, Ireland found two new hate figures. The ‘outing’ of garrulous, shape-throwing, Anglo executives John Bowe and Peter Fitzgerald has been the cause of horrified fascination. The re-emergence of former CEO David Drumm, a figure straight out of central casting, in the ‘Give Us the Moolah’ section of the tapes, has put the tin hat on it.

German chancellor Merkel has put the ice, as opposed to the icing, on the cake with some pretty sharp remarks about the gentlemen concerned. Now may not be the best time to go shaking green-tinted begging bowls around Angela’s homeland.

Bowe and Fitzgerald have operated below the waterline up to now.

However, Bowe, in particular, played a key role in the bank’s money-raising activities at the height of the boom, despite his protestation that he was “not a decision-maker in relation to either the bank’s requirements for funds, or negotiations with the Central Bank”.

In June 2004, as head of capital markets, he presided over the largest issue of debt by an Irish financial institution when Anglo raised €750m from more than 90 international investors. It was intended to bring in €500m, but the figure was raised due to enthusiasm among investors.

In 2007, Bowe supervised the issue of the first covered bond backed entirely by commercial mortgage assets. The bank was seeking to be a major player in the UK, where almost half of its assets were by then located.

As Bowe put it, at the time: “We expect our UK assets to further exceed our Irish assets.”

Fitzgerald’s job was to woo the high-roller retail saver in his position as director of retail banking.

The 2006 Anglo Irish annual report explains how “the bank’s wealth management division provides high net worth clients with private banking, fund management and retirement planning. Many of those clients are already customers of our business lending division. Wealth management operates as a single integrated division. Its primary purpose is to develop tailored investment solutions for high net worth clients.”

As they would say: Give Us the Moolah...

Amazingly, Bowe and Fitzgerald hung on to well-paid sinecures at the bank’s successor, IBRC, until 2012 and February last, respectively.

For one playwright, Colin Murphy, the release of the Anglo tapes has been like manna from heaven. Murphy, a former Sunday Tribune journalist, has penned a play called Guaranteed, a dramatised version of the events leading up to the infamous September 2008 bank guarantee scheme. A brother of Dublin Fine Gael TD Eoghan Murphy, Colin does not have strong political preferences. He made his name writing on theatre and matters cultural, working for some time under Vincent Browne at Village magazine.

Ironically, he was covering a conflict in the western Sahara for the Tribune when the financial dams burst.

As a critic, he found it “extraordinary that no one was dealing on stage with the politics of the financial crisis”.

Colin got his chance when the theatre company, Fishamble, ran a competition for a 600-word play. It was a chance to scratch that itch.

Colin came up with the idea of centring his piece around the question: What if the guarantee — whether to provide one — had been decided on the throw of a coin.

Guaranteed is more substantial. Murphy realised that there is a huge, unmet demand out there for information on the crisis, as evidenced by the sell-out shows for the ‘Four Angry Men’, Fintan O’Toole, Matt Cooper, David McWilliams and Pat Leahy.

Colin carried out extensive research, meeting some of those who were in the room, or the ante-rooms, when the critical decisions were made around.

The early part of the play centres on Anglo’s Drumm and chairman Seán FitzPatrick at the height of their mid-boom glory. We are treated to a debate in the boardroom of AIB when a director expresses scepticism about ambitious lending plans only to be waved away by colleagues.

A news reader intervenes with regular bulletins as we move towards the denouement. The then taoiseach Brian Cowen is initially almost comic as he opens handball alleys in Offaly.

Suddenly, senior politicians and civil servants are discussing the guarantee. Cowen emerges as a more down-to-earth character, tossing puzzled queries at his advisors, and the then finance minister Brian Lenihan.

So, did those he talked to in the course of his research express regret? “Regret, yes, but frustration, more so. I didn’t get a sense they were crippled by it. They were able to move on. A line they used was: ‘We all made mistakes.’ I talked to bankers and got a more explicit sense of regret, but it was not as if we were in a confessional.”

Murphy has modelled the play’s climax on the Sidney Lumet film Twelve Angry Men.

“The play needed a hero, a whistleblower,” said Colin. Sadly, none was available. He found good material in the report by Central Bank chairman Patrick Honohan, who attended the play, clapping enthusiastically as the curtain came down.

As for the Anglo tapes, Colin’s view is the focus on rogue bankers should not distract us from the fact our downfall was due to the long lending spree that preceded the crash. “The big story is the bubble. Had Anglo been as good as gold, we would still have had a massive crisis.

“I actually wrote scenes based around Anglo and took them out, because they seemed too overtly funny and threatened to undermine the authenticity of the rest of the play.”

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