Anglo tapes cast shadow over our reputation

In my view one of the biggest successes achieved by the Government has been the significant restoration of Ireland’s very badly tarnished international reputation. For a country so dependent on tourists and foreign direct investment, what the outside world thinks of us is very important.

Up to 2008 we did not do ourselves too many favours, but we have rectified some of the damage.

Arguably, what the outside world thinks of us has assumed even greater importance as we seek to renegotiate the external debt, and particularly the banking-related component of it, and exit the three-year bailout troika programme and re-commence funding ourselves on the markets. In that context, one could become very conflicted about the desirability or otherwise of the ongoing drip feed of the Anglo Irish Bank tapes, which are creating consternation at home and abroad.

It is very easy to argue that they should not be released as they have the potential to do a lot more harm than good, but it is important that Irish taxpayers find out exactly what is going on. However, on a cost-benefit basis, there is a danger that the costs could far outweigh the benefits.

On the cost side, the odious contents of the tapes are generating massive attention overseas. The Germans are justifiably fuming at the mocking portrayal of Germany, but elsewhere the view is being strengthened that Ireland is a bit of a wild west in regard to how our financial services industry operates, as the New York Times dared to suggest some time back.

Friends in San Francisco tell me that over the past couple of weeks the tapes have been a constant source of discussion at morning coffee breaks.

In this week’s Economist magazine, the tapes get a significant amount of coverage. The tone of the coverage is that the tapes, along with the fact that the economy fell back into recession in the first quarter, have overshadowed the positive EU presidency that the Irish have just completed.

The magazine suggests that after six years of austerity “the rewards for Irish sacrifices have proved disappointing” and that Ireland’s image as a model of successful austerity has been tarnished. The piece lays bare the precarious state of the economy and the challenging outlook for the stability and cohesion of the coalition government.

For a country that aspires to re-entering bond markets shortly, this is not the sort of publicity that the country requires. It would be dreadful if the release of the tapes undermined any possible legal case that hopefully will be taken against people who clearly showed no regard for the interests of the taxpayers of Ireland and who should stand guilty of treason in a civilised world.

The arguments in favour of the release of the tapes are also reasonably compelling. They have exposed some of what went on in Irish banking and will hopefully destroy any lasting semblance of respectability that the Irish banking industry might have had in the past. The contents will also hopefully result in a new regulatory regime where such behaviour could never again happen, and where ethics become more important than the blind pursuit of the profit motive as Chief Justice Susan Denham suggested this week. Mind you, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

President Michael D Higgins has suggested that what was revealed in the Anglo tapes is not the voice of Ireland and is not representative of us as a country. I think he is well wide of the mark. If we observe the experience in banking; in politics; in some creches and nursing homes; in observance of the law of the land by individuals in areas such as the household charge; in relation to the thriving black economy; and in relation to social welfare fraud, then one could be excused for suggesting that perhaps Michael D does not fully understand us as a people. Unfortunately the list could go on and on and one could be persuaded that Ireland is a deeply corrupt country.

The Anglo tapes reveal much about us, but their release could well end up doing much more harm than good.


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