The problem with Ned is that it’s all coming from the top of his head

DISSENTING voices can be very useful in a parliamentary democracy, shaking cosy consensus and provoking debate that might not otherwise take place.

I doubt though if Ned O’Keeffe was playing devil’s advocate for this purpose when he addressed the Dáil last Wednesday on the new bill for regulation of financial services: I reckon the Fianna Fáil TD for Cork East sincerely meant every word he uttered and that’s what’s really worrying.

O’Keeffe garnered the headlines for three main reasons: in his latest attack on the new financial regulator, Matthew Elderfield, he decried the consequences of what he called over-regulation which, bizarrely, he believes encourages reckless and bad behaviour by banks; he defended the performance of the former boss of the regulator’s office, Patrick Neary, describing him as “decent and honest”; he sang the praises of AIB for its role in supporting farmers and rural businesses over the decades and bemoaned it falling into state control.

This latest contribution followed O’Keeffe’s recent disgraceful, xenophobic attack on Elderfield, again using the forum of the Dáil, where it is possible to say just about anything without suffering legal consequences.

O’Keeffe declared that he opposed “foreigners coming into this country and telling us what to do”. He said “they (the banks) won’t be depending on the state or Mr Elderfield to tell us what to do. We don’t want foreigners here. Michael Collins, Liam Lynch, Pádraig Pearse and James Connolly wouldn’t have these foreigners running our business. It is about time we looked after our Irish people who are well educated.”

He somehow ignored that Connolly was born in Scotland or that Fianna Fáil’s most famous leader, Éamon de Valera, was born in the US (something that saved him from execution during the 1916 rising). Various newspaper columnists condemned O’Keeffe for his xenophobia, as did many bloggers and internet contributors but, judging by his latest outburst, O’Keeffe doesn’t seem to care.

His claims about over-regulation fly in the face of our bitter experience of the antics that have led the country to the verge of economic ruin. The Central Bank and Financial Regulator, under the express and implied guidance of the Fianna Fáil-led governments that O’Keeffe has supported, deliberately engaged in a process known as “light touch regulation”. It treated banks as responsible adults when they were anything but. It ignored the mounting evidence that lending by the banks was going out of control and was inflating a massive property bubble. When evidence emerged of serious wrongdoing — such as the Quinn Group purchase of a major shareholding in Anglo Irish Bank — the regulator tried to help the participants to unravel the situation instead of punishing them more firmly.

Patrick Neary may have been courteous, polite and smooth in his appearances in front of Dáil committees in which O’Keeffe served, but that is far from the point. Neary was a weak regulator and that is a kind assessment: that he received a payoff to go from his job early and was rewarded with a massive pension is only one in a series of insults to the public resulting from this whole crisis.

That O’Keeffe would now decry the long-awaited implementation of regulation would be depressing if it became popular. However, his logic is fascinating. He said “regulation is not going to solve anything”, but claims “over-regulation and another tier and another and another” will only encourage people to find ways of avoiding it. He seems to think so little of those who run Irish banks, and by extension the Irish mentality, that he believes they would concentrate on beating, bending or breaking the rules rather than doing the right things.

O’Keeffe took to mocking the 700 staff that Elderfield believes he needs, ignoring the fact that many could be transferred from other parts of the public service, assuming of course they had the required skills.

But in the same Dáil speech on Wednesday O’Keeffe complained that Neary didn’t have enough staff, not caring to ask if Neary had complained about this or lobbied for more, or if he would have used them had he had them. Had he done so, it is likely O’Keeffe would have been to the forefront in making complaints.

O’Keeffe also wants to give AIB some sort of free pass from the criticism that should be rightly heaped upon it. “Coming from rural Ireland and an agricultural society, no bank has served Ireland better than AIB,” O’Keeffe declared.

So what? All of that good has been undone by reckless lending into the property bubble that has led to enormous losses and the need for the state first to guarantee the bank’s liabilities and now (and this will happen by year end) take the bank into State control.

O’Keeffe, as a shareholder in AIB and 40 other companies, including a range of banks both Irish and foreign, is against nationalisation of the bank, ignoring that it has done itself so much damage that it cannot avoid this and does not deserve any more. His own losses, estimated at more than €1 million, may have much to do with his attitude: he must not like the idea of further dilution of the value of his stock. It is not the first time recently that the irascible O’Keeffe has taken AIB’s side, claiming Brian Lenihan had been unduly harsh on that bank. “The minster has to get out of regulator’s arms and that of the Central Bank and make his own decisions, which are political decisions, for the good of the country,” O’Keeffe declared, in a radio interview in which he also condemned the formation of NAMA which, of course, he had voted for.

What O’Keeffe has failed to realise is that finally, in the shape of Elderfield and Patrick Honohan at the Central Bank, we appear to have men who will do the right thing instead of playing to petty populism.

Fianna Fáil probably regards O’Keeffe as nothing more than an irritation. He has his uses. He has been elected every time since he first joined the Dáil in 1982 and flew the party flag as second candidate in almost impossible circumstances in the European elections last year, as Brian Crowley’s running mate.

IN THAT campaign he offered, during a live radio interview I conducted with him, to make his land available for the construction of a nuclear power plant or an incinerator. While I think he was just making mischief he was trying to make a point in favour of both activities.

And this is the problem with O’Keeffe. He is so ill-disciplined in his speeches and arguments that he derails the good points he can make. He raised interesting issues in Wednesday’s Dáil speech about the performance of the banks’ auditors and of legal firms, pointing out they have not just gone unpunished but are winning valuable state contracts to be involved in NAMA.

He asked about the regulation of foreign banks, which is valid. But bizarrely, he bemoaned the fate of those who had made investments via accountants who, he said, should be regulated and licensed, completely contradicting the arguments he had made about bank regulation.

It is depressing if O’Keeffe’s contribution was typical of the type of stuff that goes on in the Dáil. Much of it seemed to based on little more than hearsay. This was pure top-of-the-head stuff, better suited to pub talk than the chamber for debate on the introduction of laws. O’Keeffe boasted “this is the house for all of that (important decisions about the country) ... we are the bosses, people have confidence in us and send us up here”. They do, but should they when this is what results?

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.

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