It will encourage disengagement and the cynicism that destroys democracies just as soft spring rain encourages grass to grow.
It will strengthen the conviction that certain categories of people never, and never will, go to jail. It will feed the sense of deep outrage and betrayal that opponents of the Government and the more established political parties will energetically exploit during the current election campaigns. And it is increasingly difficult to say that those feelings are not justified.
The slap-on-the-wrist sanction imposed on white-collar criminals Pat Whelan and Willie McAteer will add to the feeling that the State has become a nebulous entity, enfeebled by deference and, to paraphrase the obnoxious American Leona Helmsley that “the law is only for little people”. It will add to the suspicion that our pathetic, ineffective and ultimately ruinous financial regulation was not an accidental arrangement, rather one sanctioned at least tacitly by a political system more attracted by opportunity than the strictures and rewards of integrity.
Yesterday’s assurances from the Central Bank governor, Patrick Honohan, that today’s regulatory systems are far more vigorous than those presided over by the forgetful and discredited former financial regulator Patrick Neary is reassuring, but the failures of recent years are so spectacular that it might be best to defer judgement on the new regulations until they are tested by the next crisis created by the markets’ insatiable appetites or until another Seán Quinn indulges his megalomaniacal, destructive greed.
It is convenient for some retired or fugitive bankers that Mr Neary — he pocketed a €630,000 golden handshake and gets an annual pension of €143,000 from an exchequer — has assumed the mantle of villain of the piece in the Anglo Irish scandal.
Yesterday’s fortuitously timed announcement that the Government is to immediately establish the Oireachtas banking inquiry is unlikely to make Mr Neary’s retirement any more serene as he can expect that his laissez-faire supervision and aversion to intervention will be regularly cited as a defence in the proceedings.
This elevation may bemuse Mr Neary as his patchy evidence to the 43-day Anglo trial suggests that he will have difficulty remembering why he deserves such notoriety. This focus, though deserved, is disproportionate because Mr Neary was no more than a patsy in a drama directed and written by others.
There are many lessons to be taken from this episode and most of them centre around the fact that some people do not have to face the consequences of their actions. As it stands, Mr Neary is insulated from the economic consequences of his ineptitude. We have no mechanism to ensure that his successors, those entrusted with the family jewels, understand that they face the prospect of losing their benefits if it can be proved that they were ineffective in their work. It is time minds were focussed by the introduction of a mechanism whereby all golden handshakes and pensions might be reduced or reclaimed if similar circumstances recur.
That, however, is a relatively minor if infuriating legacy issue. The Anglo scandal and the general banking collapse may not yet have had its most profound impact on our society. It is likely that it and the cynicism it rightly engenders will lead to an increasingly angry and cynical electorate happy to support an ever more diverse and bizarre collection of political parties and colourful but ultimately pointless independents.
This will make it more and more difficult to govern coherently at a local or national level. It will become more and more difficult to deliver policies without the kind of nullifying compromise that will make the current row over water charges seems pretty small beer. This, of course, will fuel the disenchantment that led to the kaleidoscope voting in the first place and probably accelerate the spiral towards something as wildly unstable and ineffective as post Second World War Italian politics.
And the very real prospect is that the political establishment, so secure since the foundation of the State, will see its power ebb away as we all pay the price for their low standards in high places.
That may yet be the real destructive legacy and tragedy of the Anglo Irish and general banking collapse.