The streets were quiet again last night. No rioting, no looting, no angry mob marching on Leinster House, demanding retribution. Everybody just got on with their lives and reconciled themselves to the fact that Seán FitzPatrick would not be going to jail.
Over the course of the last 11 weeks of the trial of the Anglo Three, one strand of barstool opinion had it that there would be riots if Mr FitzPatrick was acquitted. The driving force behind the spectacular rise and equally spectacular fall of Anglo Irish Bank is regarded as the personification of all that led to the destruction of the economy. He is, probably unfairly, something of a hate figure for great swathes of the population. In a state where accountability is absent, he has provided a sump for public anger.
And now, the barstool opinion would have it, he has skipped off again, his devious powers having neutered the State’s attempts to bring him to book.
The most noteworthy aspect to Mr FitzPatrick’s acquittal is that the jury system in this country bucks all trends, by functioning properly and delivering a modicum of fairness. Seven women and five men cocooned themselves from the public mood, their own individual struggles, and probably natural instincts. They coldly examined the evidence suggesting that Mr FitzPatrick had been involved in the issuing of loans that may have contradicted Section 60 of the Companies Act.
They looked at the deal to disentangle the bank from the greed of Seán Quinn, who had secretly built up a huge stake of 28%, and thus put the bank in a perilous state. They examined the deal hatched by senior executives to loan money to developers known as the Maple Ten, so they could buy a chunk of Mr Quinn’s stakeholding.
And in the end, this jury, drawn from the general populace, found there was not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that could convict Mr FitzPatrick of a criminal offence.
The decision was brave. It pushed back against the national mood. It angered the mob, which believes that a modicum of natural justice can only be achieved when some major figure pays the price of incarceration for all that has befallen the country. Quite obviously, the jury decided that they weren’t going to be part of that and they did precisely as they were charged to do by the judge, Martin Nolan. They also distinguished between the roles of Mr FitzPatrick and the executives whom they did convict, William McAteer and Pat Whelan. Those two names were unknown outside financial circles prior to being charged, but now go down in history as the first to be convicted of a crime relating, in the broadest sense, to the banking collapse. They don’t cut it as Public Enemies Number One and Two, too anonymous, not powerful enough, they just don’t look like your average Fat Cat. But again, in their respective cases, the jury applied diligence to reviewing the evidence. Both were convicted of extending loans to the Maple Ten, but acquitted of doing so to the Quinn family, who received loans to buy their father’s shares.
Mr FitzPatrick, however, was the one capturing the public imagination in this trial. The case against him was never solid. The Maple Ten deal in July 2008 was hatched by the executives in the bank. Mr FitzPatrick was by then in the non-executive role of chairman. He told gardaí that he was informed of the deal by the CEO, David Drumm, in a call which he took while on holiday in France. He didn’t design the deal, or know the specifics. He says he was happy with the outline he received from the CEO.
So why was Mr FitzPatrick singled out? The suspicion would have to be that political considerations somehow found a way into the criminal justice process. Can you imagine the outcry if charges had been preferred against Anglo executives but not Seánie? There would have been political heat. There would have been cries that the gardaí mustn’t be up to the job. There would have been demands that the DPP make public its reason for not prosecuting this man.
So it would seem that it was Mr FitzPatrick’s reputation in the public square, rather than the robustness of the evidence, that landed him in front of a criminal court in this instance. That’s not exactly right and proper in any democracy, but in the context of the social upheaval that has been endured in the last five years, not many are going to lose sleep over it. The main point is that when it came to the crunch, a jury was unwilling to pin something on him for which there wasn’t sufficient evidence.
Now the Government can say it did all it could to hunt him down. The cops and the DPP can point to the court and say justice was seen to be done.
Mr FitzPatrick has other charges to answer, but that’s for another day. His status in the public mind is unlikely to change as a result of Wednesday’s verdict. His friends will claim that he’s a scapegoat, but that doesn’t really wash.
His role as the banker who led the charge towards the precipice merits special mention when culpability for the economic collapse is at issue. He led, the other bankers saw that he was being successful, and they followed. He may well have been better than his competitors, but they were all cut from the same cloth.
His media appearances, both when the bubble was expanding, and on bursting, did him no favours. He came across as arrogant and condescending, talking down to the little people, while he expounded on how he and his fellows had “the balls” to take risks.
The risks he took were not those of your average business person. As a banker, precedent would have told him that if it came to the crunch, his institution would get bailed out. That’s a mighty piece of knowledge to have if you’re going about making money hand over fist on the basis of risk.
He bears responsibility for all of that, but he doesn’t for the “groupthink” that infected the upper echelons of business, politics, and regulation. Mr FitzPatrick alone could not have dragged the country over the edge. There were plenty of others at the frontline, most of whom have now slunk off into the undergrowth, cradling their obscene pensions.
As far as legal recourse is concerned, there is precious little that can be done in relation to the banking collapse. The deal at issue in the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court contravened the law, the jury have found, but it alone wasn’t responsible for the banking collapse. Similarly, other pending changes have, of themselves, little to do with how the country ended up as it did.
There is no law against lending like there’s no tomorrow. There is no law against light-touch regulation. There is no law against “groupthink.”
That’s how it suited those with the power and money to influence the lawmakers, and those who make the law duly obliged to the bidding. By far the most worrying matter in raking over the embers of collapse, is that much too little has been done to ensure that it can’t happen again.