Banking inquiry needs to be on the money

Amid the unfolding political mess, there is a need to hear from those behind the bank guarantee, says Gerard Howlin

Banking inquiry needs to be on the money

ONLY incompetence can explain how a government elected to clean up the mess of its predecessor is now up to its waist in the very same dung heap it promised to sweep from the stables.

Yet this is where the Government is in relation to its proposed banking inquiry. We might pause to remember the consequences of the fateful decisions made by the last government on the bank guarantee in 2008 and the backdrop of improvident policy that contributed to those decisions. These are costs that will be borne for a generation.

Fianna Fáil were ejected from government in 2011, and holding them to account was a key political commitment of the government that replaced them. It remains an essential public demand. What exactly happened on the night the guarantee was given? What was the role of the government, bankers, and officials involved? Critically, what was the role of the Financial Regulator, the Central Bank, and the Department of Finance in the evolving debacle?

In an accountable democracy, there is a need, still unmet, to hear publicly from those involved. Amid the unfolding political mess, accentuated by the resignation of Independent TD Stephen Donnelly from the inquiry, this public demand should not be forgotten, because it has not gone away.

Mess or not, this inquiry is going ahead, albeit with its credibility damaged by crude manoeuvring for advantage. On the making of the original mess in the Seanad, and on making it worse since, responsibility is clear. It is the Government’s.

Inside the political bubble, where process matters as much as policy or ultimate outcomes, there are several more twists to come. Will a fractious technical group of Independent TDs agree to replace Mr Donnelly? If they do, Socialist TD Joe Higgins is the likely replacement. He, like Mr Donnelly a respected parliamentarian, would join a group, under the chairmanship of Labour TD Ciarán Lynch, who individually are capable people. But the seeds of doubt about the integrity of the process have been needlessly sown.

Another important issue that will add to or subtract from the credibility of the inquiry are its terms of reference. When the rows about membership are played out, the scope of the inquiry will be a further key determinant of its standing. Any inquiry that is confined solely to the events of the night of September 29, and fails to look at the surrounding policy and institutional landscape, will be fundamentally flawed and politically suspect. There is also a festering suspicion that the reason fulfilment of a fundamental commitment during the 2011 general election has waited until now to be actioned is that this inquiry is part of political planning by the Government for the next election.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny gave a hostage to fortune when he said that the Government needed a majority on the inquiry to agree its terms. He is now dependent on whether events will allow him to ransom that hostage before the next election. This is the fulcrum of the bind the Taoiseach has tied the Government into. Timelines around the likely lifespan of the Government, which last year seemed certain, are much less so now. This furore, however, may be overcome if the inquiry sets about its business smartly and is seen to serve a worthwhile public purpose. A lot of the ire now about its establishment may wash away.

What will matter to people, is less an eventual outcome that can anyway only inquire, record, and report is the chance to hear in public, the account key people give of their actions. Much more important than the report ultimately, is the view people will arrive at for themselves.

However, in ham-fistedly enforcing a majority, and rejecting Fianna Fáil’s suggestion for a judge-led inquiry, the Taoiseach has made himself the prisoner of events he no fully longer controls.

If the speed of political events in Government outpace the inquiry’s proceedings, he may have to face the people before 2016, without it ever concluding. In those circumstances, he will be accused, then, of having procrastinated and politicked now, for advantage in circumstances, which if yet unknowable, will by definition be highly contentious. All unplanned government break-ups are a welter of mutual accusation. An unfinished inquiry, and a blame game the narrative of which is now effectively written, is the worst of all outcomes for Mr Kenny. None of this is inevitable, but they can be listed as distinctly possible prospects.

The pity is that a speedier, more competent approach, would have avoided those present dangers. The hoped compensation, of course, is that even a half-finished inquiry will be a timely reminder to the electorate of why they so savagely rejected Fianna Fáil in 2011.

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