Michael McGrath gets his retaliation in first ahead of the posse

Another day over at the banking inquiry, and what have we learnt? 

Michael McGrath gets his retaliation in first ahead of the posse

Not a lot really, but the gathering in the bowels of Leinster House has an air of building up to something, although what exactly is unclear.

On Day One, chairman Ciarán Lynch told the 10 other members to leave their club jerseys at the door.

Yesterday, a little political jousting came from the unlikely source of Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath.

Maybe he was getting his revenge in first, ahead of an anticipated bombardment of his party in the days to come.

Rob Wright was in the witness chair. He’s a Canadian public servant who compiled a report on how the Department of Finance was asleep at the wheel when the property bubble was being blown goodo.

In the footsteps of Peter Nyberg, he is another gentleman from overseas who observed the tales of ordinary madness that passed for public life in this country when it was being run like an oil-rich kingdom.

Now he’s back to relay to the committee what’s in his report, although all committee members are understood to be relatively proficient in reading and writing in the English language.

Like Nyberg, Wright was clear and concise, but a little more blunt with the natives. Here are the main points of his findings:

There was precious little paper trail of advice and other activity in the department, he said, as if that’s the kind of stuff one might have learned to keep track of in junior infants; the rate of spending during the wild years — an average of 12% per annum — was something that would have left the drunkest sailor shortchanged; nobody shouted stop; and social partnership has a lot to answer for.

The lack of paper left him flummoxed, but he was told by many public servants that it was the Freedom of Information law that was to blame. Nobody wanted to commit to paper anything that might come back to haunt them.

If a senior civil servant issues advice to the minister, and the minister declines, for whatever reason, to take it, and that advice becomes public soon after, it all makes for some serious hassle.

“If you have a piece of advice that is not totally consistent with what the minister says in public then it’s controversial,” Mr Wright said.

“There was at least one experience in the department where a piece of advice from the secretary general to a minister was released and the minister of the day had a lot of concern about the freedom of information.”

If that was all that was wrong in the department, we’d all be in clover.

In general terms, it was a mess. People were singing from different hymn sheets. Then there was the whole budgetary process.

Mr Wright was in town to compile his report a few years back on the night of the budget for that year.

“People (in the department) went home to see what was in the budget,” he says. “I found that incredible.”

Nobody told him the one about the year when the Bundestag knew the contents of the budget before the Dáil did, not to mind the civil servants or the great unwashed.

On the basis of the half day he has been back among us, he thinks things are getting better.

Anyway, when it came to Michael McGrath’s turn to ask the questions he couldn’t resist wondering whether Mr Wright had found anything to suggest that any opposition politicians had taken issue with the prevailing “cut taxes to the bone and spend big” culture that existed at the time.

“Was there any evidence that the government of the day was being challenged by opposition parties in the Dáil, saying you (the Government ) were not being cautious enough,” McGrath asked.

“No, no evidence of that,” Mr Wright replied. “That is how political debate is going to have to mature going forward,” he said.

McGrath nailed his point. Fianna Fáil may have been reckless in the course they set for the country, but it was a recklessness that was embraced by all its political opponents. Nobody shouted stop spending. Nobody called for more taxes.

It’s all back to that word which you will hear time and again over the next six months. Groupthink.

There will be more experts after Christmas, all the way to April before the civil servants, politicians and bankers roll in.

The jury is still out on whether this whole thing will amount to a hill of beans.

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up