THROUGHOUT the bank inquiry’s troubled year, its critics have repeatedly claimed the vital investigation into what caused the economic crash will ultimately be an irrelevant, messy side-note, at best.
That suggestion may be an unfair reflection of the work of those involved, but there is one reason why the inquiry’s detractors must accept that it is destined to be not just relevant, but central to the political debate over the coming weeks.
It’s called the general election, and the ongoing problems in getting the report signed off on by all members is playing havoc with Government strategists’ well thought-through options for when this will be held.
Under a long-stated schedule put forward by senior bank inquiry members and officials in recent months, the investigation was due to have been signed off on and sent out for statutory right of reply 10 days ago.
This date would have allowed a two-week response period, to finish before Christmas, with a necessary 21-day cooling-off period required under the Oireachtas Inquiries Act governing the investigation, to end before the Dáil returns for business in the New Year.
In English, this means the report was due to be published on Wednesday, January 20 — a situation which would in theory have allowed Taoiseach Enda Kenny to dissolve the Dáil one day later on January 21 before a three-week election campaign kicked off leading up to a rumoured vote on Friday, February 12.
That option — which was considered by many to be a real possibility to allow the coalition, and Fine Gael in particular, to capitalise on ongoing high poll ratings alongside a budget bounce — is now off the table.
And the next likeliest date, Friday February 19, is also teetering worryingly close to the edge of the deepening bank inquiry abyss.
Under the newly set-out timeline, inquiry members had until 6pm last night to send in hundreds of amendments they want to make to the latest version of the report.
Provided there are no further snags, they will meet today — and potentially on Saturday and Monday — to draw up findings before the inquiry’s legal team sends the report out for the two weeks’ right-of-reply process.
While this is meant to last just a fortnight due to the Christmas period’s impact on working days it will in reality be closer to three weeks. Inquiry members are scheduled to meet on December 29 and 30 to examine the replies before signing off on the report itself — provided no further crises beset the investigation — on New Year’s Eve.
The document will then go back — again — to the inquiry’s legal team who will reply to the responses from individuals named in the inquiry to update them on what changes, if any, have been made: a process scheduled to take place on January 4.
The report itself will then go before the Dáil on Wednesday, January 27, after the 21-day cooling off period is served, just one day before the January 28 cut-off point for the investigation to be published.
Under this new schedule, Mr Kenny could still dissolve the Dáil on January 28, meaning a Friday, February 19, election date is still possible.
But given the repeated failures of the inquiry to hit its deadlines in recent months, the fact there is a mere 24-hour safety buffer factored into this timeline means any specific party plans for this date must have a large health warning attached.
Should further legal problems emerge — a highly likely prospect given the inquiry’s recent history— after responses from named individuals, there is a genuine chance the committee may have to ask the Dáil for a further extension to the timeline or admit defeat in its attempts to publish an agreed report.
It’s safe to assume neither option — one involving delaying election plans, the other effectively wasting millions of euro of taxpayers’ money on an investigation to find out why millions of euro of taxpayers’ money was wasted — is on top of the coalition’s Christmas wish list.
So, why does all this calendar tracking matter? In three words: the next government.
An early February election would allow Fine Gael and Labour to benefit from its give-away budget finally reaching taxpayers’ pockets. But the benefit will lessen as the month goes on — an issue the inquiry’s problems are inadvertently helping to bring about.
A March election, while a possibility, may also be too close to the Easter Rising centenary celebrations, which could see Sinn Féin benefit by promoting their version of connections to 100 years ago.
And if both options are ruled out, Friday, February 26, now looks to be the only safe election date for the coalition, making it far easier for the opposition to plan their campaigns.
It is hardly a situation the Fine Gael and Labour strategists — who are happier to keep people guessing — will be pleased with revealing this far out from the official start-date of the campaign. And they have the bank inquiry which they set up themselves to thank for it all.