FERGUS FINLAY: Banking inquiry is vital because Anglo tapes are only telling half the story

WE ARE indebted to two types of whistleblowers — the deliberate and the accidental.

Thanks to the deliberate decisions of Edward Snowden, but also to the crass and revolting interventions of David Drumm, and his colleagues, we know a lot of stuff that other people didn’t want us to know.

There is only one thing we can do about Snowden. He has revealed the terrifying ways in which the United States is increasingly seeking to own, and control, the flow of information.

In the latest revelations, we’re learning that the US administration is routinely tapping into the most private conversations of its friends and allies, in Europe and elsewhere.

As I write this, Snowden appears to be living — I’m guessing in fear — in an airport lobby in Moscow. It can only be a matter of time before they come to get him, in some fashion or another. So far, not one of the European countries that ought to be indebted to him has offered him asylum. They can criticise the US for bugging their phones and emails, but they don’t want to offend the US by protecting a man who has committed no crime.

Why don’t we, the people of Ireland, offer asylum and citizenship to Snowden? It would send a powerful message to the world that we respect what he has done. But, more to the point, it would be the simplest and most direct rebuke to our ally, the US.

It would be our way of saying ‘you don’t do that sort of thing to your friends’.

While we’re at it, shouldn’t we also be inviting Drumm to come home, so that he can answer a few questions? Among other things, he might be able to tell us who asked for the bank guarantee, if Anglo didn’t?

I was in Northern Ireland last weekend. One of the great things about it — apart from the always surprising beauty of Co Antrim — was the fresh air. There was no putrefying smell, no stench of corruption in the atmosphere. Throughout last week, the air we had to breathe down here was rank and horrible.

It was caused, of course, by the Anglo-Irish tapes. Independent Newspapers did a public service by acquiring and publishing those tapes. But, God, they were hard to hear.

I once met Drumm, briefly. He seemed a nice man, sympathetic and concerned about the issues I was talking about. So I didn’t recognise the sneering and contemptuous tone on the tapes. But it was a revelation, replete as it was with an arrogant sense of entitlement. There was no hint of failure here, no acknowledgment that they were letting down their shareholders, their customers, and the people of Ireland. It was all someone else’s fault, and it was the duty of the State to hand over our money to help them.

‘Moolah’, they called it. ‘Give me the moolah. Now.’ When you think about it, wasn’t their unbridled neck behind all those phone calls?

But here’s the thing we need to know, and here’s the reason an enquiry is so important now. Because the tapes only tell us half the story.

The tapes tell us that these people dripped with contempt for the political and regulatory system. It’s impossible to escape the conclusion, from listening to some of the exchanges, that they knew the bank was doomed. It wasn’t a safety net they wanted the State to provide — it was an escape hatch.

But was there a basis for their contempt? Did they know what they were dealing with? That’s why we need an enquiry. We know the decisions the bankers wanted. And the amazing thing we have now discovered — though it may be taking time to sink in — is that these bankers weren’t looking for a guarantee. They just wanted a loan. They may have had no intention of paying it back, but they went to government looking for short-term money. To their astonishment, they got a guarantee, instead.

We don’t know how that happened. None of it. Who asked for it, who recommended it, who decided it? All we know is that the single most important economic decision in the history of this State was made in the worst possible way. All the rules relating to how government decisions were made were ignored, and the consequences, as we all know, have been disastrous.

One of the people in the Cabinet at that time, Willie O’Dea, wrote last weekend that “on the issue of the 2008 guarantee, if the ministers had access then to the full picture, particularly the ultimate €64bn cost, which we now see Anglo was eager to conceal, it is doubtful there would have been a State banking guarantee. Ministers that night had to act on the information they had from the Central Bank and others.”

But in April, 2011, O’Dea told the Independent that “during the call on the night of Sept 29/30, 2008, there was no discussion and he was presented with no option but to agree to the decision, which he, and presumably all other ministers, were told had to be made before markets opened the following morning.”

In my view, a parliamentary enquiry has one characteristic that no other enquiry has, and that’s the reason this must be a parliamentary enquiry. It will be conducted in the ‘light of day’, on live television. I sat through years of the ‘beef tribunal’, and I know, in my heart, the result would have been different if the evidence was all taken in an open setting.

The public interest, in the right sense of the term, would be cheated if any enquiry into how our economy was destroyed was conducted in private, or if only a few members of the public were allowed in to watch the proceedings.

But I did write here, last week, that we have yet to establish that we can run a bipartisan, fair-minded Oireachtas enquiry. It should, and must, be chaired by a senior parliamentarian — and the late Jim Mitchell, together with his then colleague, Pat Rabbitte — proved in the DIRT enquiry that professional bipartisanship is possible.

If I were setting up the enquiry, I would appoint independent assessors to help the parliamentarians. Assessors like the retired comptroller and auditor general, John Purcell, and the retired director of public prosecutions, Jim Hamilton, have years of experience assembling and assessing evidence. And they know how to ensure fair procedure.

What’s more, both are people of unimpeachable integrity and reputation. Their advice and guidance would guarantee a thorough and fair outcome.

But, until we do it, there will be a smell over this island of ours. We have to get to the bottom of what happened and how it happened. We can’t keep relying on the accidental whistleblowers.

We have to have it out in the open. All of it, once and for all.


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