Anybody expecting Charlie McCreevy to enter the banking inquiry armed with sackcloth and ashes would have been a long time waiting.
Instead, he burst in on the unsuspecting committee members with guns blazing. Regrets? He has none. Absolutely nein. Zero, zip, zilch. He did everything correctly. He hinted that he’s too polite to point out the bleedin’ obvious — that he was pure brilliant. He dragged the country, kicking and screaming into prosperity, and he was gone down the road when things began to turn sour.
McCreevy didn’t just arrive in to defend his record. He was there to blow out of the water all those who had fingered him as one of the main culprits of the bubble that begat the bust. He began by reeling off an array of dizzying statistics that showed how his tenure as Minister for Finance was, well, one of the greatest known to the State.
He defended property incentives and his record in public spending. “No matter how the figures are interpreted, it is quite clear there was no splurge over the period,” he said.
If it wasn’t for the redeeming features of his folksy manner and flashes of humour, he might have come across as insufferable.
During his opening remarks, he actually taunted two of his prospective interrogators in reference to why, as minister for finance between 1997 and 2004, he hadn’t taken advice from his department at various times.
“I’m sure when Deputy Pearse Doherty is Minister for Finance and Deputy Joe Higgins is Minister for Public Expenditure, they will get loads of advice from the Department of Finance and ignore it,” he said.
As it turned out, Doherty was the first to put the bould Charlie under the cosh. Would he accept that there had been a property bubble? McCreevy made a point of noting that there was no bubble up until 2004, when he went to Europe as Bertie’s commissioner. He had imposed an edict on himself not to talk about anything that happened thereafter.
Doherty pushed him. He resisted. That was his edict and he was sticking to it. The committee went into private session. When it returned, chairman Ciaran Lynch issued a legal warning to McCreevy.
Was there a bubble? In the end, he accepted there was, which was a relief, as the alternative was to accept Charlie really was living on a different planet from the rest of us.
That was about all he conceded through the rest of his evidence. His decision to row back on measures introduced in the Bacon report to damp down housing demand did not contribute to the bubble, he said.
The tax incentives he extended by two years did not contribute to the bubble. The decision to hive off regulation to a body separate to the Central Bank did not contribute to the bubble. He could admit that there was a bubble — after he’d left for Brussels — but he had nothing to do with it.
Equally, he didn’t do anything to drive the economy towards the rapids that awaited downstream. The hare-brained decentralisation scheme that, at the time in 2003, was alleged to have been formulated on the back of a cigarette packet?
“No,” he said. “I see a great many offices all over the country, decentralised offices. I’d be very sad that the total decentralisation hadn’t been completed as we had envisaged.”
You will have to look hard to find anybody who would agree with that conclusion. He had no regrets about the Special Savings Incentive Account, which cost €2.5bn, and has long been regarded as an election gimmick.
His old sparring partner Joe Higgins went looking for some self-reflection. He wondered whether McCreevy’s devotion to free markets been disturbed at all by the devestation and toxic debts that resulted from the economic collapse of 2008.
“I accept the facts speak for themselves,” he said, “but I’m not a believer in the alternative solutions that you have been advocating since we were both students a long time ago. I certainly agree it caused devestation, but I’m not giving up on it yet.”
He was too wily for the committee members. Will his appearance and performance adjust the general view of his role in propelling the economy towards its destiny? Unlikely. Those who regard him as well as he regards himself will continue to do so. Others will hardly have been swayed by a bravura performance that worked as a defence, but can’t change the facts.
Others who have come before the inquiry have, with some reflection, voiced regrets about aspects of their tenure in office or power. Not so McCreevy. If he maintains his edict of silence, we are unlikely to hear any more of his robust and entertaining version of how he oversaw the economy with mighty self-regard.
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