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Having made a ‘complete and utter balls of it’, what hope now for the banking inquiry?

Analysis: Before it’s even started the public perception of the banking inquiry has been badly damaged.

The Tánaiste and Taoiseach are being heavily criticised for their handling of the banking inquiry so far
The Tánaiste and Taoiseach are being heavily criticised for their handling of the banking inquiry so far
Image: Niall Carson

THE BANKING INQUIRY debacle was very much a Leinster House bubble story that wasn’t of much interest or consequence to those who don’t spend their time stalking the halls of Leinster House – up until last week, that is.

Then on Tuesday the Taoiseach admitted that the government needed a majority to set the terms of reference, stating his belief that the opposition couldn’t be trusted to do such a thing after it had secured a majority on the Oireachtas committee.

“How do I know what your members will do? I don’t know,” Kenny told a visibly outraged Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.

In admitting this, the Taoiseach had begun inflicting significant damage on the idea that his own colleague Brendan Howlin had put forward – that in establishing the inquiry the government was keen that it be a creature of the Oireachtas and not the executive.

That was damaged further by the government ramming through an increase in the committee’s membership, riding roughshod over the processes Oireachtas and leading one member to resign from the inquiry days before its first meeting. 

During a heated, hyperbole-ridden Seanad session last Thursday morning, one former Labour senator, James Heffernan, summed up the government’s handling of the issue quite succinctly:

You’ve made a complete and utter balls of it.
Pearse Doherty, the Sinn Féin member of the committee, got it right when he said this morning: ”The problem here is the public perception because of what Taoiseach has said has fatally undermined the inquiry.”

What was a bubble story has now become something much bigger – and much more damaging for the government.

‘Shockingly’

Government members of the inquiry hold no candle for Donnelly and take a dim view of his departure in a blaze of publicity yesterday – an article on the front of the Sunday Independent and an appearance on the Marian Finucane Show.

But they acknowledge privately that the government has handled the membership issue, as one put it, ”shockingly”. One said the inquiry is needed and that they want to be in the tent and not outside of it.

It’s clear that the government wants to control the inquiry, particularly the setting of its terms of reference. However, what hope does it have of doing this with any sort of success when so far its handling of even a basic issue like membership has been nothing short of haphazard, incompetent and messy?

Much like several other controversies that have hit the coalition in recent months – such as whistleblowers and medical cards- there is an air of ‘move along, nothing to see here’ before the matter is finally dealt with after a string of crises.

With the banking inquiry, we still seem to be at the ‘nothing to see here’ stage with the government going through a series of crises: first failing to ensure a majority, then failing to remove a member, then adding two members, then losing one member, and then offering a sop to the remaining membership by saying there will be no whip applied.

One government TD says privately, there will still be a “soft whip” applied where members will still be to some extent dictated to by government.

Botched

When the government announced its establishment at the end of April, we wrote of the five key issues facing the banking inquiry before it even starts. The first was ‘Who will sit on the inquiry committee?’.

That this has been utterly botched does not bode well for the remaining four matters including what will it examine and how far will it go, avoiding legal difficulties, ascertaining the relevant documentation and thrashing out a witness list.

Given there have already been three substantial but behind closed doors investigations carried out – Nyberg, Honohan and Regling-Watson – this parliamentary probe was primarily about allowing the public to see tough questions asked of the likes of Brian Cowen, senior bankers, auditors and all the rest of them.

Yet we are still a long way away from that with public hearings not envisaged until April of next year.

Between now and then, there is much work to be carried out and given there has been much mishandling of the inquiry in the six weeks since it was set up there’s plenty that could go wrong over the next six months, putting the inquiry’s very survival at risk.

Read: Pearse Doherty won’t pull out of the banking inquiry – but he does want to get two senators off it

Poll: Was Stephen Donnelly right to quit the banking inquiry?

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