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The Department of Finance has lost letters connected to the bank guarantee

The disappearance of the original versions of two letters copied to finance minister Brian Lenihan has been uncovered by the Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty through Freedom of Information.

The Department of Finance on Merrion Street.
The Department of Finance on Merrion Street.
Image: Niall Carson/Press Association

THE ORIGINAL VERSIONS of two letters that were copied to Brian Lenihan, and relate to Bank of Ireland after the bank guarantee, have gone missing from the Department of Finance.

It has been revealed this evening that following a major search, the documents now only exist in redacted and partial form in the Department’s records.

The two letters are correspondence between Bank of Ireland governor Richard Burrows and a tax consultant, Noel M Corcoran, concerning possible outside investment in the bank at the end of January 2009, two weeks before the government pumped €3.5 billion into it.

The Department was able to locate part of one of the letters from Burrows to Corcoran on 28 January 2009, discussing possible investment in Bank of Ireland by a third party, after checking the ministerial representation tracking system.

Both original letters were copied to Lenihan but their content was entirely redacted when their release was sought under Freedom of Information in May 2009. A subsequent FOI request last year has uncovered that the original and unredacted versions of these documents are missing.

‘Could not be located’

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A letter from BOI governor Richard Burrows to tax consultant Noel M Corcoran on 28 January 2009. Part of the content of this letter has been recovered. Click here if you are having troubling viewing this image.

In a statement, the Department admitted that despite “a widespread search” the original documents could not be located and officials do not know how or why they went missing, adding:

It is not clear why the original version of these records could not be located.

The letters form part of a batch of just eight separate documents that were released in response to a request for all correspondence related to the banking crisis between the Minister for Finance and the heads of banks that were guaranteed from the period 1 August 2008 and 11 March 2009.

The contents of the letters were entirely blacked-out when released to a journalist from the Irish News of the World in May 2009 and the disappearance of the original, unredacted versions in the Department’s records was revealed after the Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty sought their release last year.

In the letter partly-released under the ministerial tracking system, Burrows indicated that Bank of Ireland – which would receive €3.5 billion from the government less than fortnight later – was not open to outside investment and wanted to remain independent.

“We believe that Bank of Ireland has an independent future and that the best interests if our stockholders lie in the Bank remaining independent and being in a position to make a recovery when market conditions improve over time,” Burrows wrote.

But there is no record of what Corcoran wrote back to Burrows on 30 January 2009 and the tax consultant could not be reached at his offices this week.

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Corcoran’s response to Burrows on 30 January 2009 is entirely redacted in records released by the Department of Finance and it has lost the original. Click here if you are having trouble viewing this image.

‘Confidential information’

In its original response in May 2009, the Department cited commercial sensitivity in refusing to release many documents. Those that were released were largely redacted on the grounds of containing “confidential information given to a public body in confidence and on the understanding that it would be treated by it as confidential”.

But last year Doherty asked that a renewed assessment be carried out given the time that had elapsed. He obtained details of the original FOI request through logs of Freedom of Information requests to the Department.

In a response on 5 December 2013, an official from fiscal policy division of the Department of Finance explained that “despite an extensive search across the Department, we have been unable to locate the originals of two documents”.

“In the absence of the original documents we are unable to determine whether we can release or part release these documents,” the official wrote to Doherty.

The disclosure that the Department of Finance has lost documents related to that period will be cause for concern ahead of the forthcoming banking inquiry.

“The only reason we know these documents existed in the first place is because they happened to be FOIed in 2009 and released but with their contents completely redacted,” Doherty explained. “I FOIed the same in 2013 but they no longer existed in their original format or if they do they cannot be located in the Department.”

Bank inquiry document review

The Department said that ahead of the planned banking inquiry, it has started to document all the records it possesses and to cross reference these with other documents in that period “with a view to ensuring the completeness and integrity of our records from the period”.

“At present we have limited ourselves to the months immediately preceding and following the issuance of the guarantee, and are basing our exercise on the record set collected for the Nyberg inquiry,” a statement said. “We are not aware of any documents in the period relating to the bank guarantee that cannot be found.”

The Department said it relies on staff complying with records-management procedures that are in place but insisted these procedures are regularly reviewed and updated. It added that it is examining the “feasibility of improving records management procedures and processes”.

Doherty said that the missing documents “raise serious questions”, saying:

How could the Department of Finance lose these sensitive documents that related to the bank guarantee of Bank of Ireland and the recapitalisation of the bank?

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