WE NEED AN Oireachtas inquiry now.
It is time for Brendan Howlin to stop the spinning and get on with an Oireachtas banking inquiry right now. Last week selected extracts from a ‘special confidential briefing’ to the Public Accounts Committee were leaked saying they might be unable to scrutinise the actions of former Ministers and Taoiseach Brian Cowen on their handling of the banking crisis. But the reality is that each member of that Cabinet seems, to me, to be more than willing to come into a Committee to account for what happened. Far from being reluctant to come in, I have nothing to hide – so I want to know what is the reason for a delay.
Why do we have to wait for Brendan Howlin to build the complex legal scaffold he wants to erect for this particular issue? Oireachtas Committees can work well, as recently demonstrated when examining the issue of abortion. It is not as if the people involved are not familiar with the ways and means that the committees work. We need to get on with it so that we can dig out a few home truths from what happened, even if that is difficult for all concerned. The Irish people deserve no less.
If there is one group that is likely to be reluctant to come forward, I expect it will be the relevant officials from the Department of Finance. They are not known for liking the limelight, but they too need to tell their story. If they are reluctant to do so it will be up to the Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan to step in and sort it out, but that is no reason to stop the politicians being brought in to have their say.
The contents of the memo leaked to the Examiner is full of legal nonsense. However, if Brendan Howlin really wanted to overcome any shyness among his own officials to turn up, the memo contains one simple mechanism he could use. His legal advice says that an inquiry can take place so long as the information on past events might help shape a forward-looking-issue. Surely this provides all the cover he needs. As the Government is following the overall approach of the last government, including implementing the ‘Four Year Plan’, every possible question could and should be asked about the full circumstances that surrounded the creation of that plan.
Were alternatives explored?
The knives will of course be out when it comes to the night of the bank guarantee and I believe we all deserve to hear the full facts surrounding that weekend. But once the drum roll is ended, I would want the committee to go one step further and establish some other important facts.
Critically they need to examine the alternatives to the course that was taken. They should start by asking about the cost of a full banking collapse, should that have happened, at that critical time. They might also ask whether we would have still seen the €15bn that the UK government pumped into the Irish banks, under an alternative approach allowing such a collapse? How would we have provided any support to people in mortgage difficulties if capital had not been put into the banks to cover such loses?
Moreover, what would have been the cost to Irish householders from higher mortgage interest rates if the ECB had not at the same time pumped some €130bn into the country? What would have been the cost of the alternative strategy advocated by the Labour Party of nationalising all the banks straight away?
We need those questions to be asked in the PAC because you will never hear them put anywhere else. It is so much easier to take the Labour line that, if only all the other parties had voted with them in September 2008 our troubles would have been blown away; the problem with that simple story is that it allows us miss the fundamental reasons for our crash. It obscures the fact that for ten years we had a government made up of high-spending Fianna Fail married to low tax PDs. It hides the fact that Fine Gael were also cheerleaders for the property boom, joining Michael McDowell and others in calling for cuts in stamp duty just as the property train started to come off the rails. It helps us forget that in the 2007 general election the Labour Party committed to a populist policy of actually cutting income tax, just at the point when we were all starting to sense that our boom economy was far from real.
The danger of ignoring the past
The biggest danger is that by ignoring the real cause of our problems the political system can carry on as if nothing has changed. Where is the change, when it takes Mattie McGrath to state the obvious that the money in health is now following various Ministers rather than the patient? Where is the change when now more than ever briefs are handed out in the Four Courts on the lines of two to Fine Gael, one to the Labour Party guy or girl? Why is political cronyism on state boards worse now than ever before? Having fought an election with the promise of change they have brought us back to politics as usual – and then they wonder why Fianna Fail are once again riding high in the polls.
Brendan Howlin clearly wants to put off an Oireachtas inquiry into the autumn to give himself some political cover at a time of another tough budget. He should have the courage to get on with it this Spring and stop the constant refrain that everything he has to do is a result of someone else’s fault. Labour TDs who are now Labour Ministers privately admitted when in opposition that they would take a similar path to the previous government should they return to power. That is what they are now doing – and they should own it themselves.
We need that Oireachtas inquiry now so that we can all learn the lessons from the banking crisis, so we never again experience such a fall. More than anything else we need it to be an honest inquiry, so that we move beyond the traditional pork belly tactics that Fine Gael and Labour are now using, while they conveniently distract people by playing the blame game of old.
Eamon Ryan is the leader of the Green Party, and served as Minister for Communications in the Fianna Fáil-Green government from 2007 to 2011. You can follow him on Twitter at @EamonRyan.