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Aaron McKenna: Politicians should be investigated over Anglo, not investigating it

What angers me about these telephone recordings is that they are only the tip of the iceberg, writes Aaron McKenna, who says a banking investigation is needed now.

Aaron McKenna

ASIDE FROM THEIR content, one of the things about the Anglo tapes that really gets under my skin is the idea that these are just the tip of an iceberg. These are the conversations in one bank that were recorded on the telephone system. There are other banks. There are public institutions. There are unrecorded lunchroom and water cooler conversations. There is a whole host of documented and recorded and related evidence that the Irish people have never seen or that have never been read into an official record.

Prior to this smoking gun being released by the Irish Independent I’m almost certain that you’d be dismissed as a crank in some corners – including those in whose interest it is to avoid scrutiny – for suggesting that senior bankers would be joking and laughing while talking about their intention to never pay back the Irish people.

Taped conversations

One of the executives, John Bowe, has said he regrets the language and tone used in hindsight while claiming he never tried to mislead the Central Bank. Whatever the tone, you can take from the content what you will:

That number is seven [billion] but the reality is we need more than that. But you know, the strategy here is you pull them [the Central Bank] in, you get them to write a big cheque and they have to keep, they have to support their money, you know.

If they saw the enormity of it up front, they might decide they have a choice. You know what I mean? They might say the cost to the taxpayer is too high…if it doesn’t look too big at the outset…if it doesn’t look big, big enough to be important, but not too big that it kind of spoils everything, then, then I think you can have a chance. So I think it can creep up.

Many may have suspected that was the thinking at the time, but there it is, laid out in the records of the bank itself, which has been in public ownership for years: The Irish people were stabbed in the back.

To know how often and by how many different institutions and individuals, we need a proper investigation not just into Anglo or our banking sector, but into the entire financial crash and its aftermath. We have needed one for many years, not simply to find criminal fault but to figure out what went wrong so we can properly guard against it in future. We also need an investigation to figure out just why it has taken so many years for these sorts of tapes to surface.

Ireland’s go-slow inquiries

Perhaps it’s just by accident or coincidence or bad luck that these tapes have emerged after we’ve crystalised all the losses of Anglo and our other banks into sovereign debt; and perhaps only tin foil hat wearing types think there was a conspiracy at play to keep investigations down while government went on about loading us with all this unwanted debt. Perhaps. But we won’t find out if we continue on our present course of go-slow inquiries and politically fudged planned investigations.

As if they’ve been sleeping giants for many years, our politicians woke up angry on Monday. Outraged, so they were. None moreso than Fianna Fail, who feel they were duped when in government. It wasn’t our fault! Fine Gael and Labour are dancing around, all that debt we’ve crystalised! Not our fault! It was them nefarious bankers.

The harder our usually obfuscating politicians point fingers, the more you can bet they’re trying to make you look anywhere but at them.

Fianna Fail want to use this to distract from the idea that even if there wasn’t any malfeasance in their actions, they still sat in government from 1997 onwards and if the financial regulator wasn’t tooled to know which way was up – come 2008 it was their mismanagement. Perhaps, I wonder, if senior bankers at institutions that went to the wall shouldn’t be allowed run banks in future; might we bar people who were in the post-07 cabinet from ever holding high office?

Pinning this on the bankers

Fine Gael and Labour as well want to be able to neatly pin this onto a few bankers. Forget about the fact that all these records were sitting around – apparently quite surprisingly so to the government that owns said banks – and that the new government has hardly been piling resources into speedy investigations of what went on before signing away a few billion more of our money. It was them fellas in 2008, and them alone, what did for Ireland.

That’s the trouble with politicians, too much of an agenda combined with too little grey matter between them. Yet it is our politicians who would hold an inquiry into this whole mess. That’d be a real laugh. If you’ve ever taken the time to see most of them in committee, grandstanding for ten minutes and then shooting right past the target when they get round to asking a question, you’d have no faith in such an inquiry. The smartest people in the room would be those with an agenda to see their lot get off with minimum political damage whilst doing maximum to their opponents. Hardly the salve the Irish people deserve.

Of course, if they don’t hold an Oireachtas investigation we’re likely to see some fudged inquiry put together and framed by politicians; in sort of the same way that previous investigations into the crash have been framed to specifically avoid raising the most difficult questions. Don’t forget too that it was our wise masters who also put together the tribunals, which cost so much and even when they specifically found wrongdoing it held not one ounce of weight needed to prosecute and bring an individual to justice.

It’s almost like it was set up that way.

How do we run a proper inquiry?

What hope for a proper investigation, then? I’d almost say if we were really serious, we’d bring in foreigners to do it. Dublin 2, which housed Anglo round the corner from Leinster House and up the street from the Central Bank, is too small for its denizens to properly go after one another in a truly balanced fashion.

Bring in some reputable investigators from abroad and set them a simple and non-constraining term of reference to figure out what the hell went on, find out who did wrong and set up prosecutions and find out who was simply stupid and how we can avoid the mistakes of the past. Find out just why we’ve waited five years to hear these tapes. Find out what role various politicians really played, and what they knew versus what they told us at various points in time when we were being committed deeper and deeper into this hole.

Find out where our bondholder payments went and who won and lost, so we might get – in a hypothetical world – folks like Deutsche Bank on our side for debt federalisation in Europe rather than face embarrassment of pointing out that they’d have been in trouble in 2008 and 2009 if it wasn’t for the Irish taxpayer. Start paying whistleblower bonuses to people who come forward, play clever football with immunity for folks who can bring down the big boys.

Partially this is about seeing some folks go to jail if they truly did wrong. It’s somewhat a perhaps quixotic adventure to try and get some of our money back. Mostly, it’s about figuring out what went wrong so we can avoid doing it again in thirty years. If we don’t, I can almost guarantee you that with the same structures, the same political culture and the same cloud of doubt around the crash we will be stabbed in the back again.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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