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Column: Yes, we need a banking inquiry – but we can’t let politicians do it

Have you ever seen our TDs in action? They’re hardly the people to investigate this complex – and untrustworthy – industry, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

IN THINKING OF banks and the people who run them, I’m reminded of the war sketch in Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life, where a wounded man speaks enthusiastically about his enjoyment of the situation.

“Better than staying at home, isn’t this, sir? I mean, at home, if you kill someone they’ll arrest you. Here, they give you a gun and show you how to use it. I mean, I killed fifteen of those buggers. Now, at home, they’d hang me! Here, they’ll give me a medal, sir!”

It seems that banks in Ireland and the world over are capable of doing just about anything with our money, bar what they’re supposed to. Scandal after scandal has shown that if they’re not losing track of your money (Ulster Bank), they’re investing it poorly (think: the boom), allegedly making bets against the investments they advise you to make (Goldman Sachs) or outright stealing it (Libor rate fixing or deliberate overcharging, anyone?).

Instead of medals, the people who run these fine institutions get bonuses the size of some sub-Saharan GDPs.

Banks get to do most of what they do because people, businesses and institutions park their money with them – after all, there aren’t many other options available beyond gold teeth or mattresses – in the promise of security and perhaps even returns. What we don’t expect is for the bank to throw that money around like Skittles at a four-year-old’s birthday party.

But time and again that’s what they’ve done, and time and again society at large has had to come in and bail them out. It’s having your house robbed and then getting medical bills from the thief for the injuries he got breaking your door down.

Banks are such a systemic part of our economy and lives that they have to be held to a higher account; and even if you don’t trust that logic, we’ve poured enough treasure into them (both since 2008 and in the past) that we’re interested shareholders.

Disaster

In one sense Ulster Bank’s technical disaster ranks among the lesser sins of banks in recent years, being as it is a technical malfunction owing to incompetence rather than a deliberate fraud like Libor rate fixing, or imprudence driven by greed. Nevertheless the fiasco has systemic importance for the country and society. Over half a million people have had their personal banking disrupted; businesses can’t get paid; commerce is slowed and trust is eroded.

Somebody took their eye off the ball in the IT management of the RBS Group (Ulster’s parent, and provider of their IT infrastructure); and when it all went pear-shaped the organisation clearly didn’t have a Disaster Plan B worked out. This was in evidence when Ulster’s management were unable to recount their contingency planning in the past year when questioned by lawmakers here at the Oireachtas Finance Committee.

It was fortunate, all the same, that our illustrious TDs and Senators managed to figure that much out in their questioning of Ulster and RBS management. A few blows and half-decent probing questions were landed by people like Shane Ross; who wasn’t even technically on the committee questioning the bankers, and who was asked to stop using up time when haranguing Ulster’s chief executive on his annual bonus.

Jim Brown was evasive to the committee on the topic of his performance related pay, but later relented when the media kept the pressure up. TDs and Senators don’t frighten many people, from either the private or public sector. We’ve seen people ‘dragged before the committee’ in the past getting to the point of laughing at lawmakers while refusing to answer their questions, as was the case with Alan Dukes when being questioned about Anglo.

Ridiculous and boorish

And why wouldn’t they laugh, given that these are serious people appearing before sometimes ridiculous and often boorish inquisitors.

Ross’s fellow Dublin South TD Olivia Mitchell droned on at the Ulster trio for several minutes, apparently trying to make a point about the cash economy or… well, something. I’m not sure. They weren’t sure. I’m not sure Olivia Mitchell was sure. The answer, when it came and we strip out the fluff, was “Cash is actually quite useful, we don’t see it being phased out at all.” Somewhere in the sky a narrator said “And now for something completely different,” and Mitchell made a comment about ovens before the committee moved along.

It’s a far cry from the likes of the US Senate, which has dragged a fair few executives through the ringer despite all the cries about corporate influence on politicians in that country. Of course, the US has a few brains to rub together on their committees, as well as the resources to have staff (who aren’t your relatives given a soft job) to do the background work.

The quality of questioning by lawmakers of bankers is highly relevant today, given that we’re once again thinking about Oireachtas Inquiries; and it looks like the government wants to send us sheeple back to vote again and get them the right answer in another referendum on the matter.

The government is pushing hard for a banking inquiry that will bed led by lawmakers. If, for some strange reason, you aren’t regularly riveted enough to check out the committees or debates in the Dáil, the idea of our lawmakers conducting a probing investigation of a technical subject is laughable.

The total level of competency on the topic from most in the Oireachtas would fit into Peter Mathews’ left shoe, but he’s told to keep his mouth shut by Fine Gael handlers more often than he’s allowed pipe up.

Dubious virtues

This heady mix of the quality and specialties of lawmakers, the politicisied nature of every question to be asked and the dubious virtues of allowing TDs to make findings of facts about individuals makes Oireachtas inquiries into the likes of our banking scandals a bad idea.

As I have said in the past, we should look to the special prosecutor route of taking on things we have fobbed off to tribunals in the past. Give independent prosecutors the job of aggressively investigating and building cases against people and organisations who have done wrong, and let them take it to court. Use a similar approach to investigate the stupid rather than criminal, such as Ulster’s complete fail at doing the core job of a bank in recent weeks.

It’s not enough to have the Central Bank releasing statements scolding them, and it’s not nearly enough that four years on from the crash not one Seanie Fitz or Fingers Fingleton has had to account for either their stupidity or, in the case of odd transactions like the loan from Nationwide to Anglo that was then listed as a deposit in the annual accounts, possible misdeeds.

Life for our bankers should be made uncomfortable. They should have hostile outsiders breathing down their necks, given that they have such a track record in misleading – intentionally or otherwise – honest and easygoing regulators. Those outsiders should be competent and independent, and therefore not politicians.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna.

Read: More columns from Aaron McKenna on TheJournal.ie >

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