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Brendan O’Connor: Making a Howlin mess of the banking inquiry

The chairman of the Public Accounts Committee has been ‘knifed in the front’ by the Reform Minister, writes Brendan O’Connor

Article taken from Sunday Independent – Sunday July 08 2012

ON June 28, out of the blue, John McGuinness, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, got a letter from Brendan Howlin. The letter, discussing issues around the upcoming banking inquiry being undertaken by the Public Accounts Committee is long and detailed. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of it.

The critical bit was thrown in about halfway down. Howlin suggests that the banking inquiry, which the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has been preparing for six months, should perhaps be of a different nature to that envisaged by the PAC, and he writes that the nature of the inquiry “might suitably involve the Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform Committee”.

McGuiness must have felt he was being knifed in the front by Howlin. This is the most hotly anticipated Government inquiry in years — uncovering the detail around the banking collapse, and the granting of the bank guarantee, and the assessment of who actually did what in the banks, the Department of Finance and the Government, on the night of what many believe was the biggest, costliest and most disastrous mistake in modern Irish history.

It was also going to look into the setting up of Nama, bringing some rare transparency to at least one aspect of that behemoths existence. And now it was possibly being taken from McGuinness and the PAC and given to Labour’s Deputy Alex White and the Finance Committee.

Howlin had known that the PAC was working on a banking inquiry. McGuinness had told him personally and Howlin would have known it through officials too. So why, suddenly now, had Howlin decided to change the game? Why hadn’t Howlin just said six months ago that Finance should do the banking inquiry? It had been pretty much unanimously agreed across all parties (the PAC being an all-party committee) that PAC was doing the banking inquiry. What had changed?

What’s even odder is that all this comes to light as John McGuinness and the PAC release a 300-page report based on their months of work that sets out a preliminary analysis and a framework for the banking inquiry.

Doesn’t it seem that they are the ones making the running on this and they are the ones who have been geared up to do it? Doesn’t it seem that the PAC, with a proud record going back to the arms trial, through the Dirt inquiry and the Fas inquiry, would be the people to seek to find out the truth of what happened that night?

Conducting the banking inquiry is a much coveted position. You get to publicly confront the hated banks and senior members of the currently hated last government. What ambitious politician wouldn’t want to make his name conducting such an inquiry? And what with constituency boundaries being redrawn and hinterlands being upset and seats looking dodgy next time out, who wouldn’t want a touch of the heroism that the Dirt inquiry conferred on Jim Mitchell?

Alex White is chairman of the Finance Committee and has been making it known to his Labour colleague Brendan Howlin that he thinks his committee should run the banking inquiry.

This is a policy matter, White thinks, and would be better dealt with by a policy-based committee like his, rather than a mere audit committee, like the PAC.

There is no suggestion that Alex White would like to conduct this inquiry because his Dublin South constituency is going from five seats to three, and because he and Peter Matthews are seen as most likely to lose out there in the next election. Neither is it anything to do with Alex White’s great self-regard and enjoyment of the sight of himself and the sound of his perfectly modulated tones on TV and radio, an environment in which there has always been a great welcome for him, perhaps due to his former life as a TV producer.

On Friday, as we digested John McGuinness’s considered 300 pages on how the banking inquiry might be conducted, Alex White banged out his own statement going very public on his belief that he was the man for the job. The headline on it was that he was calling for a consensus approach to the banking inquiry, but it was clear that White felt the consensus should be that the PAC should not conduct the inquiry.

The nitty-gritty of this is that the “Inquire, Record, Report” style inquiry McGuiness proposed, which would have simply asked everyone what happened and set down the tale for people to make up their own minds about it, is now in danger of being swept aside in favour of a report that would inform future policy, and this would technically bring the report into the remit of a policy committee like Finance. In the broader sweep of things, you have to think it would be disastrous to take this inquiry away from John McGuinness and give it to White.

Firstly, giving the job to White will introduce an element of what will look like partisan party polticis to the inquiry. As a Labour man, it would be unnatural for White to resist the temptation to beat up on Fianna Fail, and it could undermine the credibility of the inquiry. Fianna Fail deserve to be beaten up on here but would it not have more credibility coming from one of their own, albeit a dissident Fianna Failer with a record of courageously standing up to powerful figures in the party, to the detriment of his own career? McGuinness gives this inquiry stature, credibility. He is a man with a heroic history of standing up to his own tribe. He is a true believer in transparency and accountability, even if it damages him with his own colleagues, even if he becomes a pariah with some of the civil servants he has to work with every day.

They are the other people who John McGuinness has memorably stood up to: the powers that be high up in the civil service. And given that the banking report will be looking at how the institutions of the State handled the guarantee, there is no doubt that tackling senior civil servants, and not being afraid to do so, will be central to the inquiry. McGuiness has form in this area. White does not, and is indeed regarded as being quite soft on the civil service.

White suggested in his statement on Friday that he has form in dealing with banking, given that he has recently been engaged in hearings regarding the Ulster Bank failure, at which he made some impact with his incisive questioning of the bank chiefs. He would have looked even better had he shared the limelight by involving some of his Labour colleagues like Senator Lorraine Higgins — herself a barrister. But what most people remember White for was when the Seanad Committee on Members’ Interests, of which he was a high-profile member, went after Ivor Callely over his expenses.

Callely ended up winning a High Court judgement, saying that the Committee had breached his constitutional rights. Given that White is, as we keep being told these days, most recently by Leo Varadkar on Thursday night, a barrister, it’s a shame he didn’t see that one coming when his committee bungled the Callely case.

There is no doubt that helming the banking inquiry would be good for White and good for the reputation of beleaguered Labour, many of whose TDs now take as given that they will be unelectable after this term in Government. But this needs to be about what is good for the country. The central point to all this, the really simple point, is that the nation needs this narrative, the unvarnished truth, about what happened that night, and we need it as soon as possible.

And to suddenly pull people who have already done six months’ work on it off the job seems like insanity. We can only hope that this is not politics yet again getting in the way of the needs of the country.

– Brendan O’Connor

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