What’s wrong with Ireland?

This is an analysis piece I wrote on March 15 for the Sunday Business Post to go with a story around a PWC report in late 2008 that analysed the loan books of Irish banks:

It’s now more than six years since Ireland made a decision which would have devastating consequences on its people. Yet amazingly after so much time has passed, we still know relatively little about how the crisis came about, and who exactly was responsible.

Today the Sunday Business Post names names around tens of billions of euro lent to a very small but influential group of people during the property bubble.

These names and the exposures they had have, up until now, been rumoured or censored by the state. But citizens have a right to know who they effectively bailed out through guarantees, a bad bank and bailouts.

Whose interests has secrecy served? Certainly not the interests of citizens. And when consultants are hired by Government to find out some of what happened, why do only a small group of people see it, and then let it languish on a shelf thereafter? How many other reports will never see the light of day?

The Banking Inquiry only recently commenced hearing evidence. The process so far has been dismal. With so many members of the inquiry apparently needing their moment in the spotlight, it seems almost impossible for them to ask any probing questions at all. By the time a witness is beginning to say anything interesting, time is up and we move on to another set of often unrelated questions. It often feels like everyone is in a hurry to get the inquiry over with.

It’s also four years since Ireland requested a bailout, which was a direct consequence of the decision made two years earlier. Much of the media focus has been on that and on the guarantee decision itself – and while the circumstances around it are interesting to journalists, and often make for dramatic re-telling – it was not the guarantee decision that really sank the country.

It was the property bubble that preceded it that led us down that path in the first place.

And it is this issue we have yet to seriously tackle. Who benefitted from the largesse of cheap and easy money from the Irish banks? How did so much of the loan books of the banks end up with such a small group of people? In a country this small, how connected are those people to the people who were in power from 1997 to 2011?

What politicians, and civil servants, were responsible for pouring fuel on the fire of an out of control property bubble – the people who made the policy decisions both around property development and banking regulation? How close were bankers to politicians, and in what way? How close were property developers to politicians, and what policy decisions made in their favour?

But if there’s one thing that stands out in efforts to understand the crisis it is this: secrecy.

And this is not just secrecy in Ireland. Between 2011 and 2014 I along with a legal friend, Fred Logue, spent considerable time and effort trying to obtain the so-called Trichet letter, sent to then Finance Minister in November 2010, in which ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet threatened Ireland with consequences if we did not do as we were told.

The letter was ultimately released by the ECB (and leaked to the Irish Times in advance), but only after two appeals processes lasting three years, lengthy submissions as to why it should be released in the public interest, and the intervention of the European Ombudsman to plead with current ECB President Mario Draghi to facilitate its release.

This was not an exercise by the ECB in using transparency to gain public trust, it was an exercise of being embarrassed into it. Not alone that, but the letter in which Lenihan formally sought the bailout was released without issue by the ECB, but its release was categorically refused by the Department of Finance – perhaps they were just too embarrassed by the whole thing – or else it’s that culture of secrecy.

And Ireland is by its nature a secretive country. And secrecy breeds corruption, maladministration and incompetence. We talk endlessly about transparency and accountability, but we very rarely see it. It makes for good sound bites, but countless government, tribunal or consultant reports gathering dust on shelves are testament to our complete inability to act.

If we are to learn anything from the crisis, we must begin throwing up the doors on the past immediately. This must include the public understanding and having copies of every report generated as a result of the crisis, and every document surrounding the decisions made by Cabinet over the preceding decade.

We are the ones paying for the consequences of decisions made at the highest levels of Government, the least we can ask for is why – and for whose benefit – those decisions were made. It is time that the unvarnished truth is allowed to emerge.

2 thoughts on “What’s wrong with Ireland?”

  1. Sadly, the unvarnished truth (or any form of truth for that matter) is unlikely to ever see the light of day. Please keep up the good work.

  2. Well said,
    How do we go about increasing transparency? I don’t see transparency international making much progress in this front, achiveing little but lip service from the government.

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