PAC Enquiry into the Banks
What’s Colm McCarthy up to? Trying to rehabilitate the Oireachtas? Make us believe that our political class have something relevant to contribute?
Mc Carthy is right: there should be an investigation into how our banks got into the pickle they’re in. He’s also right that there needs to be a much greater public understanding of how they function and their role in our economy and society. And even more right when he points out that any such investigation won’t save the taxpayer a penny of the costs of rescuing the banks.
The media spotlight has immediately beamed in on the prospect of an enquiry where bankers and related miscreants will be subjected to forensic questioning by a cross party sub-Committee of PAC, reminiscent of the PAC enquiry into DIRT tax evasion and bogus non-resident accounts ten years ago. Chaired by the late Jim Mitchell and starring Pat Rabbitte as its parliamentary Prosecutor- In- Chief, the PAC Report on DIRT undoubtedly did a great deal for the political reputations of the six PAC members, resulted in some modest reforms of our financial institutions, and new powers for the Revenue to ensure that a similar tax evasion scam couldn’t happen again. What we’d do well to remember is that this celebrated enquiry failed to prevent another, this time catastrophic, banking crisis happening less than ten years down the road.
Nonetheless, the Public Accounts Committee will be “going after it immediately”, PAC Vice Chair and FF TD for Dublin North, Darragh O’Brien, assured listeners to Morning Ireland. PAC have “discussed this before,” he said, as he fell all over himself to agree with the Labour Party Finance spokesperson, Joan Burton, on how such an enquiry might be initiated by the PAC. The C&AG would need to scope out terms of reference, they both agreed. And yes of course, there will be issues surrounding the compellability of witnesses, or even looking at what was going on in certain banks where legal investigations of one sort or another are already underway. But no, there is no question of any political grandstanding going on in respect of any enquiry; it’s all going to be for the benefit of the understanding of us ordinary folks and our need for accountability from delinquent bankers.
While I think Mc Carthy has the right objectives in mind; he may have selected the wrong mechanism to achieve them. The advantage of a parliamentary enquiry is that it is televised so the whole country can have some nightly entertainment and this might, in turn, improve our general understanding of how we got into the fix we’re in. Then again, it might not. There has to be a big question mark over the capacity of our political class not to use any such enquiry to promote their own careers, or party political objectives, and instead maintain their focus on the public interest. That’s probably far too much to expect of them in the current political circumstances.
Any enquiry without Anglo Irish Bank at its centre would be Hamlet without the prince, or more accurately, the witches garbling away incomprehensibly in the woods, without Macbeth entering on the scene to provide a focus. For legal reasons, the terms of reference and the scope of any such enquiry might turn out to be so severely constrained as to be not worth the bother.
Further, no Oireacthas Enquiry can declare acts to be unlawful which were not so at the time they were committed. So what the media, and some members of our political class, might wish to turn into yet another Act of a long running Morality Play on who’s to blame for the current crisis and how they should be punished for their transgressions, would be a monumental waste of time and energy.
Then there’s the ‘time’ factor – we definitely need an enquiry, but it would take time to set up and several months to conduct and report if it’s going to find out anything useful. And time is what we don’t have. Meantime we have to get on with the urgent task of fixing the banks and nothing can be allowed to delay or distract from that imperative. The desirability of an enquiry is self-evident, but as McCarthy pointed out, no enquiry will save the taxpayer a penny. If it’s used to delay or politically obstruct appropriate actions to resolve our current crisis, the consequences would be disastrous.