What exactly will the banking inquiry unearth?

The banking inquiry is starting to get expensive and soon it will start getting expansive. Clocking in at more than 2 million euros so far, the context phase of the inquiry is nearly over. While watching the inquiry daily, it often felt like the witnesses had overdosed on hindsight pills. I kept thinking ‘I know this, I know this’. Sparks rarely flew between the inquiry’s members and the witnesses, and I’m sure viewer figures online would be very low so far.

Despite this, DIT’s Harry Browne and UCD’s Dr. Julien Mercille both highlighted something new in the run up to the crisis: the role of the media as a cheerleader for it. The debate on the media’s role hasn’t really been had, and so this new ‘strand’ is already out there. Dr Elaine Byrne’s and Prof. Niamh Hardiman’s evidence on the banks’ behaviour on behalf of developers will hopefully change the debate on corruption and governance in the sector. Before Frank McDonald and Marie Hunt discussed it during the inquiry, the spatial dimension of the crisis hasn’t been looked at in much detail, though an excellent academic book on spatial justice edited by Gerry Kearns, David Meredith and John Morrissey does address the issue.

Inquiry chair Ciaran Lynch, TD promises “compelling witnesses and statements” in the Nexus phase. I think he’s right. The more expansive phase of the inquiry will be fascinating.

Despite its many flaws, many of the common arguments around the uselessness of the inquiry will, largely, fall aside once the inquiry admits bankers, policy makers and regulators next month, as part of its Nexus phase.

To be fair, the inquiry’s flaws are largely not of its making. The members of the 31st Dáil cannot, in the end, make findings of fact. Several key judgments and a failed referendum have placed severe limitations on the ability of our Houses of the Oireachtas to hold inquires into matters of public interest. The clear failure of private banking policies and public policies in the run up to the crisis is, of course, of deep interest to the people of Ireland. And yet every witness and institution mentioned in the course of the inquiry has the right to their good names. So they aren’t mentioned or even alluded to.

Recent inquiry witness Prof. Bill Black called this aspect of the inquiry the ‘Voldemort’ effect—He Who Must Not Be Named. No parliamentary inquiry, today, can assess the personal culpability of an individual so as to impugn their good name. This clearly limits their usefulness. At almost the same time as Prof. Black was giving evidence, the Sunday Business Post was able to release new reports naming key individuals intimately involved in the banking crisis, for two to three orders of magnitude less in cost.

Moving into the Nexus phase of the inquiry, I’m very hopeful we’ll see something more than political stunts and sound-bite getting, and delve deeply into the motives of those people most directly involved in the crisis itself. The worst blow the inquiry’s members could do to the credibility of the inquiry is to reveal it on the 9 O’Clock news as something people worry it might be: The Committee for the Embarrasment of Fianna Fail Before The Next Election.

Paradoxically, the strictures the inquiry is placed under by existing legislation may help us get closer to what happened. I think there will be a need to assign blame, especially when the key players like former Taoisigh or former regulators are in the room. This need might well cloud the questioning and colour the answers given, if not for the need to maintain the boundary between the public interest and the (now) private citizen’s right to their good name. The inquiry may well find that the causes of the crisis, in the end, were confluences of acts of incompetence or mistake, rather than malice or misattribution.

Where does that leave us? Well, it brings us back to the kind of evidence UCD’s Prof. Niamh Hardiman gave during the context phase of the crisis. If the result of the inquiry is to show we failed to govern ourselves, in the end, then it is our governance and the structures we use to discipline malfeasance that need to change. We do not trust our parliament to make findings of fact. We probably should. The inquiry has the potential to give comfort to the cynical and the wary in Ireland who have seen the system they pay into suborned by special interests and crippled by incompetent banking practices. If, when the big beasts are before the inquiry, their evidence is examined carefully and methodically, without show or without bias, the public will see their parliamentary representatives doing something remarkable: seeking truth. That’s worth the cost, for me, at least.