People are entitled to lay the blame – White tells Seanad in banking debate

The only way we can assess the success of the various measures the Government has taken in respect of the banking system is to apply the test it established at the outset in this regard. The Minister of State and his colleagues have outlined that test in this and the Lower House on many occasions. The is test is not designed to develop a banking system of which we can, in some symbolic way, be proud or which will satisfy international opinion. The real test the Government has set down – in my respectful opinion, it is the correct one – is that we should have a banking system which lends to the real, active and productive economy. This system must also be part, once again, of a vibrant and dynamic economy. That is the test the Government set in respect of the various measures it has introduced and it is the only one we can be realistically expected to apply.

I invite the Minister of State to outline the success achieved in the aftermath of the various measures brought forward by the Government. What have been the outcomes? We were promised that one of the outcomes would be that the banking system would be restored and begin to lend to a productive economy. On the evidence, this does not appear to have occurred. The Government owes the people an explanation in this regard.

Senator Dan Boyle always refers to honesty. It is ever so slightly irritating to hear him state that those on this side of the House are not being honest, and that all the honesty lies with those on the Government benches. He implies that on each occasion we say anything we are being dishonest. We can, as we are entitled to do, disagree with what has been and is being done, call the Government to account and take the debate in directions which the Senator or the Minister of State might not particularly wish it to go. If we do these things, however, it does not mean we are being dishonest. Perhaps the Minister of State will, in his usual honest fashion, address the matter of whether the banking system has even remotely begun to pass the test the Government set in respect of it.

The Minister of State touched on the subject of retribution and referred, rather amusingly, to the establishment of a star chamber. He has raised an important issue which deserves further ventilation. In that context, however, I am not interested in the erection of a guillotine on St. Stephen’s Green. Senator MacSharry has often stated the latter is precisely what the Opposition is seeking. That is not what we are seeking.

The Opposition is seeking the kind of scrutiny and examination necessary and, ultimately, wants those responsible for causing the difficulties that have arisen to be prosecuted. I use the term “prosecuted” in the broadest possible sense. I am not merely referring to criminal prosecution. As a society, we are entitled to apportion blame. People should not be apologetic and state we should not look backward or engage in a culture of blame but rather should look to the future. Certainly, I am principally interested in what happens in the future. But I would have thought that, of all people, the Minister of State would agree that it is not possible to do anything about the future if one does not have some understanding of what happened in the past. This applies equally to the banking system and the Government’s failure to regulate it. We are entitled to lay blame.

The way to move on is to carry out a proper and convincing analysis of what happened in the past. This would allow people to understand what happened and have confidence in the future. Such an analysis has not been carried out. I accept that due process must take its course, but there have been incredible delays in bringing people to book. The Minister of State referred to a number of legal and constitutional obstacles and I am of the view that there are more of these than has been indicated. Perhaps the Government is beginning to contemplate these obstacles. If the latter is the case, perhaps the Minister of State will indicate whether we should be addressing these, either through the introduction of legislation or by moving to address the constitutional issues that arise.

Each day one hears anecdotal evidence of properties being disposed of, or of their being transferred into the ownership of spouses or other family members. The country is rife with such stories. In my other occupation I was visited by ten or 15 people who were recently in the employ of one of the failed building firms in this city. Those to whom I refer are young men and women who have young families and are down €5,000, €7,000 or €10,000. They need the money to which I refer in order that they and their families might survive and they are aware that their former employers still retain certain assets. I do not want to be specific in this regard, but I might be on a future occasion. The individuals in question can see that the companies by which they were previously employed still have assets at their disposal. Can Members imagine the frustration to which this gives rise? Can they understand how the people in question feel, particularly in the context of their helplessness and, in fairness, the helplessness of the system to recover these assets?

We have in place a legal regime of receivership and liquidation. However, we must address these issues in the context of the circumstances in which individuals and families find themselves. The latter perceive there is a complete absence of justice with regard to the way the matters to which I refer are being resolved or addressed. If there are legal and constitutional obstacles, I would be extremely interested to hear the Minister of State elaborate on them. Perhaps the Government might return to the Houses with more refined thinking on possible changes to the law which it might be necessary to make. Even if we cannot assist the people to whom I refer, perhaps matters might be changed in order that others might not find themselves in the same position in the future.

There is an ongoing debate on Anglo Irish Bank and whether there is a basis for making a move in respect of its senior bondholders. One of the difficulties with which we must grapple is the complete absence of a reliable statutory resolution mechanism to allow us to deal with banks which fail. We should develop such a mechanism in order that we might use it in the event of a bank failing. We ought to have such a mechanism. It is many months since I and others first raised this issue in the House, but all the Government states is that this is a matter which it will address at some point.

The budgetary position has brought about the shock and debate from the past few days. It is a debate in which we are all engaged and I am personally involved with the discussion in my own party. All politicians and people concerned about the future of the country will engage in the discussion in the next few weeks. I thought at one stage I heard the Minister of State say in his speech that the stabilisation of the public finances is encouraging, and I believe this is a stray phrase that got into his speech from somewhere else.

We can check that but I will accept the Minister of State’s explanation. Such a stray phrase may have been in his speech seven or eight months ago but it would be extraordinary for it to be there now. There is no confidence that the public finances have stabilised in recent months, and the news from the past few days has set everybody back. When we talk about credibility, consensus and how people have called upon the Opposition to come forward to support the Government in such measures that need to be taken, we must understand clearly the parameters.

I cannot understand the logic of some Government figures and supporters in the media looking to the Opposition for specific budgetary measures to be brought forward in circumstances where the Government has not even begun to set out parameters. The Taoiseach said this morning it would not be possible to do so for another month but the Government is still turning to Fine Gael and the Labour Party to ask about measures to be in the budget. It is illogical.

If the Government genuinely wants to engage with the Opposition it must come forward with all the information. I appreciate briefings are ongoing this week and we can appreciate the confidentiality aspects. Fintan O’Toole made the point in yesterday’s The Irish Times that we should engage the entire the community in this debate. If we are to be faced with an adjustment over the next four years that will be double what we thought it would be, there is no way the issue should be resolved within the walls of the Oireachtas and Leinster House. We must bring the public with us on the debate as there is no question that taxation matters are required, along with inevitable cuts in public expenditure.

We must have that debate in public as much as we can, as there has been an enormous loss of confidence in the Government. Although I am not a supporter of the Government this loss of confidence has been catastrophic; nobody wants to live in a country where the Government is on the floor in terms of public confidence, which is the case. There is a lack of confidence in the “system” and people do not know where to turn. They are almost at a stage where they do not believe anybody, and in any democracy that is incredibly dangerous and does not lead to any kind of opportunity for a real resolution.

There will be much disagreement in the course of the next few weeks and months but information and clarity are fundamental to our efforts. The Government must tell us what it expects next year for growth rather than just the scenarios given out during the week. Is the Government so worried about projections because the forecasts given in recent years have been so spectacularly wrong that it will not give any projections for employment and growth next year? Where does the Government see these issues as within the next few weeks we need that kind of information? At that stage we can begin to have the kind of informed, intelligent and meaningful debate required for the next few weeks and months.