We need evidence that we have ‘turned a corner’

On Tuesday evening, the Seanad held a debate on banking. You can read what the Minister of State, Martin Mansergh said by clicking here. Following contributions from both government and opposition sides, I rose to speak…

I listened carefully to the speakers on the government side who started their speeches by telling us how they are satisfied or pleased that matters are starting to turn around and the position is changing. The phrase from the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, in the budget was that we were “turning the corner”. All these phrases are used. I waited to hear examples of concrete achievement.

The claim is that action is beginning to bear fruit but no example is ever given. The only instance I have heard repeated is what the Minister for Finance said on radio yesterday morning about the people who Richie Boucher met when he went to Europe last week being very happy with us. The people Mr. Boucher had dinner with in Europe, or wherever he was, appear to be happy, and the Minister for Finance said he was perplexed that everybody abroad seemed to be happy but nobody in Ireland is happy. That is because the people in Ireland are facing the brunt of what is occurring.

The Minister has spoken about finance ministers and other colleagues in European governments being supportive of what the Irish Government is doing. Forgive me if I am wrong but I do not think I have ever seen a minister in the European Union criticising a colleague from another country. What is this business about with people getting a pat on their back when they go abroad? They seem to think that is the approval rating needed. Of course, there is only one approval test and set of criteria by which we can meaningfully assess anything the Government is doing. That is the kind of delivery that some of the government speakers, when they come to their senses, would apply to the debate; it concerns when there will be real lending available to businesses and people in the Irish economy. There is no evidence that it has happened yet. I am sure if the Minister could find a morsel of evidence for it he would tell us about it all the time. There is no evidence.

I want to respond to some of the Minister of State’s comments. It is almost laughable for him to come to this House speaking about the “honest and full disclosure by the Government and its agencies of the appalling mess within our banks”. I cannot believe the term “honest and full disclosure by the Government”. I did not know whether to laugh or cry when I heard him saying that. What disclosure has occurred, whether honest or full?

Where is the inquiry and the information for the Irish people so that we can assess what is happening? Where is the clarity from the Government and where is the information from which any of us could make some kind of intelligent contribution to the question of Anglo Irish Bank, for example? We can engage in rhetoric all we want - as the Minister might accuse us - but the fact is no direct and clear information has been made available to the Irish people even on something as vital as assessing the difference between letting Anglo Irish Bank go and continuing to bail it out.

Dr. Alan Barrett of the ESRI, an independent commentator with an independent body who I presume commands respect on all sides of the House, was asked on radio what he thought of this vexed question of Anglo Irish Bank. He said he was not in a position to answer the question because he didn’t have the information. It has been often said the Government holds office on trust for the Irish people, and it has no right to conceal information. It has no right to put obstacles in the way of meaningful debate, whether in these Houses or in the public domain. That is what the Government has continued to do.

We have heard that we are turning the corner but every time an announcement is made it is the final frontier and the problem has been dealt with. In the announcement before Easter the Minister said the latest measures were decisive. I know the Minister must put something into his speeches that sounds halfway intelligible or interesting but people are reeling from those announcements. That is the level of people’s response. There is no notion of people being impressed that the Government has taken what the Minister calls decisive action.

On the question of the announcement by the Bank of Ireland. There will be an attempt to characterise contributions like this as negative, but if there is some evidence that what happened with Bank of Ireland last week and announced yesterday represents progress, I would have no difficulty in putting politics aside and welcoming it. I would say it is good for the country and banking system, and we will now see some change. However, the speech of the Minister of State and his senior Minister is that the strongly recapitalised bank will now be “in a position” to provide credit to Irish businesses and households. We should note the language.

That is not what representatives of the bank say. They characterise the measures last week as providing “a strong capital foundation to support the bank’s future growth and assist in its prudent disengagement from State guarantees”. The priority of Bank of Ireland is to unshackle itself from State involvement, which I remind everybody went up this week rather than down. There is a celebration of what happened with Bank of Ireland but the Government has purchased over €12 billion in loans from that bank, of which only approximately €5.5 billion are performing, for almost €8 billion. The State has had to take action with Bank of Ireland, which as we know is the healthiest of the banks that the State is dealing with.

It is not as if something suddenly happened and the State had to intervene in the way it has. The Minister of State indicated earlier that he had listened to the Opposition and various other commentators, saying that a certain Opposition party had said “all our banks” should be nationalised. I invite the Minister of State to tell us which party he had in mind. If the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, were here I would ask him to indicate who he had in mind when he said yesterday that there were people in the Opposition advocating that “the whole system” be nationalised.

Bank of Ireland is likely to be the only NAMA bank that will not be in majority State ownership. There is significant State involvement in all of this and the notion that we have acted correctly is a sham. It is an attempt to create spin on the part of the Minister, which is unacceptable.

On that note, I was here for the Minister of State’s speech and had to step out briefly. As I stepped out I heard the Minister of State talking about ethics and paused because I thought it would be an interesting element to the speech.

He was not discussing the ethics of Irish Nationwide, Anglo Irish Bank, the absent regulation or the failure and culpability of Government policy, a Government of which he was a member, during the past ten or 12 years. He was not discussing the ruination of the economy. He was making a snide and nauseating attack on a Member of this House who has an involvement in one of the international banks towards which the Minister of State wants to deflect our concern. I accept that what has occurred in Goldman Sachs has been despicable but this was a nauseating, unnecessary and unworthy attack by the Minister of State. I am not sure what it was motivated by, but it was not motivated by any serious attempt to address the issues in this debate.