Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

This was like Monopoly and the ringleaders got out of jail

Scandal: the now-notorious Anglo tapes exposed the incredible hubris of people like David Drumm
Scandal: the now-notorious Anglo tapes exposed the incredible hubris of people like David Drumm

Fans of the late James Gandolfini will recall many a murderous plan hatched in the back room of the Bada Bing. The language was as foul as their dirty deeds when Tony Soprano and his mafia mobsters sat down to plot a robbery, or some other racket.

When executives of Anglo Irish Bank plotted to rob the Irish taxpayers of billions, their language was a similar mixture of profanity and gangster-speak.

Radio stations playing their recorded telephone conversations have been bleeping out the f-words. Between them, we learn how the bank's boss, David Drumm, planned to trick the Irish government into injecting €7bn (£6bn) into the toxic lender.

That was a figure Anglo's director of retail banking, Peter Fitzgerald, plucked from the air – although he used a more colourful and vulgar phrase than that.

The real sum needed to cover Anglo's losses was much greater and the bankers feared the government would baulk at it.

So they planned to lure in ministers to a point where retreat would be impossible. If ministers fell for this strategy, they would, said Fitzgerald, have "skin in the game''. Money at the table, you might say – too big a stake to stop playing.

Drumm's bank was haemorrhaging money at an incredible rate, but he laughed it off. He knew where he could get fresh funds. From the Irish Central Bank.

And he knew what he was going to say when he arrived there with his bag marked Swag. "We need the moolah. You have it, so you're going to give it to us – and when will that be?"

Drumm reckoned he had the government over a barrel so, he told John Bowe, head of capital markets, "I'm going to keep asking the thick question, 'When is the cheque arriving?'''

It's little wonder the Sopranos came to the minds of many who read these conversations in the Irish Independent this week.

But if you go to the newspaper's website and listen to them, you will have a greater understanding of why this story has dominated every news bulletin south of the border and aroused an unprecedented wave of anger from people who have paid for this bank's folly with a rake of austerity measures, including pay cuts, tax hikes, pension curbs and welfare reductions.

For the accents you will hear talking about "skin" and "moolah" are not from Tony Soprano's New Jersey. You will hear the cultured tones and elongated vowels of middle-class Dublin.

Listen some more and you will realise that it is schoolboys still who are talking – privileged little schoolboys, playing games with other people's lives.

You will hear arrogance and contempt and, as you listen longer, you will realise that you have heard it before. Not so frank and unguarded, maybe, but you've heard it.

You heard it when Barings Bank went down in 1995, when the Royal Bank of Scotland got into trouble, when Barclays was caught manipulating interest rates and, earlier this year, when the once-venerable Swiss bank UBS was fined for the same offence.

"We all got probably too arrogant, too self-convinced that things were correct,'' admitted UBS investment banking chief Andrea Orcel. "I think the industry has to change.''

Irish taxpayers would agree with that, but they are not holding their breath in anticipation of change. Nor – and this is what annoys them most – is there great expectation of anyone being held to account.

Criminal investigations are proceeding but, ironically, the angry voters may themselves have stymied the best chance of putting bankers on the stand.

Two years ago, the voters, in a referendum, rejected a proposal to allow members of the Dail and Senate the right to conduct full, open inquiries into matters of public concern.

The outcome of that referendum is now making it very difficult for Enda Kenny's government to conduct a full inquiry into the banking scandal.

They may draft new legislation, or hold another referendum, but the inquiry won't be happening any time soon.

You may think this is some odd Dublin issue of no great concern up here. But ponder this: Nama, the Irish government's 'bad' bank, is the biggest single landlord in Northern Ireland. More than any company, individual, or our own ministers, it determines the value of property here.

The bankers you can hear guffawing on the Anglo tapes are the jokers who put Nama in that position. They treated the resources of Irish taxpayers like Monopoly money.

It will be a shame if those unfortunate taxpayers turn out to have handed them a Get Out Of Jail card.

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