Belfast Telegraph

Cowen’s banking spin would have made Stalin proud

By Shane Ross

Brian Cowen must rue the day he allowed Brian Lenihan to nominate Patrick Honohan as Governor of the Central Bank.

Equally, he must regret the go-ahead he gave two outsiders, Klaus Regling and Max Watson, to investigate Ireland's banking crisis. His twin set of appointees spent last week biting the hand that fed them.

The Irish government was quietly savaged by the two investigations into the bank crisis. No matter. Brian Cowen is nothing if not battle-hardened. On Wednesday afternoon Fianna Fail, its back against the wall, was doing what Fianna Fail does best. A disaster was being spun into a pseudo-triumph.

Democracy had been suspended for a week. No bother to them.

The Dail was neutered. It was allowed to discuss matters of little instant interest. No discussion was permitted on any red-hot issues. No votes. No questions. Wow, Joe Stalin got it right.

Dynamite was due to be delivered in the form of the Honohan and Regling/Watson reports, but a democratic discussion on banking was a no-no.

While TDs were reduced to the ranks of political eunuchs, the Seanad was simply disbanded. Banking is big in the Seanad.

Although the Honohan and Regling/Watson reports on banking had been in the Cabinet's hands for over a week, there had hardly been a single leak. News information was tightly controlled.

Suddenly, on Wednesday morning the softening-up process began. Leaks appeared everywhere. A few juicy nuggets surfaced in the media about how ALL the parties to the banking crisis would be in the frame when the reports were released. The public was conditioned for a bit of banker bashing; the regulator would take plenty of flak; the word went out that, of course, Cowen would have to “accept responsibility” for any decisions that he had made while Minister for Finance.

I was watching the news management carefully as I had been booked to go on RTE's Drivetime at 4.30pm to give a reaction to the reports. All I knew was the content of the selective leaks.

As all the drivetime programmes went on the air Brian Cowen rose in Government Buildings to spin like fury. He was live on RTE One television and on Radio 1's Drivetime. Matt Cooper's Last Word and The Right Hook on Newstalk carried the story with clips of Cowen. This was Fianna Fail news management par |excellence.

Brian Cowen had seized the airwaves. He had been in possession of the report for 10 days. RTE's Fergal Keane had received a copy about an hour earlier. I received my 230 pages just as I hurtled into the studio. A composed Taoiseach read from a well-manicured script to tell the world how well the Government was doing in the circumstances.

First, second and third blood to Cowen as he dominated all three nationwide radio channels simultaneously. Not to mention |television.

According to him, the two reports were a vindication.

Cowen took his lumps and then launched an offensive. He seized on Honohan's one favourable judgment that he and Lenihan were right to have given the bank guarantee back in September 2008.

He clung to the comfort that although he had made mistakes, the mighty IMF and the Central Bank had forecast a soft landing in the property market. He grudgingly conceded that a more restrictive budgetary policy would have helped but he patted the Government on the back for its more recent measures. Then he, rightly, dumped on the regulator and the banks.

All three were found guilty, but Cowen had seized a head start before the jury of public opinion.

A second, more serious Commission of Inquiry is now on the way. Its terms of reference could again let the Government off the hook; if it is restricted to the same September 30 date, then the nationalisation of Anglo, the resignation of Sean Fitzpatrick and the old board, the departure and payoff to regulator Paddy Neary, the Irish Life and Permanent fiasco, the appointments of Donal O'Connor, Maurice Keane and Gary Kennedy will all be excluded.

Sounds perfect. Sometime on a Wednesday in January 2011, at around 4.30 in the afternoon, Brian Cowen will hold a press conference pronouncing the report a complete vindication of Government policy.

Belfast Telegraph