CARELESS TALK

28 June 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

A wartime injunction designed to ensure that the security of the British home front was not compromised by sensitive information falling into enemy espionage earshot was encapsulated in the words: “Careless talk costs lives.”

The succinctness of the phrase guaranteed it longevity well beyond its initial context and it has lingered in the popular memory as a warning to the indiscreet.

It surely surfaced in the minds of the senior bank executives whose taped conversations at the cusp of the financial crisis in 2008 dominated public conversation this week when their leaked content was disseminated in the national media.

The level of public anger the revelations stirred has been extreme, and understandable.
It has engulfed the normal human sympathy one might muster for those whose shameful or embarrassing comments or actions in the private realm surface in the public domain.

There is no doubt that the publication of this material passes the “public interest” test which the media circulating it must satisfy.

The Irish public have had to endure five years of austerity due in considerable measure to the decisions and actions of those in positions of seniority in financial institutions such as Anglo-Irish Bank.

Some of us have lost our jobs or seen our businesses close. Some of us have lost our homes and control over our personal finances. In some cases we’ve lost our physical and mental health, and seen our family and personal relationships damaged by stress and worry, and we’ve sometimes had to leave the country to try to survive.

There is hardly a person in this State who can any longer boast about being recession-proof, whose quality of life has not been adversely affected in some material or spiritual way by the events which brought this country to the brink of financial collapse.

The publication of the “Anglo tapes” is important because it brings to the surface the common and deep-rooted feelings of frustration and (hitherto) mostly quiet fury we all share over the fact that no satisfactory explanation of how we have come to be in this mess has been given to us – and no one has been held to account.

The most illuminating thing about these conversations is not the puerile detail of their content, the chummy chatter of conceited camaraderie.

Like the most valuable historical sources, it is what they indirectly disclose that is informative – in this case the mindset prevailing in the upper echelons of the banking sector as the bubble of illusory national prosperity began to burst.

The complacency of attitude is perhaps most shocking – the sense of disconnect and immunity from the checks and balances of accountability to shareholders and the public, and from the restraint exercised by regulatory authorities and the Government of the day, tells us a very great deal about the atmosphere that prevailed at the time.

It hints unsettlingly that the people who could have stopped things getting out of control, the overseers of the banks and the responsible Government Ministers and officials, were sleeping on their watch – either simply incompetent at the tasks allotted to them, or willingly deaf, dumb and blind to the warning signals that were growing unignorable by the time John and Peter were swapping gallows humour wisecracks while the tapes of their own internal phone recording system silently whirred.

A most unpalatable and unhealthy cosiness evidently prevailed in the highest realms of finance, regulation, and government – and when the balloon went up, it was the taxpayer who was thrown to the wolves.

Perhaps this is why the Government has prevaricated upon a public inquiry into the circumstances of the financial collapse.

We will no doubt get that inquiry now – but we seriously question whether it’s going to end up being anything more than a sop to quell the current high tide of public anger.

Our past record in this area is not good in terms of efficiency and result – and given the potential for learned legal men to plunge the proposed probe into a labyrinth of unending complexity, an investigation into this particular area is not likely to improve the record, given the structures currently at the Government’s disposal.

This newspaper respectfully suggests that a public inquiry is not what is needed.

We call instead on the Government to give the Gardaí the additional resources that would be wasted upon it and allow them to intensify and concentrate their investigations into these matters to determine where breaches of the criminal law have taken place and to bring prosecutions against those responsible.

It is only in open court that the public’s entitlement for justice to be done and seen to be done can be met and where penalties can be handed down commensurate with the nature of the criminal wrongdoing that may ultimately be determined to have played a part in the events that led to the banking collapse.

A public enquiry might very well prolong the process of determining culpability, with criminal investigations being impeded or possibly suspended.

Justice delayed is justice denied.
Given the grave injustice inflicted on us by those responsible for the catastrophe – and given the evident contempt the responsible parties held for us as taxpayers and bank customers – surely witnessing the punishment of the guilty is the very least we deserve.

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