Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Shabby episode an example of all that's wrong in sorry State (Irish Independent)

[This article appeared in the Irish Independent on 15th January 2011. For an extended version, click here].

Brian Cowen's troubles are deepening by the hour. The consultation process is little more than theatre. His survival is on a thread as more and more of the facts emerge. The greatest step forward in this process of slow revelation of the truth I will shortly examine. First, however, there is Mr Cowen's statements about himself.

He concealed more than he conceded in his lengthy statements to the Dail on Thursday. He failed to answer crucial questions. He concealed details of significant conversations about Anglo Irish Bank held with senior bank staff, board members and other politicians. He denied exchanges that have been clearly claimed by others. He has since continued to prevaricate. This is what mr Cowen has been doing, with little respect for the truth, over the last three years in respect of the banks, and notably, Anglo Irish Bank.

'The Fitzpatrick Tapes', the book which gives Sean FitzPatrick's version of events and which led to this week's confrontation in the Dail by opposition party leaders, had all the appearances of a tailor-made script for the Taoiseach, giving him three events that he could easily answer (though nothing was easy about the answers he gave): the St Patrick's Day phonecall; the game of golf; and the Anglo Irish Bank board dinner. Whatever one may think about the truthfulness or otherwise of the Taoiseach's account, it cannot be challenged further without forensic investigation and testimony under oath.

Many people in Ireland today would like to see that kind of investigation replacing the shambles in the Dail as Mr Cowen, more or less successfully, indulged in political rhetoric, insults, jibes and managed to put over the claim that, on all occasions summarised above, nothing was said about the crisis facing Anglo Irish Bank.

Two months ago, at the beginning of November, 2010, I published here a different script for Mr Cowen to answer. This claimed that Mr Cowen knew that the fiscal roof was falling in on the bank when he was Minister for Finance in late 2007. I claimed then that he involved himself in the Anglo Irish Bank crisis at that time, setting up a kitchen cabinet to advise him and provide information about the bank's circumstances. These were already becoming perilous.

At that point, last November and before, Mr Cowen's claim was that he first heard of the problems in Anglo Irish prior to March 2008. He sought to rubbish the story on grounds of the anonymity of the source. today, the source is known to be David Drumm, and his words ring as true as they did then, with the added advantage of his name being behind them.

In that November 6 article, I said that Mr Cowen was at an Anglo Irish board dinner in April of that year where the discussion was exclusively about the problems faced by the bank.

I outlined the role played by Sean Quinn, of Quinn Insurance. Quite openly and deliberately, in Mr Cowen's presence, the discussion was focused on these financial difficulties. These were seriously aggravated by heavy gambling at the time with "Contracts For Difference", which ultimately came to represent a quarter of Anglo Irish Bank shares.

On that occasion, according to Mr Drumm, Mr Cowen promised intervention with the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) in order to get them to put deposits with Anglo. However, the then head of the NTMA, Michael Somers, has said that no such request was made. The NTMA did not intervene. There would have been even greater impropriety for the Finance Minister -- knowing what he knew then of the perilous state Anglo Irish Bank faced -- in taking the unprecedented step (which is now denied) of applying to the NTMA. The full truth on this would clarify the hopelessly compromised way in which we do business in this country.

I made clear in that article, based on Mr Drumm's testimony, that the Financial Regulator, who has been generally, if inaccurately, characterised in the media as having been asleep at the wheel, was in fact in close contact with the bank. His hand was stayed, however, by sustained protection of Mr Quinn. Fianna Fail, including Mr Cowen, were lobbying for Mr Quinn. The Financial Regulator knew that Mr Quinn was taking money from his insurance company and that this was illegal on two counts. However, Mr Quinn was "untouchable". Yet what he was doing represented death for Anglo Irish Bank.

The Financial Regulator should have come down heavily with regulatory decisions but failed to do so. Mr Quinn was allowed to take money from his insurance company and gamble it through the bank. Anglo Irish Bank facilitated the placing of the Quinn stake and then part-funded it.

To demonstrate how up to their necks the Financial Regulator's office were before the placing, at one meeting Pat Neary told a member of the bank's board that Sean Fitzpatrick was talking too openly about the Quinn stake. This member was told to tell him to "shut his mouth". It was alleged that if it got out "there could be run on the system".

Mr Cowen refused to answer these and other significant points at the time on the dubious basis that they were 'anonymous'. This anonymity was required at the time by my source. However, it is quite ludicrous to suppose that Mr Cowen did not know the source.

The anonymous source was David Drumm. In contrast with Thursday's Dail performance by the Taoiseach, the Drumm information rings true in its general detail and in the specifics on what Mr Cowen knew and when he knew it.

The full text on the part played by Mr Drumm confirms the closely-knit 'kitchen cabinet' set up for Mr Cowen, who needed close and frequent contact with Sean FitzPatrick, who was -- according to Mr Drumm -- sharp, able and well-advised. Their meetings were roughly on a weekly basis. The report also confirms Mr Drumm's claim that he asked Mr Cowen to put pressure on the NTMA to deposit money in Anglo.

Mr Drumm says he subsequently asked Mr Cowen whether he had done anything about this essential deposit. "We had a long conversation about our funding worries and that not only would we like the money, that that would help, that it would send out the right signal to the market.

"So when I asked him had anything happened with it, he got annoyed and said that he had -- quote -- 'I told those f***ers'." He did not say he told Michael Somers.

Finally, on the much-noted dinner that Anglo-Irish Bank directors had with Mr Cowen in Heritage House, Mr Drumm stated: "The dinner was for Brian Cowen. It would be really unusual to bring somebody with him. Brian sat there, one of the gang, right beside me."

What I publish here, much of it the substance of an article on November 6, is in my not inexperienced political judgment as close as we can get to the truth at this time. And I express concern for Mr Drumm, prepared and "happy to join everybody on the one stage -- Mr Cowen and all the rest. I'd be happy to admit all my mistakes. But the problem is they want me to do it all on my own".

I repeat the view I had in November that this shabby episode -- still not fully explored or explained -- is a most blatant and damaging example of the State's interests being subjected to misdoings of a frightening kind that have now led us into massive and improperly imposed debt.

Changing Mr Cowen will not change the culture that bred this puss-filled carbuncle of iniquity. Even changing the Government will leave us with a huge burden of reparation.

We must reinvest the State with men and women who speak the truth and act exclusively in the interests of the people.