Chasing the runaway horse

County View

County View
John Healy

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the financial crisis brought the country to its knees and sent us to Europe with the begging bowl. But yet, in the background, the wheels of justice keep on grinding, and every now and then an issue resurrects itself to remind us that there is still a lot of unfinished business to be dealt with.
Writing in The Irish Times, Arthur Beesley last week revealed that the first draft of a High Court judge’s report says that the sale of building-services group Siteserv to billionaire Denis O’Brien at the height of the crisis was not commercially sound. Which is a mild way of putting it.
More than that, it says, the sale was tainted by wrongdoing and impropriety, and that deceptions were perpetrated on the bank involved.
The report, by Justice Cregan, comes after six years of investigation, and the findings, it should be said, are to be robustly disputed by the main actors involved, prior to a final version being published.
But to go back to the start. It was in 2011 when the infamous Anglo Irish Bank (which had been taken over by the State) and its equally infamous colleague, Irish Nationwide, were merged into a State-owned entity called Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC). Two years on, the IBRC itself was liquidated, after writing off €2 billion. in debt that had been advanced to builders and developers on foot of properties that were now essentially worthless.
But then in 2015, Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats began to raise questions in the Dáil about how IBRC had sold a company called Siteserv to Denis O’Brien for €45 million, after writing off €119 million of the €150 million it was owed by the company. The Murphy allegations led to the setting up of a Commission of Investigation into all of IBRS’s transactions, of which this week’s report is the first into 38 deals linked to the banking collapses.
Given that the current draft report – which may or may not stand up to the onslaughts it will receive from those it condemns – has taken six years to get to this stage, and has cost a total of €30 million and rising, the taxpayer could well ask whether the game is worth the candle.
The horse has by now well and truly bolted and is a hundred miles out of sight. So the question must be, what is to be gained by calling out the perpetrators of whatever shady deals took place? It is hardly likely that the miscreants will face criminal charges, and equally unlikely that they will be required to make good to the State whatever losses were foisted on IBRC.
IBRC, it will be recalled, was the child of Anglo Irish Bank, whose founder, Seán FitzPatrick, was the most cavalier of all the ringmasters of the banking boom. The curly haired Seánie had borrowings of €100 million from his own bank, which he hid from the scrutiny of the auditors for eight years by way of a circular sleight of hand that kept suspicions at bay.
When he was finally brought to court on charges of financial irregularities, after a trial of 126 days, the judge directed that he be acquitted of all charges because of the botched way in which the evidence against him was presented, which bizarrely included a shredding of documentary notes.
Famously, a week before the collapse of his house of cards, he had in a radio interview recommended to the Government that it should be cutting spending on ‘the sacred cows’ of Irish society – children, the elderly, and healthcare.