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Economist Colm McCarthy had a memorable description of the appearance of the former financial regulator John Neary (pictured above) on RTE’s Prime Time in October 2008. It was only a month after the infamous bank guarantee, and the hapless Neary assured the nation that our banks were sound.

“What happened was that everyone in Ireland had the idea that somewhere in Ireland there was a little wise old man who was in charge of the money” said McCarthy “and this was the first time they’d ever seen this little man. And then they saw him and said ‘who the f*** was that?’ That’s when everyone panicked.”

After Neary’s recent shambling appearance in front of the Oireachtas banking inquiry, the people of Ireland were still asking ‘who the f*** was that?’

The former Regulator’s answers to the inquiry’s questions were both extraordinary and depressingly predictable, and he cut a pathetic figure: hesitant, self-serving and physically and verbally unremarkable. This was precisely McCarthy’s harsh point. Neary did not look like the virile, confident and assured figure you might have expected, and hoped, to have been keeping watch on our banks. It looked like the ‘sure, ‘twill do’ complacency of Irish public life.   

Neary was asked about the crucial issue of high-risk Contracts for Difference (CFDs), which the tycoon Sean Quinn took out, and which ultimately brought down Anglo Irish Bank and left us on the hook. Neary said he had raised the issue with Quinn in January of 2008 and Quinn said he had ‘a small CFD position’. Mr Neary ‘took that to mean’ that ‘whatever CFDs Mr Quinn had, he had and had now disposed of.’ This was our former watchdog’s answer – ‘whatever Quinn had, he had.’ It was ‘a matter for Mr Quinn’ he said weakly.

Neary admitted that supervision by the Financial Regulatory Authority was not sufficient to meet the challenges posed by the banking crisis. He said he was ‘deeply sorry’. But Neary’s mea culpa ends there: No admission of liability, no offer of recompense.

There appears to be a conspiracy of apologies adopted by nearly all the bankers who have appeared before the inquiry at this stage.

A brief summary: The banks almost collapsed; taxpayers pumped €64bn into the banking sector to keep it afloat; we have been shackled with numerous taxes to pay for it; bankers appear before the inquiry and explain what they did and DIDN’T do; they say sorry, go home safe in the knowledge that nothing will harm their handsome payoffs and lavish pensions.

Incredibly, Neary said that ‘primary responsibility resided with the banks themselves’ and that they were the ‘best placed of all to assess their own risks and business models, to strike the right balance between their risk and reward and to have skilled, responsible people in place.”  In other words, the so-called Regulator presumed the banks would just be too smart to put themselves in mortal danger and so he relied on that sense of self preservation. Isn’t that precisely what a regulator shouldn’t do?

But this was only part of the buck-passing. Neary also said that, actually, his office was relying upon the Central Bank’s ‘work on financial stability to identify, monitor and assess risks in the banks and provide remedies.’ So really it was the Central Bank that should have been keeping watch, he suggested, not the Regulator’s office. So what is the point of a Regulator at all, one wonders?

Last week, the former Governor of the Central Bank, John Hurley, who cut an equally unimpressive figure in front of the Inquiry, appeared to be blaming the regulator’s office and passing the buck to Neary.

And we can presume that Brian Cowen assumed that his senior officials knew what they were doing and these officials assumed that the bankers and developers and ‘visionary tycoons’ knew what they were doing.

Our children’s financial futures have been crippled by a culture of complacency and incompetence. Cursed by this cult of mediocrity.

This is part of the Civil service culture of generalists not specialists, of tired old hands rather than vigorous experts, unqualified for times of crisis. Economist David McWilliams described what Neary represented as ‘an aristocracy of incompetence’, of ‘spoofers, of chancers, of people who didn’t know what they were doing and who were often promoted despite their incompetence.’

At the time of the crash, just 37 officials in over 500 in the Department of Finance had an economics qualification.

I have worked in the civil service and maybe because I was in the ‘Rolls Royce part’ with the Department of Foreign Affairs and the diplomatic service, I still immediately recognise those parts of the service that are tired and unqualified. This is not meant as a personal or snobbish judgment. It’s just that too often those who rise to the top have come from the bottom and worked their way up, usually through a ‘buggins turn’ form of automatic advancement.

This is the public sector, after all, where few are fired, and very few are demoted.

In his book ‘The Price of Power- Inside Ireland’s Crisis Coalition’ Pat Leahy describes an shambolic introductory meeting between the new Government in 2011 and senior Government officials, including Kevin Cardiff, head of the Department of Finance. There is a rambling over figures with pathetic briefing notes being passed around on the State’s disastrous finances, and suddenly the incoming Ministers realise ‘My god, is this how things are run?’

But it was, and despite his mishaps such as not spotting a discrepancy of €3.6 billion on the Government’s books, Kevin Cardiff was handsomely rewarded for his efforts and sent off to Europe to serve in another well paid gig. And in both spheres, he has generous pensions to draw from.

As has Mr Neary. His inglorious departure in 2009 was eased by a €630,000 severance deal and a continuing pension of €114,000 for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, the rest of the Irish public has had to scrimp and save, and struggle to pay mortgages and childcare and all the taxes and charges that the Troika insisted were introduced to pay for the country’s financial crisis – the crisis that Neary, the so-called Regulator, was supposed to prevent.

So here’s a proposal: if you Neary and the parade of bankers really sorry for what they did, and more importantly, didn’t do, then why don’t they gift back to the State, and the people, some (or even all) of their pensions, just as a gesture, just as a sign of solidarity?

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