Bankers Will Be Let Off the Hook If We Don't Start to Take Ourselves Seriously


How can we contain institutional failure?

If the banking crisis was a child it would have started school this week. Five years later there is no comprehensive public reporting of the circumstances leading up to the crisis, and the decisions taken immediately afterwards.

Three reports have been written, one in fact a legal inquiry, but these haven’t really gotten to the nitty gritty of who knew what – and when – and why they decided as they did.

The circumstances surrounded the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers were investigated within weeks. U.S. taxpayers were free to peruse a 10,000-page report, which cost a few hundred thousand dollars, almost immediately after the crash. Regulators and legislators could act on its findings, and the public was reassured something would be done – however imperfectly – to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Many of those personally responsible for Lehman’s collapse went to jail or paid hefty personal fines. The U.S. taxpayer, in the end, got some form of justice for the malfeasance of an elite few.

It almost goes without saying that no such justice has been seen on this side of the Atlantic.

And yet we have no mass protests, no civic disobedience, no political upheaval. I’m constantly asked by international observers of the Irish economy, why not? I think I have a partial answer.Three pieces of recent data convince me we don’t actually take ourselves seriously.

Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt – who famously defined ‘bullshit’ as a mode of deceptive, self-regarding misrepresentation just short of lying – wrote that to take ourselves seriously is to care about something deeply.

Frankfurt wrote “it is only in virtue of what we actually care about that anything is important to us … things are important only if they make a difference”. Taking ourselves seriously means that we are not prepared to accept ourselves and our situations just as we, and they, come.

To be serious about something is to be effectively engaged in deciding its importance. In other words, to have consequences to our actions. The collapse of Lehman Brothers had consequences for those involved. The collapse of Anglo or AIB has had effectively no consequences.

No consequences beyond low-level moral approbation pertain to those most responsible for the crash. No large-scale protests, no civil disobedience, no ceremonial banging of pots and pans outside the parliament as they had in Iceland. Beyond the weekly march of protest in Ballyhea, protesting the bailing out of the bondholders, there is nothing to signify anything but acceptance.

The public apathy at the prospect of another tribunal or inquiry is obvious, because the collective worry is there will be no consequences. The public’s mistrust of politicians was highlighted when, in their wisdom, Ireland’s citizens voted not to allow our parliamentarians the same fact-finding powers as other parliaments with the Houses of the Oireachtas Inquiries referendum.

Outside of the Economic Management Council, our politicians have virtually no power to effect real change. The whip system deprives the Dail’s members of anything but mere nodding acceptance at the status quo. In this newspaper a recent poll showed that undecided voters were at 36pc of the electorate, a record high.

The public don’t take the existing parties seriously. Writing in 2011, Morgan Kelly predicted this, with the crisis damaging trust in all political parties, including Fine Gael and Labour, leaving them “as reviled and mistrusted as their predecessors. And that will leave Ireland in the interesting situation where the economic crisis has chewed up and spat out all of the State’s constitutional parties”.

It seems only the parties remain committed to a political system that the voters consider broken, perhaps beyond repair. Consequences are for other people, it seems, when it comes to public life in Ireland. While I’m struck by the lack of an appetite for a public inquiry into the banking crisis, I’m not surprised.

But consequences do exist. Last week Fiachra Meehan took his own life. Fiachra was a married father of two small children whose Priory Hall property was in arrears. His widow Stephanie wrote: “The stress, the worry of not being able to provide a safe home for us, his young children, eventually took its toll, as it has on every resident.” If we took ourselves, and our public institutions more seriously, then perhaps the consequences of institutional failure would be felt more by those within the institutions, than those individuals subject to them.

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