If You Really Want to Quiz the Banks, You Wouldn't Start from Here

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Byline: The Mary Ellen Synon COLUMN

THE Government at last appear ready to set up an inquiry into the banking crisis. However, it appears they have decided to do it in the way bishops used to inquire into sex abuse. They want the inquiries to be made in secret, very slowly, with areas for investigation decided by the Government's own appointees.

Meanwhile, Fine Gael and the rest of the opposition want to see an Oireachtas inquiry set up, but Labour in particular wants it done under new legislation, proposed last week by Pat Rabbitte.

What Labour want is a public committee of inquiry made up entirely of Leinster House politicians. They want these politicians to have the power to force any citizen to hand over any information the committee's 'investigator' demands, and to force any citizen to answer any questions 'reasonably' put to him, and to force any citizen to sign a reduced version of his answers as prepared by an inquiry official. The way Labour is going, any committee of inquiry into the banks could easily be confused with Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety.

Since our politicians often say they are inspired by the committee hearings of the two houses of the U.S. Congress, I should remind them that while the committees can subpoena witnesses to attend, a witness, under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, can refuse to answer questions on the grounds of self-incrimination. And no committee can force any witness to sign any statement - in effect, a 'confession' - prepared by a committee official.

Somehow opposition politicians imagine that if they can just 'haul' - they like that word - bankers to a committee and compel them to answer, they will get at the truth. Two things about that: no politician should have the right to 'haul' any citizen anywhere. That is the job of the gardai in criminal investigations. The correct procedure is invitation, followed by subpoena if necessary, with the right to refuse to answer any question which may be selfincriminating.

Compelled

Second, since the politicians on an Oireachtas committee will not be experts in banking - I know of no international banking expert in the Oireachtas - they will not be able to frame the right questions to get at the truth, no matter who is compelled to sit in front of them and answer questions. Don't tell me that the committee will do some homework before the questioning starts, and will have staff feeding them the right questions. This inquiry has to be quick and we really don't have time to take some parochial politicians and train up them and their staff in forensic analysis of banking structures.

So, given a choice only between the two plans, the answer would have to be: dump both or forget an inquiry. What we need is a fast - one year at most - inquiry by a commission made up of independent experts operating at public hearings.

Over in the States, the U.S. Congress has established the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission 'to examine the causes, domestic and global, of the current financial and economic crisis in the United States.'

It held its first hearings last week, and it is bound by law to report by December 15. Is it flawed? Yes. The choice of experts is already under question, but the idea is the right one. It was appointed by agreement of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, but is barred from including any serving politician.

The chairman of the U.S. commission is Phil Angelides, the former treasurer of the mega-billions of dollars of the State of California. The vice-chairman of the commission is Bill Thomas, who sat in the House of Representatives for 28 years, and is a former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. 'Ways and Means' means tax and welfare legislation. Mr Thomas handled such things as legislation for $2trillion in tax relief.

There is Heather Murren, a high-ranking analyst and former managing director of Global Securities Research and Economics at Merrill Lynch. …