If you are looking for heroes you won’t find any at the Banking Inquiry. Witnesses come and go in a long litany of shame. For the most part it reveals little that is of use. The hope, however, is that it might perhaps give us some lessons, some thoughts on things we might do to avoid it all happening again.
From a PR perspective there are three approaches a witness can take. At first glance they might not seem very different but on closer inspection they are profoundly different in what we can learn or take from the exercise. It is important to say that no answer exonerates a person or makes them suddenly a wonderful or forgiven figure. However, it can perhaps start us on the right track to one day being able to move on and learn something.
Option one is to say: ‘I did nothing wrong, in fact, you will see I actually performed brilliantly. You should note my many achievements, the many years of success, and how I advised the right course of action when the storm got here. I was not at fault, the problem could not be foreseen and it was just one of those things.’
Option two is to say: ‘Things went very wrong. Mistakes were definitely made. We regret these mistakes. However, nobody else saw the problems either. If you think what we did was wrong you should look at the other people. You need to understand the pressure we were under. Look at what people were saying to us, look at the market. We acted in line with advice. It’s all well with hindsight but the problem was complex and out of our control.’
Option three is to say: ‘The problem was pretty basic. There was a gamble on property. The world crisis hastened the end of that bubble but it was still just a basic bubble. There was no proper control, supervision or foresight. That was my job. I did not do it. I was wrong and I am sorry for that.’
Now, none of these options are very nice. None of them give back money or change what happened but they do indicate the thinking inside someone’s head. In option one the person is still in denial. They are unable to see any fault in anything they did. Most importantly it shows a complete detachment from the reality of what the crisis caused on the ground. It shows a lack of empathy that is deeply worrying. If that empathy does not exist then the person giving the reply is showing themselves to be unable to critically analyse policies and their effects. This is dangerous because it leads to recklessness in the future. It leads to an idea that all will work out in the end. It’s ok we can do the right thing after and rectify things, the cost isn’t the issue, the pain isn’t the issue and there is no room for consideration of alternatives. It is in effect a denial of both reality and responsibility. Mr Trichet was the latest to join this category.
Option two is the one we have become accustomed to. A myriad of excuses and finger pointing. All designed to deflect attention. The idea is that one can say sorry but still avoid responsibility. The answer is always about ‘We’ not ‘I’. It tries to ignore the role of an office holder, be they an executive or a politician, and diminish their power in an effort to say they couldn’t do anything about it. It spreads the blame in the hope that people will then just move on. It is careful never to actually lay the blame though. The problem is always more complex than that. It is the sign of someone who realises the problem that was caused but remains in total denial about their role in it. Many politicians so far fall into this category. Mr Goggins, formerly of Bank of Ireland, is also very much in this camp.
The final option recognises a simple fact. One we have been told by two previous reports into the crisis. Ireland experienced a ‘vanilla’ property bubble. Nothing special, nothing unusual. Developers, Banks and Government gambled on a market and the market collapsed. We did not have proper regulation. We did not have sufficient oversight. We did not have anyone willing to ask a question. Following the crowd is not an excuse. Instead, this answer does the decent thing by saying ‘I didn’t do my job. I could have stopped this but I didn’t.’ Now that answer doesn’t make one iota of difference to the problem we are in or make the person uttering it any kind of hero. However, it does point to someone who has thought about it. Who knows what their role was and finally has come to some understanding of what they did wrong. With this answer we can at least start to learn. Other CEO’s or politicians can look and say ‘OK how do I avoid making the mistakes he did?’ For that reason alone I was impressed and have to give a very small piece of grudging respect to Eugene Sheehy, formerly of AIB.
Saying mistakes were made is not good enough. Saying people got it wrong is not good enough. We teach or kids the difference between saying ‘It got broke’ and ‘I broke it’. Neither answer changes the fact that something is broken, neither answer fixes it. But one shows some sense of responsibility and remorse. If only we could teach that at the banking inquiry.