Coming face to face with the man held responsible for Ireland’s bust was not quite what American writer David Lynch expected.
Lynch’s new book When the Luck of the Irish Ran Out (Palgrave Macmillan) deals with the Irish implosion and Fitzpatrick figures prominently
Lynch is currently a senior writer with Bloomberg News in Washington, D.C., focusing on the intersection of politics and economics. Previously, he covered the global economy for USA TODAY, where he was the founding bureau chief in both London and Beijing. His work has taken him to more than 50 countries.
He actually felt himself feeling sorry for Seanie FitzPatrick, the Chairman of Anglo Irish Bank who now epitomizes the headlong flight into penury the country has experienced.
“I look at Sean Fitzpatrick as a tragic figure, one who’s almost Shakespearian,” says Lynch. “He came from modest origins in County Wicklow, his dad was a farmer who drank too much and got into debt.
“The first thing he did when he became CEO of this nothing bank, which Anglo Bank was in the 1980s, he builds it from nothing to a real financial power. Then to come full circle from all his riches and success to being held up as an emblem of Celtic Tiger excess is just a fascinating story.
“So far he has evaded an official reckoning, but my goodness, the price he’s paid. I understand the desire of Irish people to have their pound of flesh, but I think it’s impossible not to look at him and be impressed by his rise and fall.”
Lynch admits he has to fight his own tendency to feel empathy for Fitzpatrick’s plight -- now bankrupt, public enemy number one, the human face of the Celtic Tiger collapse.
Investigations are ongoing into the Irish golden circle and they may yet bring consequences to bear. But when Fitzpatrick’s loans became public knowledge in 2008 and the Mickey Mouse games he was playing by warehousing them at Irish Nationwide and then bringing them back on the books was reveled, he said something startling.
Fitzpatrick said he had been assured that these practices weren’t in violation of Irish law or banking regulations.
“I thought at the time that says more about Irish law than it does about Sean Fitzpatrick. If that’s true, that really is an indictment of the Irish regulator,” says Lynch. “Fitzpatrick’s story became emblematic of a broader social trend. He didn’t bring Ireland down.
“But I wouldn’t want to let him off the hook either. He’s not alone in his culpability and he is paying a price for his role.”
Fitzpatrick is painfully aware, Lynch says, of how complete his fall has been from CEO of Anglo Irish.
“When I met him in Dublin we were skulking around on a street corner. We had a quick cup of coffee at a gas station and we got back indoors before someone might see or say something to him.
“He felt like he had gone from being seen as the guy who helped Ireland grow to the guy who had called its downfall.”
Anglo Irish grew its loan book in the years after Fitzpatrick stepped down as CEO and became chairman.
“That’s where David Drumm’s responsibility lies (Drumm was Fitzpatrick’s successor). But I think Fitzpatrick was a little too forgiving of himself. At the end of the day as Chairman of the Board you are getting paid to do something. You can’t say it was all Drumm’s fault, I was down on the golf course shaking hands.”
In Fitzpatrick’s last years at Anglo he grew the loan book by 15 billion euros. In the first four years of Drumm’s tenure he grew the books by 50 billion euros.
When the global credit market seized up because of the Lehman Brothers collapse all of a sudden they couldn’t get capital, couldn’t roll over their debts … and we know how that story ends.
Lynch’s book is that rare thing, an economic study that’s also a captivating snapshot of the society it’s exploring.
Written in lucid prose that will appeal to both the general reader and the economist, Lynch (a former Nieman fellow at Harvard University) understands that there’s a lot more to a nation’s story than the performance of its markets.
It’s depressing to realize that your own government and banking industry have been acting exactly like tipsy frat boys, but in effect, says journalist David J. Lynch, that’s precisely what has happened. Everyone knew the boom would end, but nobody wanted to be the guy at the party who says goodnight first.
A fifth generation Irish American (on both sides), Lynch’s ancestors hail from Co. Kerry and he embarrassedly admits he’s taken the classic Irish American ancestral roots trail himself.
But Lynch is no many misty eyed tourist. In the process he has appraised Ireland’s particular strengths and weaknesses with a gimlet eye of an outsider who can see through all the palaver.
The basic outline of Ireland’s economic collapse is well-documented -- crony capitalism, operating in a 19th century political climate, allowed close connections between Irish politicians, property developers and the banks to lead to immense prosperity. Simultaneously, however, they created the conditions for a shattering collapse.
But Lynch suggests it would be foolish to count Ireland out, and he has subtitled his book The World’s Most Resilient Country and Its Struggle to Rise Again.
“I’m not an optimist. Anyone who knows me knows I don’t believe the glass is half full. My question is usually, ‘What glass?’ But I don’t doubt for a moment that Ireland will navigate the difficulties that lie ahead of it over the next few years,” Lynch told the Irish Voice during an interview this week.
The Irish boom and bust occurred at a time when there was an ocean of capital, with low yields and low interest rates. From the Irish side of this the Irish banks, which were small players traditionally, suddenly became major players, with the arrival of Sean Fitzpatrick and Anglo Irish Bank.
Under his guidance, Anglo Irish was able to go out to global wholesale markets and borrow money at low interest rates, in euros, gaining access for the first time to a much larger capital pool than they’d ever had access to before.
“It was a little like giving your 16-year-old son a bottle of whiskey and the car keys,” says Lynch.
“They went out and borrowed all this money, then they turned around and lent it all to property developers. There were reasons why there should be some new construction -- the country was getting more prosperous, for the first time there was a net flow of people coming into the country rather than leaving, so there was reason for some new construction.”
But the good thing quickly became too much of a good thing. Then it went completely crazy. The Irish regulators were so weak and the Irish government was so complicit that there was no one left in a position of power to shout stop.
Having just suffered this terrible economic calamity, the Irish people are justifiably looking for someone to blame. “If you look at the performance of the Irish opposition parties during the boom years they don’t have clean hands. They were clamoring for even more tax breaks and public spending than the ruling Fianna Fail party.”
There’s no doubt that the Irish culture of impunity, where politicians, developers and bankers have repeatedly broken the law and evaded regulations without paying a price, played a role.
Back in the 1980s one of the things that motivated Irish leaders to get their act together and embrace the reforms that ultimately produced the Celtic Tiger was the threat of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) coming in and imposing a solution that would have been a humiliation after six decades of independence. To be in this position today is a black day for Ireland, Lynch contends.
“Things look very bleak for Ireland. The next several years will be filled with sacrifice and hardship for many people who are essentially blameless,” he says.
“But in my reporting over the years I’ve been in Turkey and Russia during economic crisis, where it looks like they’ll never get out of the ditch. Those societies have come back.
“That’s not to minimize the setback, but there will be a future for Ireland. If the Irish people use the next few years to tackle the necessary financial and political reforms that are needed there is every reason to look forward to a bright future.”