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The Anglo tapes - Irish need to hear similar conversations from AIB and Bank of Ireland too

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Angry protesters gather at Anglo Buildings in Galway (Photo: Galway Indo)


The Anglo Irish tapes has been the biggest story here for ages, an Irish Independent exclusive that has enraged the country and led to calls for a public inquiry and prosecutions.

But when you strip away the bad language and the macho talk, what the tapes reveal was not really that surprising. 

Anglo was going down the plughole at the time in 2008, with a billion euro a day being withdrawn from the bank by big depositors and institutions that were nervous about the bank's exposure to the Irish property market which was then in the early stage of its steep decline.

Anglo had about a week or two left before it would be completely bust.  So naturally "the lads" at the top were desperately trying to save themselves and the bank.    

The macho language and posturing was bravado covering rising panic as they realized the situation was slipping away from them unless they could get emergency funding in fast from the Irish or European Central Bank, or somewhere else.

For example, they knew the €7 billion they were asking the Irish authorities for -- a figure one of them says on the tape he pulled out of his arse -- was unlikely to be enough.  But it's also clear that none of them really knew how big the hole in the bank was going to get.   

The truth is that at the time no one did, because everything depended on how far the Irish property market was going to fall.  It was a moving train, and getting a fix on it was not easy.

Property prices in 2008 up to September that year (when the tapes were made) fell by around eight percent; the market had peaked and turned the previous year, 2007.   

Clearly international investors believed Irish property was seriously over-valued and were pulling their money out of Irish banks, but how far would prices fall?  Was it possible to know then that the whole thing was a bubble and that by 2012 property prices would have fallen by well over 50 percent?   

Anglo Irish was exposed on a massive scale to the property market.  But in 2008 it was still possible to claim that the problem it and the bigger Irish banks were facing was temporary liquidity rather than solvency.  We're all geniuses in hindsight, but that needs to be remembered.

What really enraged the Irish public last week was the revelation on the tapes that the Anglo lads had apparently tried to con the Irish authorities.  They asked for €7 billion, knowing it was not going to be enough, so that the Irish Central Bank would have "skin in the game."

In other words, when the lads would come back looking for more the Irish authorities would feel they had to keep giving.  Which is exactly what happened.        
  
That and the cavalier attitude, the macho language and the contempt for the Irish authorities, is easy to characterize as outrageous or criminal.

But a lot of it is merely the Irish version of the way the banking Masters of the Universe talk to each other.  And as far as the language is concerned, if the private phone conversations between other senior bankers -- or politicians or editors -- were recorded at times of high stress they might not be very different in tone. 

Of course that did not stop many politicians and newspaper columnists here getting all sanctimonious last week, trying to outdo each other in outrage. 

Forget about the language and the macho banter about billions.  What is involved here is much bigger than the phone chatter between the senior Anglo executives as the pressure mounted.

The bigger picture which still remains hidden is not what was going on in Anglo, it was what was happening in the Big Two Irish banks and at official level at that time. 

It wasn't just Anglo that bankrupted the Irish state (although it played a major part). The property gambling of the other Irish banks was also to blame, as well as the vast overspending by the Irish state (all based on property taxes) during the boom.   

The main reason Ireland went down was the insistence by the European Central Bank, heavily influenced by the Germans, that the cost of the banking catastrophe here had to be borne entirely by the Irish taxpayer.

The overriding concern of the ECB, the Germans, even Timothy Geithner in the U.S., was that no investors or bondholders were to be burned, because this might start a run on banks in other weak European countries.    

Even though these bondholders and investors had essentially gambled by putting their money in here during the boom, they were not to be touched.  Every last cent of the cost of saving the Irish banks and repaying all the foreign banks and bondholders was to be carried by the Irish taxpayer.  And that is exactly what has happened. 

Last week Irish politicians from the taoiseach (prime minister) on down were declaring themselves to be shocked and disgusted by what was on the Anglo tapes.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she had nothing but "contempt" for the Anglo bankers.   

But what was done to ordinary Irish taxpayers -- and is still being done -- is what is really shocking, disgusting and contemptible, and much of that is down to German policy.  So we can consider Merkel's outrage with that in mind. 

That's the real scandal. Not what a few Anglo execs were saying to each other when the testosterone and adrenaline were flowing and they were almost hysterical about the failure of the Irish authorities to act fast enough to save them.     

It's a fair bet that the same thing was going on in the two big players in Irish banking, Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks, as their cash situations also started to crumble.  We have been told that the recording of phone conversations in Anglo was normal and that the same may well be true of the Big Two banks.

Are there tapes there as well?  If so, we need to hear them. 

We have been told repeatedly that no records exist of the conversations that took place on the night of the infamous blanket guarantee given to the Irish banks by the last government at the end of September 2008, the decision that ended up bankrupting the country.  We have even been told that no notes were taken.

This is both outrageous and incredible.  If no notes were taken by the senior civil servants, the senior politicians and the bank bosses who were at that all night meeting, that is disgraceful.  (And by the way, the Anglo Irish executives were not at that critical meeting.)   

We are told also that there are no tapes of what happened that fateful night in Government Buildings.   But even if there are no tapes of what AIB and Bank of Ireland bosses were saying that night, it may not matter because in the days and hours before that critical meeting you can be certain that their most senior executives were discussing what was evolving.   

And even more important, you can be sure that in the hours and days after that fateful night when the blanket bank guarantee decision had been taken, the senior bank executives would have been discussing what had happened that night, who had said what, and so on.   

So phone recordings or written records from the Big Two banks for those crucial days before and after the night of the bank guarantee are gold dust.  They would show exactly what the former Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan were told by the bank bosses.  They would also reveal what the top civil servants from the Department of Finance who were in the room were saying. 

All of this is vital in assessing the basis on which the blanket guarantee was issued.  That guarantee bankrupted Ireland and forced us into an IMF/EU bailout a couple of years later. 

And we were given the bailout money on condition that the Irish state -- in other words the ordinary Irish taxpayer -- pays it all back. 

Which is how the cost of the bank collapse here was transferred from investors and bondholders to the Irish taxpayer, and why we are now in a killer austerity regime of higher taxes and lower spending that has suffocated our economy and caused mass emigration. 

That's the real scandal.  Not just what a few Anglo execs said to each other when the testosterone and adrenaline were flowing.

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