Notes from the Field

 

We traveled to Ireland in September 2017 to meet with civil servants, elected officials, journalists, and academics to ask about their perspective on the crisis. Ireland, like Iceland, has seen a considerable post-crisis recovery. In contrast to some of the other countries in the project, there seemed to be wide consensus about the causes of the crisis, and the narratives of blame. Most interviewees saw the overall crisis as comprising three distinct, but overlapping crises: a banking crisis born of risky borrowing and lending; a related property bubble; and a fiscal crisis of the state. This narrative implicates multiple actors: bankers, the middle class, politicians, and civil servants (especially regulators). Indeed, this wide spreading of the blame distinguished the political context in Ireland from that of other countries, such as Iceland and Greece.

Prosecutions – ‘No one was throwing rocks at the police’

There were very few high profile trials in the Irish case, and the prosecutions that did occur resulted in minimal or no sentences. This lack of prosecutions might be driven by a number of factors. The most immediate reason offered by participants was simply that the urgency of the crisis made ‘staying afloat’ the most pressing concern as it unfolded. In this sense, the primary strategy of the government was to improve the economic situation as fast as possible, and to leave questions of blame and punishment aside.

A second reason why there were very few post-crisis prosecutions could be that there was no wave of public demand for punishment. As one interviewee commented, unlike in Greece, ‘no one was throwing rocks at the police’. A few participants described the Irish context as lacking a punitive drive, and cited Ireland’s low detention rates, which are significantly lower in Ireland than in other European countries.

There were also significant institutional obstacles to widespread prosecutions because Ireland did not have the legal framework or the resources in place to prosecute white collar crime. According to a number of participants, many – though not all – of the banking activities that ultimately contributed to the crisis were not illegal, but only highly risky. This legal framework tacitly permitted much white collar criminal activity to pass uncontested, and extended to many risky decisions and strategies made by bankers. And because the country had adopted an austerity budget following the crisis, the state could not afford to initiate costly prosecution proceedings.

A final reason offered for the lack of prosecutions was a kind of exceptionalist argument about bankers: in the blame game, they are somehow different from other categories of criminals. In the words of one civil servant, pointing to his suit and tie, and careful to distance himself from his comments with inverted commas drawn with his fingers, ‘they are people like us, and we don’t jail people like us’.

Apologies

There were also very few public apologies given for the crisis. A few bankers did apologise in the context of the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry, but this context was less public than a performance directed at government officials. Some participants noted that seeing bankers apologise in the Banking Inquiry was useful for public (and state) catharsis, but most suggested that any apologies given were likely done to minimize potential punishment. In short, there was skepticism about their ultimate effectiveness and genuineness, and participants reported a general public cynicism about using public apologies as a way of dealing with the past, calling attention to disingenuous apologies.

Parliamentary committees of inquiry

There was a major Parliamentary (Oirechtas) Inquiry into the causes of the Banking Crisis (The Joint Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis), but as in many countries, its effectiveness as a mechanism of truth recovery was limited. Most were very cynical about whether truth was uncovered by the inquiry, and equally cynical about whether any accountability was brought by its findings. Most participants also thought that the inquiry’s report came too late because the facts were basically known by the time the report was released. In this sense, the report was more of a performance of truth that was useful for public catharsis.

These views about the Banking Inquiry were in stark contrast to opinions about a previous series of reports regarding the central bank, Department of Finance, and general regulatory framework (the Nyberg Report, Regling and Watson Report, and Honohan Report), all of which were seen to have been very useful for internal reforms.

Institutional changes

Beyond the Troika’s recovery programme, the crisis spurred a number of internally-generated institutional reforms. In addition to a number of regulatory changes, the state developed new forms of expertise following the crisis (especially within corporate law and insolvency law). There was wide variation amongst participants in their assessment of the regulatory changes that occurred post-crisis: some participants thought there is now over regulation, while others thought that there is still an insufficient amount of regulation.

A further reaction to the crisis has been to incorporate new risk-management frameworks into the Department of Finance’s planning.   The crisis also led a number of departments, especially the Finance Department, to heed calls for reform and reorganization; this led to the creation of the new Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER). The effects of these bureaucratic reorganizations are yet to be seen, and despite enthusiasm for many of the reforms (especially those pertaining to the civil service, and government transparency and accountability), there was skepticism about the effectiveness of risk management frameworks. And indirectly, the crisis might have affected the reputation of certain state institutions, especially that confidence in the police has diminished – both in the popular level but also within the Dail.