Follow the Money

Everyone is confused and no one really understands what is going on. Everything that was certain is now in doubt. The world has turned ‘topsy-turvy’. You can’t even bank on a bank anymore.

The list of things that have been upended seems endless. We have regulators who didn’t regulate. Our bankers are gamblers. The Irish Government embraces fiscal rectitude and austerity while the Germans are for bondholder haircuts and stimulus packages. Politicians don’t want to have elections. Apparently, we even have secure files from Microsoft.

So, what can you do to sort out the wood from the trees?

Follow the money” is the line everyone remembers from the story of the Nixon downfall. And it was “following the money” that finally brought down Al Capone.

It can be hard to “follow the money” in Ireland with everyone claiming ‘commercial sensitivity’, ‘privileged access’ and hiding behind our libel laws.

There is one place where there is some transparency and it is in the heart of our troubles. The Register of Members Interests at the Oireachtas tells us some of what we need to know. It is not quite up to the job but, with a very small tweak, it would provide a thread that could unravel the whole murky mess.

We are a conservative people and slow to adopt new ways. We were very slow to bring in a Register of Interests for our elected officials so that we might see whether they had vested interests that they might not be keen to reveal. Even today, the penalties for not properly or fully disclosing assets amount to little more that a slap on the wrist, as the Frank Fahy/Sage ‘affaire’ has shown.

But looking at a Register of Interests is the same as looking at one half of a balance sheet. It tells you less than half the story. It doesn’t tell you how the assets are funded or whether the entity is fiscally sound.

In the innocent days of yore, when we thought our banks were well-run, morally upright places, when no one worried about or even knew about bond markets, haircuts and gearing, no one thought to ask how the politicians assets had been acquired. Now that we know better and we all know boomtime stories of people with huge borrowings on tiny amounts of equity, we need to know whether any of our representatives are in the same boat.

It is another measure of our talent for inconsistency, that we have a penalty of immediate disbarment for bankrupt politicians but no means of determining whether they are bankrupt.

It is time for those who represent us and who are perverting normal corporate practice and taking such huge risks with our debts and mortgaging our childrens futures to their inexperience to come clean and to show us their ‘books’.

A one sentence amendment to the relevant legislation will oblige the representatives to disclose the debts attached to the declared interests. Only then will we be able to see whether the desperate urge to prop up developers and property prices and banks is truly in the national interest or is in the interest of keeping the ‘jobs for the boys’.

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