Ten years on from the Irish banking crisis what has changed?

Ten years on from the Irish banking crisis, a public discussion in Trinity College Dublin explored whether enough has changed in the Irish financial, business and cultural sectors.

September 2018 marks ten years since the controversial guarantee of the Irish banks by the government, which would lead to the €64m bailout of the banks, and was followed by an unprecedented collapse in property prices, the loss of sovereignty in the form of the 2010 bailout of Ireland by the IMF/ECB/EU ‘Troika’, and deep and prolonged economic recession.

As part of the Behind the Headlines public discussion series, Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute hosted a free public discussion to examine the changes wrought in the Irish financial, business and cultural landscapes by those events and asked: has enough changed in the last 10 years?  Entitled ‘The Banking Crisis – A Decade On’, the discussion featured speakers drawn from the world of politics, banking, journalism and academia.

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In his presentation, Simon Carswell, Public Affairs Editor, Irish Times, set the scene for the evening’s discussion and looked back on the biggest public policy decision by a modern Irish government.

“The 2008-2010 financial crisis was the worst in modern Irish history and resulted in the State taking ownership of the majority of the banking system and putting the financial system on life support in the biggest public policy decision by a government in 21st century Ireland. The crisis led to the liquidation of the two most reckless institutions, criminal convictions against unlawful acts uncovered in the wake of the crisis and a change of management at almost all of the other institutions along with new regulations to rein in the excesses of a runaway banking sector.”

However, he said many lessons have not been learned by the banks, and trust in financial institutions has not been regained from the public.

“The tracker mortgage scandal has shown that old habits die hard in Irish banking and financial institutions are still gripped by an ‘us-versus-them’ culture that fails to put the customer first and has left the public still unable to trust the country’s banks. Lingering controversies around banking practices illustrate that regulations may have to extend beyond prudential measures that keep banks on the straight and narrow to make more bankers personally accountable for the actions they take as managers of these institutions to prevent further scandals emerging. Lessons have certainly been learned and important actions taken but more work is required to prevent mistakes being repeated.”

At the event Ed Sibley, Deputy Governor, Prudential Regulation, Central Bank of Ireland, discussed how regulatory reforms since the crisis have increased the resilience of the financial system, while noting that some persistent legacy issues remain.

In his presentation Deputy Governor Sibley traced how a litany of factors contributed to the global financial crisis, leading to an alphabet soup of complex international and domestic regulatory reforms. While acknowledging that these reforms have increased the resilience of the system, he detailed some of the more persistent legacy issues which the Central Bank sees in the financial system, including the findings of its recent work on culture and behaviour. He said that these factors continue to present risk to the system and hamper the rebuilding of public trust.

“Leading up to the onset of the crisis in Ireland, the failings in the banking system resulted in a collective groupthink failure, an excessive build-up of heavily correlated risks, and a disregard for customers. A fundamental protection for consumers lies in ensuring the financial system is stable and the firms that operate within it are financially safe and sound.”

Antonia Hart, a PhD candidate in Trinity’s School of Histories and Humanities took the audience back to nineteenth century Ireland, when famine had ravaged the country and where credit played a central role in ordinary people’s lives, and was necessary in order to purchase basic goods.

“Credit cards, mortgages, car loans – they seem so much like products of the way we live our twenty-first century lives. But credit and debt have always been with us.”

Discussing the prevalence of pawnbrokers at the time, Antonia highlighted how the greed of the industry, which was later the subject of various investigations, may have exacerbated people’s experience of the famine.

“Credit was usual for getting your daily goods. But you couldn’t get everything on credit, and if you weren’t in a position to settle up at the agreed intervals credit might be denied you in future. There was always a need for cash, and the easiest way to produce cash at short notice was the pawnbroker’s shop, a place where, unlike a bank, it didn’t matter that you were a woman, or poor, or otherwise marginalised. There was no credit check, almost no paperwork, and you could walk out in a matter of minutes with cash in your pocket. But of course the interest payments became a regular burden, and what was intended as a rapid response to a condition of precarity very often ended up being a contributor to that condition of precarity.”

Addressing the banking crisis discussion, Joan Burton TD, Labour Party spokesperson on Finance from 2002 to 2011, highlighted the political landscape at the time of the crisis and the boom to bust policies that resulted in the crash with horrific consequences for Irish people, society and economy and ‘330,000’ people losing their jobs.

“In many ways in terms of the era we’re talking about it was the best of times and the worst of times. If you look at the period from roughly 2002 up to 2007 when we came to the height of the boom, for a lot of people it was and it felt like the best of times. But when you come to the crash in 2008 up until 2012 when the first signs of recovery really began, it was probably for many people in Ireland one of the most difficult periods, hopefully, they would ever experience in their lives.”

Ms Burton said tax laws ‘threw money’ at people who invested in property, land and construction, with developers’ helicopters ‘buzzing over race meetings’ and individuals becoming property spectators.

Also speaking the event was Dr Philip Coleman, Associate Professor in Trinity’s School of English, who explored how Irish and other poets have responded to the banking crisis over the last decade. He spoke about the relationship between money and art with particular reference to poetry.

“W.H. Auden famously said, partly in response to Yeats, that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, but one of its greatest values is to give us images out of which our sense of the world can be created and deepened.”

Commenting on the value of cultural capital following the opening of the Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre in College Green, Dr Coleman concluded that “while some contemporary poets responded very quickly to the economic crisis, then, others may yet be in the process of doing so, and there may be others again whose work’s meaning in relation to the times we live in now may not be fully appreciated for some time to come. As Seamus Heaney puts it in the poem I quoted at the beginning of my contribution: ‘what happens next / Is a music that you never would have known / To listen for’ – but it is important, I think, whether we are critics, bankers, economists, or politicians, that we continue to pay attention.

About the ‘Behind the Headlines’ Series

The ‘Behind the Headlines’ discussion series hosted by Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute offers background analyses of current issues from experts from the fields of arts and humanities research. It aims to provide a forum that deepens understanding, combats simplification and polarisation, creating a space for informed and respectful public discourse. The series is supported by the John Pollard Foundation. #HubMatters https://www.tcd.ie/trinitylongroomhub/whats-on/details/behind-the-headlines.php