The sound of a toothless tiger roaring at the banks…

JOHN Manley notes how our MLAs and ministers are keen to appear as though they are fighting our corner against the banks during the recession. The key word is ‘appear’, as the engagements between bankers and politicians are just for the optics, Manley argues. The semi-desperate and aspirational tone of this recent OFMDFM press release is revealing about how much control politicians here have over financial matters that really matter – close to zero.

And Ian Paisley Jr’s tough-talking press release before an Agriculture Committee meeting with bankers spoke of his determination to “to challenge the banks” about their practices with farmers, how there are “very clear instances of the banks inflicting further pain on the industry”. The committee itself spoke of how “[B]anks need to take a sympathetic approach to the issue of farming debts”. But the language is telling; the banks can only be “urged”, not “forced”. Even the first quote of IPJ’s release begins with the defeatist “Whilst the Northern Ireland Assembly does not have the power to force banks to act…”

But at least the statements are coherent. The left hand of UCUNF doesn’t appear to know what the right one is press releasing. UUP Assemblyman George Savage warmly welcomed the meeting between banks and the agri-committee, while Conservative spokesman Neil Johnston lambasted it and described it as “worthy but it is hard to see anything much coming from it”.Manley writes:

It’s clear that the global credit crunch is impacting on Northern Ireland, leading many individuals and business bodies to voice concerns about both the banks’ reluctance to lend and their imposition of excessive charges.

However, while a degree of political leverage may be necessary to encourage greater flexibility from the banks, it’s important to consider what exactly the executive or the assembly can do in this situation.

Of the north’s four main high street banks, two are based in the Republic, one is British and the other is Danish-owned. British chancellor Alastair Darling, the man who authorised the bail-out for Ulster Bank parent company RBS, is having difficulty gaining concessions from the banks, so what then can a regional government do?

When this question was put to the press office of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OMDFM) last week, the reply was short and unsubstantial, merely underlining the apparent impotency of our devolved administration when facing up to international financial institutions.

While few would begrudge our politicians trying to represent us and engage with the banks, Manley notes that what achievements there have been came about as a result of work between the banks and central government, as opposed to the devolved insitution at Stormont. The most interesting part of his story is kept to last.

The Irish News spoke to a source involved in the “process of engagement” between the politicians and the bankers. On assurance of anonymity, he spoke candidly about what went on during the meetings and what the banks’ representatives really thought about the efforts their political counterparts were taking.

Among the concerns he noted was the sheer number of meetings. According to the source, in addition to the meetings with the First and Deputy First Ministers, three separate committees – Finance and Personnel, Enterprise, Trade and Investment and Agriculture and Rural Development – had all asked the banks to attend hearings at which they were asked what amounted to the same questions.

“There is a sense that a lot of time has been wasted through duplication. You have to ask why the assembly couldn’t coordinate these hearings so we didn’t have to go over the same ground all the time,” he said.

On more substantive issues, our source was less forgiving.

“The politicians know rightly that they are powerless in this process but they can’t resist playing to the gallery,” he said.

“There is a sense that they are just indulging in house-painting and point-scoring.”

Many in the banking and wider business sector were becoming frustrated by the process, he said, with some believing that by the time the executive takes real action to combat the recession, it’ll be over.