Three prominent bankers go on trial this week in one of the biggest prosecutions ever mounted in an Irish court, arising from the country’s disastrous financial crash. The hearings in Dublin will be the first of a number of legal sequels to the 2008 crisis which brought the economy and political system to the brink of catastrophic collapse.
The three men face charges centring on alleged loans of €450m (£373m) said to have been arranged during Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” years. The 2008 crash plunged the Republic into a near-nightmare era of harsh austerity measures which brought high unemployment, severe spending cuts and a wave of emigration of young people to Australia, the US and elsewhere.
It also led to huge political changes which saw Fianna Fail, traditionally the largest political party, swept from power and decimated. Since then the economy has improved, with today’s Dublin government arguing that the country has turned the corner, but more lean years clearly lie ahead.
The three executives who will go on trial at the Criminal Courts of Justice were at the head of the now defunct Anglo Irish Bank, which was at the heart of the financial crisis. They are its former chairman and chief executive Sean FitzPatrick, the former finance director Willie McAteer and Pat Whelan, the former chief financial officer.
Both before and after the crash Mr FitzPatrick has been one of Dublin’s most high-profile bankers. He was declared bankrupt in 2012.
The three face 16 charges under the Companies Act of providing unlawful financial assistance to individuals for the purpose of buying shares in the bank. Mr Whelan also faces seven additional charges of altering loan documentation. They have pleaded not guilty on all counts.
The case, which has been in preparation for years, is expected to last between three and six months, involving 24 million documents and 800 witness statements. Interest in it is so intense that special measures have been taken to allow the public access to the court, while the judge has issued detailed warnings to the jury.
In recognition of the emotions generated by the crash, the judge warned potential jurors that they should not serve if they had such strong views about the bank that they felt they could not deal with matters fairly. They should also not serve, he said, if they had expressed strong views either publicly or on the internet or on Facebook. Reading out a list of potential witnesses, who included bankers and businessmen, he said anyone who knew any of them should not serve on the jury.
They should also exclude themselves if they had worked for Anglo Irish Bank or had held shares in a bank. The judge further warned “in the strongest possible terms” that they should not investigate relevant matters on the internet or in periodicals.
Three extra reserve jurors have been selected in case original jurors are unable to continue in what could become the longest criminal trial in the country’s history. Due to the extreme complexity of the case jurors will be supplied with laptops partly because the courtroom, though the largest available, would be swamped by the scores of large boxes which would be needed to hold the millions of docuents.
Demand for seats is so high that a nearby courtroom is to be used as an overflow viewing room with a video link.
Although this week’s trial is the first involving senior financial figures relating to the banking crash, it may not be the last since detailed investigations are continuing into other aspects of the collapse. When a judge commented recently that some inquiries were continuing “at a rather slow pace” he was told that investigations could take several years to complete.
The Irish parliament is meanwhile to conduct an inquiry into the collapse. Ministers have said it can begin preliminary work but should not examine witnesses while Anglo Irish Bank issues are before the courts.
In the general election which followed the crash much of the party political furniture was drastically re-arranged, with the shredding of the Fianna Fail vote leading to significant gains for other parties and groupings such as Sinn Fein and Independents.
This is taken as an unmistakeable sign that since the crash many voters continue to hold much of the political and financial establishment in low regard. Such sentiment has been if anything sharpened in recent times by a series of revelations which have led many to complain that the pain of austerity has not been shared equally throughout society.
There has been anger at disclosures that some in the higher reaches of public life, including official bodies, have been receiving very substantial salaries, pensions and benefits. There has been particular public indignation that some such money was apparently originally intended for charity.
In December, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, gave a televised address saying that Ireland’s “good name and credibility” had been restored since the country had met its obligations under the the rescue operation put in place by international institutions.
Mr Kenny vowed that Ireland’s stability would never again “be threatened by speculation and greed”. He said: “This is an important step but it is not an end in itself. Our lives won’t change overnight. But it does send out a powerful signal internationally that Ireland is fighting back, that the spirit of our people is as strong as ever.”