Top Irish businessman rails at ‘intertwining with politics’

Posted on - Top Irish businessman rails at 'intertwining with politics' - Sat, Mar 06, 2010.

Fascinating opinion from the Irish Times on Saturday:

ONE OF Ireland’s most successful businessmen, Niall Fitzgerald, has told The Irish Times he did not feel that he could have pursued a business career in Ireland without compromising his personal principles.

Mr Fitzgerald left Ireland in 1970 and went on to become chairman and chief executive of the giant conglomerate Unilever and chairman of the global media agency Reuters.

In an interview published today, Mr Fitzgerald suggests that “many people in domestic Irish business succeeded because they were intertwined with politics” and that “unless I was prepared to engage more directly with politicians . . . and at some point be ready to compromise on my own principles, that that would restrict my abilities to develop a business career in Ireland”.

Mr Fitzgerald is critical of what he calls the “claustrophobia” of Irish business. He says “that very intimacy, the knowledge that you can take one small envelope and write all the names that matter on the back of it” militated against independent jjudgment and high ethical standards, contributing to the current crisis in the Irish economy.

Recalling a dinner last summer with friends who had served on the boards of Irish banks, Mr Fitzgerald (himself a director of Bank of Ireland during the 1990s) says he posed a question: Were they aware of the risks that were being taken and thus “complicit with the recklessness”? Or were they unaware of what was going on and thus failing to discharge their responsibilities as directors? The question, he says, prompted a “very ferocious conversation”.

Mr Fitzgerald is also critical of the argument that banks must continue to pay very high salaries to retain senior managers. “You mean, these terribly valuable people who either didn’t understand the risks they were running or understood them and continued anyway without thought for the consequences? You know what? I could do without those valuable people.”

He also criticises high-level business people and bankers who are going into exile in tax havens such as Switzerland. He is, he says, “deeply sad” that some seem obsessed with “how you avoid at almost any cost to yourself and your family being a supportive member of the wider society in which you live”.

Mr Fitzgerald expresses concerns about the ability of those in positions of power to take responsibility for what has happened. “If the leaders of a society are not prepared to hold themselves accountable or there are not the institutions which are sufficiently independent to hold them accountable, then I think you have a very serious problem on your hands.”

Apologies to the Irish Times for quoting this at length - but the opinions expressed are important, relevant and ask pertinent questions of both business and politicians.

Cleaning up the act is an essential part of reform now.

Without that change cannot happen in Ireland or anywhere else.