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Tuesday 22 January 2019

Fingers didn't need a cape ... the danger signs were all there

In Gay Byrne's autobiography The Time Of My Life, the broadcaster recounts having his life savings stolen by accountant Russell Murphy in the mid-1980s.

It was a sad story brightened by one telling detail. Murphy wore a cape. Not a superhero cape but an original billowing, Count Dracula cape all the rage in the mid-1880s.

Now, some might choose an accountant partly on the basis that they don't wear a cape. Or avoid taking on an accountant who looks like the kind of person that could decide one day to buy a cape.



COMICAL

Still others would simply tell him: "You're an accountant. Stop being so monstrously vain."

And anyone left would see the cape as merely a strand of the American business principle that says if your money manager starts dating a lap dancer, it's time to find another money manager. If he starts dating a lap dancer and wearing a cape, leave the country.

But to Gay's eyes, the cape cloaked nothing sinister or comical but merely a man who knew what he was doing. A man too important to have to button up a topcoat. A man he could trust. In fact, he felt honoured that his financial affairs were being looked after by a cape-wearing accountant. He never sought to question the cape. Or the silver-topped cane (don't ask).

To Gay and his generation, money had perhaps a mystical quality that not only needed expert handling but needed to be handled by people who looked like Edwardian-era surgeons. They stood back deferentially and let the people who looked like they knew better make them richer.

And they made a balls of it.

Indeed, many people who have reached Gay's standing and station in Irish life were compelled towards Michael Fingleton of the Irish Nationwide Building Society. A man for whom they couldn't make a cape dandy or large enough to accommodate his sense of self-esteem.

The great and the good (those guys again) flocked to Michael over the years seemingly oblivious to what was staring back at them: a short man with a lovingly groomed Col Sanders goatee wearing, as the mood would take him, a fat, double breasted pin-striped suit or a lemon-coloured blazer, a ruched cravat, an ascot, a garish tie, Italian loafers, tartan cummerbunds and chunky cuff links.

It cannot just be in hindsight that he seems to be a man deliriously in love with himself and perhaps not best equipped to run a building society? Why did anyone take him seriously or why didn't they take him seriously enough?

And by anyone, I do mean the media, financial watchdogs, government and whatnot.

Clues are hard to come by but, according to testimony by a former Irish Nationwide home loan supervisor (who worked at the society between 2000-2008) at an employment appeals tribunal last week, Fingleton gave people "in certain social circles", including, she claimed, members of the Government and the media "what they wanted".



CHEAP



And what they wanted, according to her testimony, was 100pc mortgages at favourable rates. Sub-prime for prime people.They may not have taken Fingers seriously but they may have taken his cheap money very seriously.

The employment tribunal was halted as Mr Fingleton was not present to defend himself. He was appearing in a court case overseas (said to be Croatia, so I'm guessing the lemon blazer with white linen pants).

On his return we shall perhaps hear more of this alleged 'circle', perhaps even hear some names and learn new lessons.

The epilogue to Gay's story is that, having started again from scratch after the guy in the cape, he methodically, for the next 25 years, placed the bulk of his earnings into bank shares.

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