Guess who's having a good recession?

The onset of recession has offered an opportunity to the powerful and the wealthy to seek to drive a wedge between those ordinary folk in Ireland who draw an income from the public purse and those who do not. The self-serving hostility towards the public sector that exists within corporate circles invariably reveals itself in the advocacy of a certain, predictable version of shock therapy. If those who are employed by the state were to be subjected to the same pressures and standards that prevail in the private sector, the argument goes, they would be whipped into line double quick. The prospect of salaries being dependent on performance would raise standards and increase 'productivity', while the spectre of unemployment would serve to concentrate the minds of even the most feckless public employees. Incredible though it may seem, however, failure, at least in the upper echelons of private industry, is no barrier to success. Colin Coulter casts an eye over the career of Donal O'Connor.

While the dapper visionaries who stalk boardrooms across Ireland are wont to make onerous demands of those who draw modest salaries, they tend to reserve rather less demanding standards for themselves. When record profits are recorded, the heads of corporations here are of course only too keen to take the credit in the guise of exorbitant salaries and bonuses. In rather leaner times, however, the captains of Irish industry typically prove a tad reticent when it comes to accepting the blame. Even those senior executives who oversee the decimation of the businesses they are charged with running can expect to avoid the indignity of unemployment. On the relatively rare occasions when incompetence leads to corporate players losing their positions, the pill is usually sweetened by golden handshakes and generous pensions. And there is always the comforting prospect of a cosy sinecure materialising courtesy of some decent chap with whom one once went to school or enjoyed a round of golf or shared a series of non-executive directorships. While the rich and the powerful advocate cold showers all round for the rest of us, they evidently have replenishing spa retreats planned for themselves.

Among the many tales that highlight the double standards with which the corporate elite regard and seek to arrange the world is that of a certain Donal O'Connor. While O'Connor has managed to avoid the kind of public notoriety enjoyed by some of his peers, he remains nonetheless a significant player in some of the dramas that heralded the present crisis. In the end days of the Celtic Tiger, the former accountant assumed an influential position in a body that more than most encapsulates the corporate excess of the boom years. From April of 2007 until the end of the following year, O'Connor served as chair of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. In this post, he signed off on a number of building projects that entailed the acquisition of enormous loans. 'Serious issues' around established planning procedures during his chairmanship were subsequently raised. This appetite for reckless development in the interests of a small network of incestuous corporations inevitably drew O'Connor to the attention of another member of the DDDA board. Sean Fitzpatrick was sufficiently impressed that in the summer of 2008 he added O'Connor to the list of non-executive directors at Anglo Irish Bank. When the banker left under a cloud some six months later, it was O'Connor who replaced him as Anglo Irish chairman.

While his period at the helm of the bank was brief, it was certainly eventful. The fifteen months in which O'Connor acted as Chair saw the enormous toxic debts created by the institution cease to be a private concern and become instead the responsibility of ordinary Irish people. On his watch, Anglo began the process of gorging on billions of euros of taxpayers' money, while writing off the debts of some directors.. It comes as little surprise then that Sean Fitzpatrick should have considered O'Connor to be such a worthy successor.

Donal O'Connor might be considered, therefore, as a significant player in some of the bodies and moments that signaled and produced the demise of Celtic Tiger Ireland. During his stint as chair of the DDDA, the accountancy graduate gave his blessing to some of the most ruinously reckless property speculation of the boom years. And in his next position, O'Connor stewarded a bank that more than any other has come to be seen as author and emblem of Ireland's fall from grace. This recurrent close association with the reckless might reasonably be assumed to be an impediment to future employment prospects. But those commonsense rules only apply to the little people. In the Olympian realm of Ireland's corporate elite, being really, really bad at your job is rarely regarded as a sacking offence. Indeed, it would seem that proximity to incompetence and illegality are considered compelling grounds for promotion. Or, at the very least, a nice little sideways move into a gentle sinecure in which to see out those golden years. And this is more or less what appears to have happened to Donal O'Connor.

In the property supplement of the Irish Times dated January 27th 2011, there is a short but supportive feature disclosing that O'Connor has been appointed as head of the 'leadership team' of the large estate agents Sherry FitzGerald. While the position is only part time, it is a fairly safe bet that it comes with a salary greater than that of most full time staff working for the same company. The selection of O'Connor for a senior position within Sherry FitzGerald is, from a certain perspective at least, darkly ironic. O'Connor and his fellow travelers were among many actors who engaged in activities that for a time grotesquely inflated the property bubble in Ireland. As one of the largest estate agents in the state, the company that the Irish Times' property supplement likes to breezily call 'Sherry Fitz' would have been major beneficiaries of this. It might be argued though that the kinds of reckless speculation nurtured by O'Connor and his ilk made the subsequent housing crash entirely inevitable. In addition, the billions of euro that disappeared into the insatiable maw of Anglo Irish Bank on O'Connor's watch amplified a recession that has made a recovery in the property market impossible. In this sense, it might be said that people like Donal O'Connor were instrumental in destroying an industry that had for a time rewarded firms like Sherry FitzGerald very well indeed. The former accountant has been offered employment in a property company that has, presumably, had to let dozens of people go because of a housing slump that he had a hand in creating.

You might expect the national paper of record to notice such a glaring irony. But the Irish Times has, of course, too many vested interests in the property business to even consider mentioning something so indelicate. Instead, the paper offers the view that the appointment of O'Connor marks the arrival of a 'safe pair of hands' in the corridors of Sherry FitzGerald. I hope you were all sitting down for that one. It makes you wonder what other eventualities the Irish Times might also regard as the acquisition of a 'safe pair of hands'. Harold Shipman becoming chief executive of the General Medical Council? Or Shane MacGowan heading up the Dental Council of Ireland perhaps? Or maybe Richard Keys and Andy Gray assuming executive positions in the association that represents female football referees? Please send your suggestions to the usual address.

[Image via Informatique on Flickr]