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Wednesday, 5th August 2020
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Paul Tansey reviews ‘With A Tap On the Knee - Memoirs of a Reluctant Banker’ by Bob Ryan - MIS Books. E25.39; IR£20.00
As public relations manager, Bob Ryan was so valuable to AIB that he should have appeared on the the Group’s balance sheet as an asset.

Banking and public relations share many features in common, probably more than practitioners of either art would care to concede. Both businesses trade on their credibility. If they are not believed, they are out of business. Indeed, it is too often forgotten that the Latin root of the word ‘credit’ is credere - to believe.

As PR manager at AIB over the years 1970 to 1986, Bob Ryan accumulated a large store of credibility and AIB’s image and standing in the community profited mightily as a result.

Running the public relations function for a major bank is a hard station at the best of times.

For a start, retail banks are not the most popular of institutions with the general public and journalists tend not to be amongst their most credit-worthy or reliable customers. Add to this volatile and unstable solution, the natural antipathy that exists always and everywhere between journalists and public relations practitioners and the toughness of the PR task in banking becomes readily apparent.

Bob Ryan hurdled these barriers with elan. He was helped by the fact that, like London cabbies, he possessed ‘The Knowledge’. As a career banker - he started with the old Munster & Leinster Bank in 1949 - he knew the business from the bottom up. As a result, he could deal swiftly and deftly with the daily bread-and-butter banking queries that came his way.

But more than this, Bob Ryan was actually trusted by journalists, a rare accolade for any PR professional, never mind one working for a major banking group. He so clearly relished the company of the hacks and shared the natural inquisitiveness that is their common bond that, nocturnally at least, in the back snugs of Bowe’s or Doheny & Nesbitts, he metamorphosed into ‘One of Us’.

From a political perspective, the most important aspect of this often hilarious and always engaging memoir relates to Charles Haughey’s dealings with AIB. Haughey’s wealth, and the manner in which he had acquired it, had long been a major topic of conversation, not just in journalistic circles, but throughout the country.

However, not long after Mr Haughey became Taoiseach in 1979, rumours of a quite different kind began to circulate in Dublin. Far from being flush, Haughey was said to be short of cash and heavily overdrawn on his account at AIB.

The contrast with the public perception of CJH could not have been more striking. For Haughey appeared to be the epitome of the self-made man, the squire of a substantial estate at Abbeyville in North Dublin. Indeed, much of his political appeal rested on the view that, while Charlie might be a wily fellow, he might be able to do for the country what he had already done for himself.

In January 1982, Des Crowley - still, in my view, the country’s best investigative financial journalist - penned a story for the now-defunct Evening Press suggesting that reports of Mr Haughey’s wealth had been much exaggerated. The story said that, the previous year, Mr Haughey was in debt to AIB to the tune of IR£1 million.

Some days later, AIB took the highly unusual step of issuing a statement denying that Mr Haughey owed the bank large amounts of cash and describing Crowley’s Evening Press story as ‘outlandishly inaccurate’.

But who in AIB issued this highly misleading denial. As public relations manager of AIB, Bob Ryan had no hand in it. He writes:
‘I have no recollection of ever having seen this statement other than in the newspaper. It was not until 1999, at the Moriarty Tribunal, that I learned it was issued on AIB stationery with ‘Group Public Relations’ or possibly ‘Group Public Relations Office’ typed at the top. Most unusually, it was undated and unsigned.

Furthermore duplicates had been circulated to some of the bank’s senior managers at the time. This was the first time I had ever heard of an AIB press release emanating from anywhere other than the press and public relations office and releases were always dated with a contact name and telephone number at the end’.

The political repercussions of the AIB denial were both extensive and crucially important. At the time, there was a ‘heave’ against Mr Haughey within Fianna Fail. Had Des Crowley’s story not been denied by AIB, then Mr Haughey’s chances of political survival would have been much reduced. As Bob Ryan forthrightly states:-

‘The bank’s statement of denial may well have killed off further questions by other journalists and it probably helped to secure Haughey’s position’.

The jury still remains out on who within AIB issued the denial of the Haughey debt.

This book is as entertaining as is Bob Ryan himself. No higher recommendation could be issued. A must buy for the New Year.

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