38 July-August 2024
in the room
Ireland is useless at regulation
By Cillian Doyle
arlier this year Ed Honohan —
former Master of the High Court
— appeared before the Oireachtas
Finance Committee and used a
wonderful term I’d not heard
before. He described a situation where the
oversight of some industry, sector, or other,
is provided by a ‘RINO’ – regulator in name
This term nicely captured something which
the Irish state has often excelled at. Let’s
think of it as a kind of regulatory window-
dressing. The process goes something like
this. A regulatory body is established. It’s
given a serious sounding name with a
snappy acronym to accompany it. A well-paid
position is established for the person whos
to head it.
This person, of course, will have to meet a
key selection criterion - being a “safe pair of
hands”. Someone whose been around the
block. You know, gone to the functions,
attended the junkets, served on the usual
state boards, etc. This person is unlikely to
be the adversarial sort. They must be a
watchdog who sees the world through the
eyes of those they regulate, a sleepdog.
Then when something goes wrong, as it
invariably will, this person can be hauled
before the relevant Oireachtas Committee to
be berated by its members for a perceived
failure to act. For being all carrot and no
stick, so to speak. In response they will
explain how their body didn’t have sucient
powers to act, even though they probably
failed to exercise the powers they did have.
“Lessons learned” as they say. Then the
game starts over.
Now in ocial circles this is hardly how its
portrayed. No, nice sounding phrases like
“light touch” regulation are used. Sometimes
A regulatory body is established, given
a serious acronym; and a well-paid
non-adversarial head who is a “safe
pair of hands
it’s referred to as a principles-based (as
opposed to rules-based) approach to
regulation. Because you’ve got to have
principles. Or on occasion even a
“competitive” approach to regulation. I
mean who doesn’t love competition?
“Business friendliness” is a core tenet of the
state’s industrial policy. And there’s no
doubt its resulted in Ireland consistently
ranking highly in global indexes like the Ease
of doing Business index and the World
Economic Freedom index.
Of course, we all know the risks that this
entails. Our banking crisis was one of the
worst in the world. We also had the mooncalf,
Patrick Neary, who led our now defunct
Financial Service Regulatory Authority, the
worst financial regulator in the history of
financial regulation.
Public servants
It’s not just in industry we see this hands-o
approach. The same goes for the regulation
of ethical behaviour and standards of probity
for our public servants. Our political ethics
watchdog (SIPO) is about as threatening as
a nice librarian, and is at best an afterthought
for most elected ocials.
Remarkably, in the year 2024, its still
seriously lacking in powers (not SIPO’s fault).
But its also often reluctant to use the powers
it does have. Or, as was recently observed in
a High Court case take by the Ditch Media,
failed to even understand its own powers
(definitely its fault).
Competition and Consumer Protection
But now we’ll focus in on another one of our
key regulators — the Competition and
Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC).
The CCPC is the statutory body responsible
for promoting compliance with, and
enforcing, competition and consumer
protection law. Certainly, not a small job. The
CCPC, and its previous incarnation the
Competition Authority, have not been
strangers to criticism.
In the past it’s been accused by groups
within the agriculture sector particularly
those working in the beef industry who’ve
long claimed that unfair trading practices
Ed Honohn
July-August 2024 39
In April it was reported that the Irish
Independent group (Mediahuis) was trying buy
the Journal.ie to bolster its presence in online
news. After its torpid response to AIB and Bank
of Irelands adventures, I wondered if the CCPC
was going to act based on its rules on mergers/
acquisitions and the need to avoid market
concentration. Its now been confirmed that
the Journal.ie won’t be taking Mediahuis up on
their oer, which is good news for anyone who
believes a diverse media ecosystem is needed
for a democratic society and fears the growing
concentration of the media market.
Nevertheless, we can look at what the market
would have looked like had it gone ahead. This
merger would have been more than three times
the CCPC’s threshold for concern.
Would the CCPC have acted if the Journal had
accepted the oer? We’ll never know, but if the
mergers in the banking sector are anything to
go by, it probably would have taken the case-
by-case approach and thought…well the Irish
Times already has the Examiner.ie and
Breaking News.ie, so why not?
Cillian Doyle is a political economist and
policy advisor to Sinn Féin. The views
expressed are his own.
were rife, of lacking “sufficient
independence. In 2019 a request from the
Irish Farmers Association to investigate the
alleged collusion that was claimed to be
occurring in the beef-processing sector,
which led to protests outside its Dublin HQ.
The CCPC would eventually investigate
allegations of anti-competitive behaviour
following complaints by the IFA, the Beef
Plan Movement and Independent Farmers of
Ireland. In 2020 it concluded that there was
“insucient evidence” to support these
There’s long been criticism of its hands-o
approach to the insurance industry. In 2016
it launched an investigation but after two
years no final report or enforcement actions
had emerged, leading to strong criticism
from the Consumers Association of Ireland.
When it finally published its report in 2019
it yielded no results.
This spurred the European Commission
into action as it launched its own
investigation. The Commission appeared to
take a rather dim view of the CCPCs work,
having previously noted in a 2017 report
that, over a ten-year period (2004-13), it
issued only one penalty decision. With a
rather withering remark, the report stated
that this meant “there is virtually no
enforcement of the EU competition rules”.
The Director of the CCPC Colm Kincaid said
in June that the “clock is ticking” for the Irish
banking and payments sector to “raise their
game on basic customer service” and he
has questioned why the Central Bank has to
get involved before senior management
even engage with complaints. The problem
is that this is a question he should himself
be well equipped to answer.
The CCPC seemed to ignore its rules on the
need to avoid market concentration last
year when it approved Bank of Ireland and
AIB’s purchase of the respective mortgage
books of KBC Bank and Ulster Bank in 2023.
Market concentration, according to the
CPCC rules, is measured using the
Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (“HHI). The
HHI is calculated by squaring the market
share of each firm competing in a market
and then adding up the resulting numbers.
A score of 2,000 or above is considered a
highly concentrated market.
From a mergers and acquisitions (M&A)
perspective, in a highly concentrated
market, a post-merger “increase of less
than 150 is unlikely to cause concern”.
However, as we can see from Table 1, the
core five firms that were involved in the
mortgage market have reduced to just
three, meaning the HHI index jumped from
2,160 to 3,859.
The CCPC gave approval to both of these
M&As. Considering that former head of the
ECB, Mario Draghi, called the Irish banking
sector a “quasi monopoly” back in 2018,
what would he call it in 2024, when two
firms control 85% of the mortgage market?
To be fair to the CCPC it does state that
while “quantitative measures” are used
when analysing the potential eect on
competition, “Each proposed merger needs
to be assessed on its merits and in its own
particular circumstances”. Indeed.
Bank Market share
(Pre M&A)
Market share
(Post M&A)
AIB 31% 45%
Bank of Ireland 25% 40%
PTSB 15% 15%
Ulster 14% N/A
KBC 12% N/A
Others 3% 3%
HHI 2,160 3,859
Table 1: Irish mortgage market (HHI) pre/post M&A
Online media provider Market share Hypothetical
RTE News Online 24% 24%
Irish Times.ie/Examiner.ie/
Breaking News.ie
26% 26%
Journal.ie 16% N/A
Independent.ie 15% 31%
Mirror.ie 5% 5%
Others 14% 14%
HHI 1,954 2,434
Table 2. Irish online media market (HHI)
In business, standards
in public office,
consumer protection
(agriculture, insurance,
banking, media),
among others, the
regulators are typically
hands-off insiders
SIPO nd he Finncil Regulor: hnds-off


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