‘Are "Public Interest Directors" a Good Idea?’ U of A Law Prof. Gail Henderson heads off to Ireland to find the answers

Katherine Thompson - 15 May 2014

This week, University of Alberta Faculty of Law Professor Gail Henderson departs for Dublin, Ireland to begin a month of research at the School of Law at the renowned Trinity College Dublin (TCD) as a Dobbin Scholar. Dobbin Scholarships are awarded annually by the Ireland Canada University Foundation (ICUF) to encourage academic and cultural links between Ireland and Canada. Professor Henderson’s research project is titled, ‘Are "Public Interest Directors" a Good Idea?’

After bailing out its banks in 2008, the Irish Government sought to protect the investment it had made on behalf of Irish citizens by, nominating "public interest directors" to the boards of directors of Ireland’s six main banks. The purpose was to ensure that the banks were run in the public interest. Most of the public interest directors appointed in 2008 have since stepped down. During her stay in Dublin, Professor Henderson will conduct interviews with some of these former public interest directors to gain insight into how they understood and sought to fulfill their role on the board. Professor Henderson plans to publish the anonymized results of these interviews in a law journal article.

Canada’s notoriously stable banking system might seem very far removed from the recent crisis in Ireland, but as Professor Henderson explains, there are still lessons we can learn. "As Finance Minister, the late Jim Flaherty had been warning Canada’s chartered banks against their current mortgage practices. To me, this demonstrated the tension between the banks’ structure as for-profit corporations and their crucial public role in the economy. Public interest directors might – emphasis on ‘might’ – represent a governance innovation that could help to keep Canada’s six chartered banks focused on long-term stability."

At TCD Professor Henderson will be working with Blanaid Clarke, the McCann FitzGerald Professor of Corporate Law and an expert in bank governance.