Dearbhail McDonald: The sorry parable of Ireland's incredible Celtic Tiger madness
Published 22/11/2013 | 21:30
There are many people who could qualify for the lead role in the Parable of the Celtic Tiger – I wrote an entire book full of contenders. But in years to come, the movie grade tale of the rise and fall of former solicitor Thomas Byrne will surely cast one of the most illuminating lights on the boom-to-bust cycle that engulfed Ireland.
I first heard Thomas Byrne's name on Saturday, October 13, 2007 – the morning that the Irish Independent broke a story about an as-yet-unnamed solicitor who specialised in property law and who had engaged in an alleged €30m mortgage fraud involving four banks.
I got a call about a solicitor in trouble and Byrne's name was mentioned. The caller was wrong about the name: the story was in fact about another notorious solicitor.
But the caller's instinct was right.
Within days, a sensational wave of debt-related claims washed up in the courts.
When a series of so-called "rogue solicitor" actions hit the Commercial Court – the big business division of the High Court – banks rushed to secure multi-million euro judgments amid claims that they had been defrauded by high-flying lawyers.
Curiously, few rushed to the Garda Fraud Bureau asserting their victim status.
When news that Thomas Byrne's practice was shut down in October 2007, there were immediate fears about his personal safety and rumours that he fled the country.
During dramatic evidence throughout his recent trial, Byrne confirmed that he had indeed fled Ireland after an incident in the cold store of a Centra shop where he feared he would be killed. Instead, Byrne – who broke down several times during his landmark trial – was given a hug and €10,000. He returned to Dublin after his solicitor, Dave Christie, told him to come home and face the music.
Byrne, who was struck off the solicitor's role in 2008, received some credit for coming home to face the music. But he faced the music in a most extraordinary way.
The prosecution portrayed him as an out-and-out gambler who didn't throw in the towel when the stakes went higher and a liar who betrayed his closest friends and trusted clients.
For his part, the separated father of three portrayed himself as a reluctant property magnate forced under duress to defraud banks to satisfy the voracious financial appetite of developer John Kelly, his former business partner.
Byrne cuts a strange figure. Impeccably polite, he seemed genuinely pained when 11 former clients, some of them close friends, denied his bizarre claims that they had either sold their properties to him or agreed the houses could be transferred into his name so he could borrow vast sums of money.
Even more incredibly he insisted that those same friends had lied in order to get compensation from the Law Society, the ruling body for solicitors.
The trial was repeatedly told that the banks were not on trial, but in some sense they were.
For all the complexities surrounding the flawed character of Thomas Byrne, his crimes were quite simple.
And his sentence will be closely watched to see how this sorry parable truly ends.
Dearbhail McDonald is Legal Editor and the author of Bust: How the Courts Exposed the Rotten Heart of the Irish Economy (Penguin 2010).