MARGARET Thatcher once said that a politician's most important instinct is the ability to walk into a room and detect the mood.
It's perhaps a measure of the length of time that Ivan Yates has been out of politics that he so spectacularly failed to predict the venom tingling down the wires into Pat Kenny's radio studio last week.
From his vantage point through the bottom of a glass on the Welsh coast it must have looked to him like he might be the most popular arrival back from there since St Patrick.
We missed Ivan and his gentle putdowns of Newstalk co-host Chris Donoghue. Over the last few months the former minister's name had even been bandied about as a possible heir (albeit one with an outside chance) to Kenny's radio throne at RTE – a sign, perhaps, that the affection in which he was generally held was probably bubbling away on the low heat.
So what better forum than an interview with Kenny himself to get the seal of approval on Ivan Yates' status as one of the returning soldier-martyrs of the bust.
All week the former TD had been charting the Stations of the Cross. He'd turned to drink, he confided to The Herald. He told the Irish Independent his "exile" made him so lonely at times that he felt like dying. He placed himself amongst the "15,000 entrepreneurs, the 150,000 mortgage holders in arrears".
To hear Ivan tell it he'd been fighting for himself, his family and for all of our sakes. And now, with a few soul-searching comments, he would be resurrected and ascend back into Heaven. When he encountered hostility in the form of an irate public reaction to his interviews it rattled him.
Friends of Yates told the Sunday Independent last week that ''he was shook by the response, it was a sobering experience. He is a broadcaster and trades on people liking him, not ringing in to give out about a year off in Swansea''. One source added that ''he was visibly taken aback by the response, it was a sharp learning curve''.
What Yates did not see was that the victim and villain roles of the whole debt crisis are in a constant state of flux.
Basically there are a number of villains, depending on which day you get us on, but it's certainly never as simple as 'anyone who has had to deal with the banks is automatically taking one for the team'.
Everyone, including the banks themselves, have tried to extricate themselves from the debt mess with (sometimes perfectly laudable) cynicism. While Pearse Doherty huffed and puffed at AIB CEO David Duffy at last Monday's session of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on financial reform, the headlines the next day were all about the strategic defaulters.
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There is now no discernable link, Duffy pointed out, between unemployment and non-payment of mortgage arrears. The vast majority continue to reluctantly pay on time and keep the great wheel turning and they're finely attuned to the perceived unfairness of anyone who seems to be able to do things differently. Which of the debt set doesn't harbour fantasies of going away for a year and coming back with a fresh start?
Yates, of course, thinks he got the wrong sort of preferential treatment – he claims AIB tried to make an example of him and a source confirmed that, ''he is not free and clear of his debts, his income will be garnished for a further two years".
But many aspects of his case, including declaring bankruptcy in the UK rather than here, sounded as coolly strategic as you would expect. Amid all the florid quotes bout his emotional distress last week Yates himself described the bankruptcy as the actions "of a reasonable man".
Duffy, in his comments before the Oireachtas committee, said that some people seem to have lost sight of the fact that you normally have to pay something to live in a home. It was as though he were explaining to a class of small children the basics of duty and loan repayment. Yates knew well that taking a gamble on gambling – expanding his Celtic Bookmakers business – had the potential to make him even more fabulously wealthy but carried some risk as well.
He also knew that when things went belly up he had the safety net of a nearly €4,000-a-month ministerial pension, which enabled him to relocate and live his life in Wales while waiting out the "purgatory" of the bankruptcy process. He didn't even have to work during this time.
When asked about the irony of taking a fat pension from the State when he owed a State bank a fat €3.69m he sounded remarkably clear-eyed about who is owed what: "The terms and conditions of employment meant that I was entitled to this money," he said. "There was nothing deceitful or underhand about it. I did work for 20 years, the best years of my life, in politics, and I earned it in my view."
What he did not earn was much sympathy and Yates assured anyone who would listen that he wasn't looking for any. It sounded craftily disingenuous, as did his assurance that he would keep all interviews about his year away to a neat 48-hour period.
Friends of Yates have told this newspaper that he was also concerned that ''if he continues to ham it up he will be targeted, when it comes to bankruptcy and debt – if people want to they can really f**k with you''.
Yet his 'fresh start' will involve some score settling – 170,000 words of an autobiography, 'Ivan-woe' perhaps, which will apparently go into even greater detail about his financial travails.