Fionnan Sheahan: Recession was one hurdle even Yates could not clear
Published 05/01/2011 | 05:00
WHEN Garret FitzGerald resigned as Fine Gael leader after the 1987 General Election, Ivan Yates wasn't yet a leadership contender -- but he could still spot Alan Dukes as the favourite.
"I won't be a runner myself, but I'll lead the winner around the parade ring," he told an observer.
Yates had just relinquished the title of youngest TD in the Dail, which he had held for the previous six years, since he was first elected to the Dail in June 1981 at the age of 21.
During the recession of the 1980s he started up his bookmaking business, beginning with a shop in Tramore, Co Waterford.
The next recession a quarter of a century later shut it down, leaving Yates with a series of financial hurdles to face.
A former TD, former Cabinet minister, outgoing bookmaker, broadcaster and pundit is used to achieving a lot at an early age.
Hailing from solid Church of Ireland farming stock just outside Enniscorthy in Co Wexford, he became a councillor at the age of 19.
Catapulted into the maelstrom of national politics, Yates was a natural and survived the heady days of the early 1980s.
At only 21 years and nine months, he was the fourth youngest ever member of the Dail.
He married Deirdre Boyd from Tinahely in Co Wicklow and the couple have four children.
After Dukes's departure in 1990, Yates ultimately became a key member of John Bruton's kitchen cabinet and a leading light in Fine Gael.
A love of horse racing and similar personalities made him close friends with Michael Lowry.
The 1992 leadership heave against Bruton was staved off by the political nous of Lowry, aided by Yates, Phil Hogan and Donal Carey.
Although his view of Bruton's ability to become Taoiseach was cooling by late 1994, when Fine Gael led the Rainbow Coalition, Yates' loyalty and skills were rewarded.
He became Agriculture Minister, promoted to the Cabinet by Bruton, along with the likes of Lowry and Enda Kenny.
The ministers became so immersed in the work of government that some Fine Gael TDs felt they had become distant.
"One day when Lowry and Yates came into the Dail restaurant together, some TDs thought there must be a crisis of some sort, because they would rarely be seen in the same dining room as the backbenchers," a former colleague said.
His period in Agriculture was widely regarded as a success at what was a difficult time for the farming sector. His term in office was marked by controversies over live animal exports, the tuberculosis eradication scheme, the rise in BSE cases and his handling of Russia's ban on Irish beef, with a contentious row over whether or not he met with officials at Dublin Airport.
"He would be well perceived by farmers and people in the food industry," a former Fine Gael colleague said.
Returning to the opposition benches, he continued to serve on the Fine Gael frontbench and became finance spokesman in 2001.
He backed Bruton in the leadership heaves against him but when the former Taoiseach was ultimately forced to resign, Yates's name was mooted as a possible successor.
But he had other ideas. He surprisingly announced he was quitting his Dail seat at the 2002 General Election to concentrate on the family bookmaking business. Yates masterminded the selection and election of his successor, Paul Kehoe, as TD for Wexford in a difficult campaign.
With Yates working full-time as the chairman and managing director of Celtic Bookmakers, the chain expanded to 64 shops across the country.
He also became involved with fellow bookmakers in taking a court case against the British Horseracing Board on information rights.
But the industry was changing with the growth of online betting and Celtic found it hard to keep pace with the big boys who were expanding rapidly, particularly on the internet.
In the mid-2000s, there was a series of rumours of a leading chain bidding to buy out Yates, but this never materialised.
The recession kicked in to put enormous pressure on the business and bring down €6m worth of debts on top of Yates.
His high public profile stems from his outgoing personality. He is great company and retains the politician's trait of always having a warm greeting and engaging conversation.
Since departing politics, he has developed a career as a pundit and broadcaster. His big break came when RTE's Sean O'Rourke brought him on as an expert analyst on 'The Week In Politics' before the 2007 General Election.
"He kept a sense of independence and sometimes the party didn't like what he had to say," a Fine Gael frontbench member said.
Fianna Fail strategists celebrated winning a modest sum from Celtic in that election. Developing a reputation as an astute and outspoken commentator, he subsequently went into broadcasting.
After stints filling in for George Hook on Newstalk, he became the co-presenter of the station's 'Breakfast Show' in 2009 and he also writes newspaper columns.
From the 1990s on, however, Yates has suffered from chronic back pain, caused by a disk pressing on a nerve.
He tried everything to heal it, but was always wary of surgery, due to the risks attached.
As he can't stay sitting for more than 30 minutes, he presents his radio show while standing up and often needs to lie down when being driven by his wife.
"He lies down on the floor during meetings. The meeting goes on with this voiceover coming from the corner from Ivan," a business associate said.
After packing so much into his career to date in business, politics and media, friends say Yates won't hide under a bushel. Like a jockey who comes off a horse at a hurdle, he'll get to his feet and into the next race.