Monday 24 October 2016

Chameleon Yates will come back in another guise

As he looks back at the many lives of media star Ivan Yates so far, Liam Collins has no doubt the gambling man will return from his sabbatical

Published 10/04/2016 | 02:30

Ivan Yates. Photo: Frank McGrath
Ivan Yates. Photo: Frank McGrath

He's 56 years of age and we haven't heard the last of him, but in what guise he returns to public life remains to be seen.

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Wealthy young farmer, TD at 21, government minister, millionaire businessman, bankrupt, media star - and that's just a flavour of the many lives of gambling man Ivan Yates.

The statement was terse, he and his wife Deirdre were "taking a sabbatical" from next July, she from her job as a primary school teacher, he from a busy media career as host of Newstalk's Breakfast Show, a weekly column in the Irish Independent and as a much sought-after dinner speaker.

Tall and well-built, confident, knowledgeable and likeable, Ivan Yates appears to enjoy the roller-coaster life he's led so far. He doesn't take life too seriously, most of the time, and if he has a passion it is horse-racing and gambling. He suffers from a bad back and he's useless at technology, relying on his wife Deirdre to ensure that his columns arrive intact.

Their statement denied that this latest move was as a result of Allied Irish Banks enforcing a €1.6m personal guarantee against Deirdre Yates.

Ivan is not fond of bankers.

In his autobiography, he used the acronym 'Arrogant Inhuman Bastards' to describe Allied Irish Banks.

"They've destroyed my life," he told Pat Kenny in a Newstalk interview.

"Well, you destroyed your life," replied the presenter.

"Sorry, I take responsibility for it, but, it was their choice to force me into bankruptcy. I feel personally inside this suit a deep sense of shame, you know what I've dragged my 81-year-old mother through, what I've dragged my wife and family through. I mean, bankruptcy is an indelible stain and stigma on my CV."

If I have an interest to declare it is that I was his editor in the Opinion section of the Irish Independent up to about a year ago. While I've followed his career since entering the Dail in 1981, we've only ever talked face to face a handful of times.

Ivan Yates was born in 1959 into a prosperous Co Wexford farming family. The 160-acre farm was let and his father was a prominent wool dealer in the south east and later acquired a number of businesses in Enniscorthy. There was an air of privilege about his upbringing that did not become apparent to the young Yates until he decided to go into politics.

Educated at St Columba's college in Rathfarnham, Dublin, he discovered a talent for debating and public speaking that he practised on the students in his dormitory, including the kid in the adjoining bed, Adam Clayton, later a member of U2.

From school he went to Gurteen Agricultural College in Co Tipperary. "The relaxed attitude was a fantastic release from the strictness I'd been used to," he wrote in his best-selling autobiography Full On. "I had a ball. Before Gurteen I hadn't done much drinking, never smoked and was a virgin. All that was to change. I lost my virginity in the girls' dormitory, despite the distraction that there was no lock on the door."

Back in Wexford, he began a long and not always successful courtship of Deirdre Boyd from Tinahealy, Co Wicklow, who he met on the Protestant social circuit.

Although there was no history of public service in the family, Yates was inspired as a teenager by Garret FitzGerald. He was first elected to Enniscorthy town council and, much to his surprise, got a nomination, and was successfully elected to the Dail for Fine Gael. He would later concede that he was "bossy, belligerent and unreasonable" to his constituency workers, but he was given the honour of seconding the nomination of Garret FitzGerald for Taoiseach.

The Fine Gael 'Class of 81' included Richard Bruton, George Birmingham, Madeleine Taylor-Quinn, Alan Shatter - and Alan Dukes, whose successful campaign for leadership of Fine Gael Yates spear-headed after the sudden resignation of FitzGerald in 1987.

Although he held his seat in subsequent elections, he languished on the backbenches and his forthright manner didn't always endear him to the party leadership. His closest pal was 'Big Phil' Hogan, as both of them were pragmatic and audacious with a love of racing. At the age of 30 he considered running against John Bruton for the leadership of Fine Gael but pulled out when Hogan told him there was "a fair amount of consumer resistance" to this ambition.

It was 1993 before he was appointed spokesman for finance; the following year he became minister for agriculture in John Bruton's 'Rainbow government.'

The toppling of Bruton as leader in 2000 was the catalyst for his next move, getting out of politics altogether. "I learned so much from my time in politics. I honed the skills of flattery, charm, persuasion, fake sincerity, even manipulation," he wrote in Full On.

As someone who had been watching horse racing since the age of 10, the notion of becoming a bookmaker was not that strange. "I knew that, whatever I did as an adult, horse racing and gambling would be a huge part of my life. My passion was for the magical mystery of horse and jockey galloping towards the finish. Elation or despair made life stimulating," he would write.

Yet he never realised just how stimulating it would get in the years that followed, or indeed how close to despair it would bring him.

He set up Celtic Bookmakers with a shop in Tramore, Co Waterford, and a €5,000 loan from his mother. The company would become an empire of 35 betting shops by 2007, turnover edging close to €200m and banking facilities from AIB.

But there was a price to pay.

"Our children's most vivid memories related to external financial or other pressures we were under at various times. Their memory of my dismissive refrain 'I'm busy' when they asked me to play with them reflects my own regret that I always gave priority to my job over recreation," he wrote.

"Our marriage nearly hit the rocks in the spring of 2006 when I had proven to be immature, selfish and reckless. The details are for Deirdre and me, nobody else, ever," he says in Full On about a time that taught him "the harshest lesson of my life".

On paper, Ivan Yates was a multi-millionaire. His farm was valued at €26m as development land at the height of the property boom, and Celtic Bookmakers was making €80,000 a week profits.

But he had bought instead of rented premises and in 2008 they borrowed €4.4m to buy nine further shops.

As it happened, he was shortly caught in the perfect business storm - an attempt at online gambling failed, the recession sent turnover into a tail spin, profits turned to losses, and the property portfolio became a drain instead of an asset.

"I was beginning to see the downturn in the economy and a downturn in our business, so I was not going to brush away any possibility of earning a bit of extra money," he said, referring to the accidental career as a media star and after-dinner speaker. His opinions were stimulating, well-researched and original, and he just didn't do boredom.

"What neither listeners nor readers nor audiences in hotel ballrooms knew was that I was living, if not a lie, then a serious contradiction. On the one hand, I was popular, well paid and successful in a new career that had presented itself to me," he said, "on the other Celtic Bookmakers was moving into serious financial trouble. As one aspect of my life took off and soared, another was heading for a catastrophic crash."

And the big bet didn't come off either. On October 8, 2008, he was negotiating with the firm of William Hill in London to sell his business for €13m, but the following Tuesday his friend, the then minister for finance Brian Lenihan Jnr, doubled the betting tax to 2pc and the prospect of a sale collapsed. Early the following year, the company went into liquidation.

After what he called this "corporate death" came the consequences of a personal guarantee he and his wife signed in November 2010 as part of the bank's renewal of Celtic Bookmaker loans. Deirdre Yates, a director of the business, would later tell the High Court that she did not realise that guarantee would give AIB the right to pursue her for the family home at Blackstoops, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford.

In February of this year, Mr Justice Seamus Noonan ruled she had "no defence" in the case and granted judgment against her for €1,648,147.

Ivan and Deirdre Yates have announced that they are both taking a sabbatical when the school holidays start in July. But there is little doubt that chameleon-like Ivan will turn up again in some guise or another.

He has already been through what he described to Pat Kenny as 16 months of self-inflicted "desolation and isolation" during his bankruptcy in Swansea, Wales.

This time he'll have the consolation of Deirdre by his side.

Sunday Independent

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