Thursday 27 October 2016

When an Irishman's home is his hassle

Brian O'Donnell keeps doing the same thing and expecting a new outcome, writes Eilis O'Hanlon. What would Einstein say?

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 10/05/2015 | 02:30

Brian O'Donnell and Richie Boucher
Brian O'Donnell and Richie Boucher
Brian O'Donnell and his wife Mary Pat
An exterior view

If you owe the bank thousands, it's your problem. If you owe the bank millions, it's their problem. So goes the old cliche, first attributed to John Paul Getty. Unfortunately for those who do owe the banks large sums of money, that may have been true once, but it certainly isn't any more. Brian O'Donnell, former resident of Gorse Hill, is proof of that.

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O'Donnell and his wife, Mary Pat, owe Bank of Ireland around €60m but, ultimately, the bank has ensured that this is very much Mr and Mrs O'Donnell's problem. The saga has transfixed the country for months. The protracted legal battles. The dramatic stand-off in Killiney. The media scrum. The final dramatic moment when O'Donnell walked into the recent Bank of Ireland AGM and handed ceo Richie Boucher back "The Bloody Keys" in front of the cameras.

On last Tuesday's Today With Pat Kenny, O'Donnell had the chance to put his side of the story; and it was possible, just possible, to feel a certain sympathy for the man as he ran through the sequence of events. He's not the only high-flyer to come crashing down to Earth, but many of those other investors, entrepreneurs and developers had their debts written off. There was a good case for doing so too.

As Bill Cullen said, right at the start of the recession, if there is ever going to be a recovery then the country needs to allow people who made mistakes to start over, because that's what creates jobs and wealth. That is the pragmatic approach to business.

O'Donnell's only mistake, his dwindling band of supporters say, was to try at each turn to pay back every cent he owes. He was unable to do so in the punitive time frame demanded, and the banks came for his family's assets.

That's why Jerry Beades of the New Land League got involved in the story. Rightly or wrongly, he saw it as a matter of principle. He was mocked in the media, and filleted for fun by Vincent Browne on national TV, but still he stuck at it. There is a certain doomed romance about his championing of the case.

And yet… and yet… what, ultimately, are they all fighting for? How was this messy dispute ever going to turn out well? For most of us, having a mortgage we can't afford is worrying enough. When you're in hock as heavily as the O'Donnells, does the worry become greater or lesser?

O'Donnell had a chance to explain what was going through his head on Newstalk, and anyone listening with an open mind would have to concede that he does have some cause for grievance, even if he is not quite the innocent victim he makes himself out to be. His account of being served with 18 letters demanding the whole €60m back within 24 hours would have been bad enough in any circumstances. That it was Christmas Eve when the letters arrived made it worse.

By Christmas Day, a receiver had already been appointed to recover the money.

His version of events is that Bank of Ireland "set fire to our business", and that Richie Boucher's refusal to enter into any negotiations scared off other institutions, who then started calling in their loans too, despite the fact that the O'Donnells retained a performing portfolio of commercial properties, on long leases with reliable clients including the Swedish and UK governments, which was more than sufficient to cover the loans. To be fair, it sounded like a credible account, not least his description of the "extraordinary pressure" and "unrelenting aggravation" put upon them as a family. Bank of Ireland is no Robin Hood.

O'Donnell's contention is that his family will win this battle when they take it to the European Court of Human Rights, and they may do so.

But still that nugget of doubt remains. This case has been dragging through the courts for years, and, at each throw of the dice, Brian O'Donnell has lost. Out of 82 court actions related to this dispute, he's lost all 82 of them. He finds that "statistically improbable", but there are only two solutions.

One is that there is an extraordinarily vast conspiracy to Get Brian. The other is that he has nowhere near as strong a case as he thinks, and he keeps losing because he's in the wrong. For the layperson, it's hard to make any judgement, since the legal aspects of the case are entangled like barbed wire; but Einstein surely wasn't far off the mark when he said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

The conspiracy would presumably have to extend to the UK too, where O'Donnell lost a bankruptcy hearing in 2013, with the judge declaring that he was not "a frank, or even a wholly truthful witness". The transfer of one performing asset in the portfolio to his son doesn't look good either.

Then there's that house. O'Donnell's position on Gorse Hill is clear, which is that it is owned by Vico Ltd, a company based in the Isle of Man. "My wife and I do not own the asset and never have." This, however, is a company which has only four shareholders. Namely his children. It's a company which has two directors. Namely two of his children. It's a company which put Gorse Hill into a trust with four beneficiaries. His children again. And it's a company which granted Brian and Mary Pat, their parents, a "right of residence" since 2000.

It may technically be true that this is not his home, and that Bank of Ireland have no right to it, and he may one day get those "Bloody Keys" back. But both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court have now rejected the O'Donnell's right to appeal the original trespass order made against them in the High Court At best, the O'Donnell's defence of this arrangement looks much too cute to provoke sympathy, but when the rich talk in ways that turn ordinary language on its head, we can be forgiven for wishing a plague on all their expensive houses.

In Brian O'Donnell, there's a trace of Peter Finch in Network, declaring: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more."

It's almost magnificent - but only almost. When those who never had much to begin with have lost it all, it's galling to see the emperors of the Celtic Tiger bellyaching as if they are the ultimate victims. It's like someone with a stubbed toe expecting sympathy from another in a wheelchair.

Sunday Independent

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