Wednesday 21 February 2018

Public far from tickled pink

A rookie politician once respected as a straight-talking maverick, now viewed as a tax dodger with Dail future on the line

This week's revelation that he had knowingly under-declared VAT threatens to bring the Dail career of Mick Wallace to an abrupt end.

In the normally dull profession of politics, Mick Wallace sticks out. Not for him the navy or grey suits that are the standard-issue uniform preferred by most of our elected representatives.

Mr Wallace's personal style is a bit more colourful. A shaggy blond mane set off by a shocking pink open-necked shirt is his preferred mode of attire.

Indeed, Mr Wallace's sartorial taste, more California surfin' than buttoned down Leinster House, so exercised Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett that he unsuccessfully sought to change Dail rules to compel male members to wear a jacket and tie when in the chamber.

Happily, common sense prevailed and the people of Ireland can still enjoy the sight of Mr Wallace clad in his customary colourful plumage.

Even before first being elected to the Dail in the February 2011 General Election, Mr Wallace had carved out a reputation as something of a maverick.

Unlike most other Irish property developers, a generally taciturn bunch, Mr Wallace is a larger-than-life character who has been closely involved in the life of the local community in his native Wexford.

He is one of the founders and was briefly manager of League of Ireland side Wexford Youths and has coached the club's under-age teams for almost two decades.

The club's away strip is the same shade of shocking pink preferred by Mr Wallace. He is listed as the owner of 99pc of Wexford Youths' shares in the latest register of Dail members' interests.

After graduating from UCD Mr Wallace briefly pursued a career in teaching. However, he soon gravitated towards the construction sector. Education's loss was construction's gain.

In contrast to most of his competitors, whose modus operandi seemed to be to pile it high and sell it dear, Mr Wallace acquired a well-deserved reputation over more than two decades as the developer of tasteful, well-designed schemes.

Among the developments he has completed were the Italian Quarter on Ormond Quay, Behan Square off Croke Park and the redevelopment of the Communist Party of Ireland's headquarters on Essex Street.

The Italian Quarter was a nod to Mr Wallace's love of all things Italian -- Wexford Youths' home strip is modelled on that of his beloved Juventus.

Mr Wallace's Italophilia extends beyond soccer. He also imports his own wine from Italy, a fruity red number that is excellent value at under a tenner a bottle, and operates a number of Italian wine bars. If one were looking for an atypical Irish property developer, it would be hard to better Mr Wallace.

Even before he announced his intention of running for the Dail in February 2011, Mr Wallace was attracting considerable public attention. As is evidenced by his involvement in the Communist Party of Ireland development, his politics have always had a decidedly radical edge to them.

In 2002 he was ordered to take down a huge sign at the Ormond Quay site urging passers-by: "No to war. No to Nice [Treaty], no to American terrorism and people before profit".

Which is about as far from the Fianna Fail tent at the Galway races as one can get.

Mr Wallace also hoisted a giant sign at Ormond Quay urging a No vote in advance of last week's referendum on the Fiscal Stability Treaty.

However, regardless of his politics and the classy nature of his developments, not even Mr Wallace was immune when the debt-fuelled Irish property bubble finally burst in 2007. Remarkably he managed, at least in the short term, to turn the property crash to his advantage.

By February 2009, following the bank guarantee and the nationalisation of Anglo, it was clear to the dogs on the streets that the game was up for Ireland's property developers and the banks who had lent them more than €100bn.

No, no, no, we were assured. The banks weren't bust, merely suffering from short-term "liquidity" problems and, despite the apparently incontrovertible evidence of our own eyes, the property market was still actually quite buoyant.

Mr Wallace demolished this wall of denial, deceit and delusion when he appeared on RTE's 'Prime Time' programme and confirmed that he wasn't paying interest on his loans and neither were most of his competitors.

While Mr Wallace's admission merely confirmed what most people had long suspected, it cemented his reputation as a straight-talker.

His outspokenness ensured that while most property developers suddenly became personae non gratae with the public, Mr Wallace's popularity was, if anything, enhanced.

This meant that as Fianna Fail imploded following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and the November 2010 EU/IMF bailout, his name was increasingly mentioned as a possible Independent general election candidate.

While he may have been a political novice, Mr Wallace played a mean hand. After initially playing hard-to-get and refusing to confirm his intention of running for the Dail, he appeared on Vincent Browne's TV3 programme on February 5, 2011, less than three weeks before polling day to confirm that he would be a candidate in the election.

By leaving the declaration of his candidacy so late, Mr Wallace gave the established parties very little time to respond effectively. He romped home, topping the poll with over 13,000 votes and was elected on the first count.

His remarkable success also made him powerful enemies as his intervention almost certainly cost Fine Gael a third seat in the Wexford constituency with outgoing Fine Gael TD Michael Darcy losing his seat.

Like many a rookie politician before him, Mr Wallace has found the transition to public life difficult. He was barely a wet day in the Dail when he was forced to apologise to Fine Gael TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor when he was overheard describing her as "Miss Piggy".

As an Independent TD in a Dail where the Government has a huge majority, Mr Wallace is learning the hard way that backbenchers, regardless of their political affiliation, have very little real power. Why should the Government pay heed to the Independents when it can afford to ignore its own backbenchers?

Mr Wallace has found himself yoked to the "technical group" -- a collection of assorted left-wingers, right-wingers, eccentrics and chronic attention seekers. It has not been a happy experience for him.

Meanwhile, his previous career as a property developer is coming back to haunt him. In May 2011 ACCBank, to whom Mr Wallace owes €19m, appointed a receiver to a number of his properties, including the Italian Quarter and Behan Square. Then, in October, the bank secured a judgment against him in the Commercial Court.

In December 2011, he was fined €7,000 for not paying his workers' pension contributions and this week came the revelation that he had knowingly under-declared VAT of €1.4m due on apartment sales in 2008 and 2009.

The VAT under-declaration has inflicted serious, perhaps even terminal, damage on Mr Wallace's political reputation. Suddenly he is no longer the straight-talking man of the people but a tax dodger.

Will ACCBank, whom Mr Wallace has acknowledged could seek to have him declared bankrupt at any time -- something that would force him to resign his Dail seat -- now move in for the kill?

Irish Independent

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