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Brothers with altitude

Aviation tycoons Ulick and Desmond McEvaddy have accumulated great wealth over the past 15 years without attracting much publicity ... that is until the holiday villa story broke last weekend. Sam Smyth profiles the McEvaddy brothers

On Sunday the McEvaddys joined the Brutons and the Mitchells in that exclusive fraternity of famous Fine Gael brothers. And the recent publicity in Ireland about their aviation business has given the McEvaddys the sort of celebrity the Wright brothers enjoyed in the US a century ago.

They are very, very close: yet one is said to be a party animal, the other obsessed by Fine Gael and politics. Des, the younger brother at 45, has sometimes been described as a playboy and Ulick, older by a year, a student of national and international affairs.

Like so many shorthand descriptions, the glib summary falls far short of the whole truth. As far as business goes, they are intellectual twins working on a commercial, sibling telepathy.

They speak on the phone to each other from whatever part of the world they are in, often several times a day. Conference calls are a speciality, where they join up with others in different countries to talk and share knowledge on the phone.

One business associate said yesterday, when you speak to one McEvaddy, you can be sure he is talking for his brother. They have equal responsibility and share everything, particularly information.

They spend their lives travelling, from Japan through Asia to California, then to Texas, Arizona and Washington; one or the other may be off on another tour of Africa, maybe he'll move on to Australia and then come back back through the Pacific islands or South America. It has made them very, very rich but one of their most valuable assets is an apparent immunity to jet-lag: They never, ever appear to be weary from travel.

Whenever they are re speaking to a McEvaddy, friends never know if they have just come from their home in Dublin or returned from a transcontinental journey. The McEvaddys always are immaculately turned out, fresh faced and bright-eyed.

When the Dáil is sitting, Wednesday nights are when the real party political animals gather in the Visitor's Bar to meet the players. And Ulick (46) is a regular, often calling in to see his friend of some 20 years, Jim Mitchell, now the chairman of the powerful Finance Committee.

Jim Mitchell and his family were guests last year at the same villa in the south of France where Mary Harney and Charlie McCreevy stayed recently. However Ulick and Mary McEvaddy have stayed in the house rented by Jim Mitchell in Schull, County Cork on a number of occasions.

Ulick is a get down and get with it Fine Gaeler, a party foot-soldier and supporter who will always make himself available at elections to fund-raise, lick envelopes or do whatever is required. He loves it. He is also very friendly with Nora Owen, the deputy leader and has held fund-raisers for her, too, in his beautiful home, Auburn House, set in 24 acres in Malahide, County Dublin.

However, Ulick McEvaddy doesn't confine his interest in politics to Fine Gael. On a Wednesday evening, if she is around, he will have a drink with Mary Harney. And he has always had time for Charlie McCreevy who has always believed that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil should, because of their common economic interests, amalgamate. His usual greeting to a fellow political animal is: ``Anything happening?''

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However, Ulick comes into his own when he is host, entertaining friends, business associates and potential allies to dinner in his tastefully appointed and decorated home.

One friend said: ``He loves the craic, particularly at his own dining table when fine wines are easing the flow of conversation and he is at the head of the table. It is a big house and he feels it is a waste not to have it full of people. Ulick is also a good guest at others people's gatherings, but when he is the host, he's in his element.''

His wife Mary shares Ulick's love of socialising and is friendly with the spouses and partners of her husband's business, but more particularly, his political friends. So it must have seemed the most natural thing in the world to make the house owned by Ulick's company in the south of France available for Mary Harney and Charlie McCreevy when the McEvaddys weren't using it recently.

Neither of the McEvaddy brothers were available this week when the controversy about the house-lending to the politicians became known. For such successful business people internationally, they had a surprisingly low profile at home.

Yet both brothers were well known socially as well as in the business world, and never appeared to shy away from publicity. They communicated through a public relations company whom they have retained for the past three years or so, but were never slow to speak to members of the media they knew, so they couldn't be called secretive.

They have a reputation for being loyal to their friends, and this week Mary Harney has been supportive of McEvaddys, although it didn't make the Tanaiste's life any easier. Charlie McCreevy just disappeared, believing his own integrity wasn't threatened by a friendship with them. And in a small country where successful people from public life and private business cannot avoid meeting socially, it is hardly surprising that friendships develop.

It is now the age of perception, when how it appears is more potent than how it actually is. And the word inappropriate can be as damning as ``conflict of interest.'' For instance, if someone, usually a political opponent, can interpret an friendship as ``inappropriate,'' then even if it is as innocent as it is honourable, keeping company with that friend is ill-advised.

Des McEvaddy purchased his home on Shrewsbury Road, Dublin, the most expensive property site on the Irish Monopoly board, at the same time and for roughly the same price as Ulick bought Auburn House, around £1.5m, three years ago. But the rise and rise of the McEvaddys wasn't a public relations driven rags-to-riches story.

They were born to a well-to-do and well connected Fine Gael family on a substantial farm in Swinford, County Mayo. Their father died when the boys were 12 and 13, and they were enrolled at Garbally Park, the boarding school in Ballinasloe, County Galway.

It was their mother who was the driving force in the family, a hard working school teacher who went on to become a dynamic leader of Macra Na Feirme in County Mayo. She inspired her sons' ambitions and neighbours say inspired their lifelong dedication to hard work.

Ulick went straight into the army when he left school and Des studied law at UCD. Des never practised after qualifying as a barrister but Ulick joined military college and worked as a captain in transport. Later, he worked with army intelligence and learned to speak the language fluently when he worked at the Russian desk.

Ulick's experience in military intelligence must have been a great door-opener when he dealt with the US and the armed forces of other countries. It is now 20 years since they established Omega Air, specialising in Boeing 707s, the workhorses of the aviation industry.

``Nobody, not even Boeing who designed and built them, know as much about 707s as the McEvaddys,'' said a business associate. ``They developed close ties to the US military, stripping and modifying the aircraft to become refuelling tankers which are essential to modern forces.''

They also became the world's leading authority on replacing the old, noisy engines on 707s with a Pratt & Whitney system which saves fuel and brings them into line with modern international standards. Owning 40% of Air Gambia, they also began regular scheduled services between London and Banjul and became involved in developing the tiny west African country's tourism business.

The controversy over their hush system for aircraft engines finds the McEvaddy's caught in a bigger tussle, the commercial battle between Europe and the US over aircraft sales. The McEvaddy's have an enormous investment in the US-built Boeings and the Europeans are trying to make the Airbus's quiet engine the international standard.

That argument which will be fought in the European courts.

Although they have lobbied for the right to build a second terminal at Dublin airport, they are not nearly as concerned with this as they are about the business with the Boeings. ``No matter what is developed at Dublin airport, it will have to be built on land owned by the McEvaddys,'' said an associate.

Their lives are totally absorbed in aviation, it's their hobby as well as their business. Both hold helicopter and aircraft pilot licenses and their company has a 12-seater executive jet and a helicopter. They put both at the disposal of Mother Teresa during her visit to Ireland and John Bruton's much quoted helicopter trip from Cork to the memorial service for the victims of the Omagh bombing was a courtesy from the McEvaddys.

Des McEvaddy is apparently bemused at his playboy tag and friends say that while he may be seen socialising in the Arts Club or Jury's Hotel he leads a relatively restrained social life. Maybe the playboy tag came from the time he opened Dublin's first ice-rink at Dolphin's Barn and pictures of scantily-clad young women adorned social diaries in the newspapers.

Ulick McEvaddy was a big pal of the former Fine Gael minister, Paddy Donegan, and has always swung conversations from social tittle-tattle to national, and international, politics seamlessly. Yet he is also a social creature, enjoying the intrigue of who-does-what-to-whom as much politics.

Both brothers are hopeless workaholics, a malady often presented as a virtue although it frequently causes as much pain to the people around them as many a less admired ailment. Still, their diligence and dedication have been richly rewarded in material wealth.

They have achieved a great deal in a short time. And they have done it without attracting too much attention to themselves. After this week, however, they will have to learn to live with their new-found celebrity.

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