Hobbs sees truth as first step on path to power
Eddie Hobbs made his name throwing stones at glasshouses, but he also knows he lives in one, writes Ronald Quinlan
So will he or won't he run for election? That's the question everyone's been asking about Eddie Hobbs since he shared the platform with Lucinda Creighton at Dublin's Marker Hotel to announce the formation of a new - and as yet unnamed - political party.
Nine days on from that event, and with Reboot Ireland's appeal for volunteers and prospective candidates receiving what he describes as an "overwhelming response", the man himself has yet to commit.
"If there was a general election in the morning, I couldn't stand because I have responsibilities to my own businesses that I have to look after. Unlike others, I can't go in and try it and then come back out to a public sector job," Hobbs told me when we sat down last Thursday afternoon to talk about the extent of his political ambitions.
But while the high-profile consumer champion can't say if his name will be on the Reboot ticket, if it is, and if he gets elected, he is adamant that he wants to take his place at the Cabinet table should the new party make it into government.
He says: "The answer to that has to be 'yes'. You have to have that ambition. I would certainly like to, as any reasonable person would. I think I would have the ability [to be a minister] subject to some guidance and coaching to do the job. I certainly have the work ethic and I think I can read documents at a faster pace than most people and grasp them. I've taken on actuaries by the noon-time in areas in which they thought they were intellectually superior, so I've never had a problem with debates."
Nor does he have a problem coming up with ideas. Leaving the question of his candidacy aside, Hobbs says he is already in the process of formulating policy proposals which may yet form part of Reboot Ireland's manifesto.
He certainly has interesting views in relation to the future of Ireland's relationship with the EU, which may sit somewhat uncomfortably with Ms Creighton, given her former role as Minister for European Affairs and current position as vice president of the European People's Party (EPP).
On this, he says: "If the Irish economy could be grown to the point where it was strong enough, I'd like to see us having the option of whether to remain in the EU, to have that as an option instead of feeling somehow subservient that we had to. I'm agnostic towards Europe. I think Europe has a lot of explaining to do and a lot of improving to do. But we're ideally in it, rather than out of it."
While there are those who might consider such a view as populist and dismiss the man expressing it as a chancer, it's clear that Lucinda Creighton and her people have been taking Hobbs seriously for some time, and have done their homework.
Asked if there had been any discussion with Reboot Ireland on the potential for negative publicity which could arise from his involvement in their new political party, Hobbs says: "It was not only discussed, I was given the research on me that was done by somebody. Somebody was sent out to dig up as much dirt or spin as he could on me and to show it to me. That will happen for a while. People will look for the weaknesses in your history. When you've been in business as long as I have, you'll have made mistakes."
So what kind of dirt and spin was in the dossier?
Nothing we didn't know already, Hobbs insists.
"It's emerged, 'Oh you were involved in Detroit, you were involved in Cape Verde and you were pimping Irish property. I won't say it's nonsense. There are elements of truth in everything, but I can happily defend all of it. We have a firm with nearly €300m invested for 600 clients. Most of that is invested in government bonds, inflation-linked bonds, commodities, equities and little bits invested in property.
"Separate to that, in my books, I had three chapters on property in Loot! in 2006. I made the error of getting involved in giving a talk on the content of the book at an event promoted by a developer around Cape Verde, and that was an error. It was an error by association."
Hobbs' latest foray through Brendan Investments into Detroit has seen him accused of being a 'vulture', owing to the US city's acute financial problems.
"Detroit is thrown at you. But what's your point? I've been called a 'vulture', but everyone who invested in Irish property at the bottom of the market is consequently a vulture too. I don't see the issue, but obviously other people do," he says matter of factly.
Hobbs wears some of the criticisms, however, almost as a badge of honour. Taking pride of place, arguably, amongst the brickbats is the public dressing down he received, courtesy of the then chairman of Anglo Irish Bank Sean FitzPatrick in 2005, following a hugely-successful run on RTE with Rip Off Republic.
"I'd genuinely worry that much of the nonsense he peddled would gain common currency and the wholly unbalanced Hobbsian perspective on Ireland of 2005 would fuel the anger of many of those who failed to benefit from our economic success thus far," FitzPatrick told his audience at the Irish Times Property Advertising Awards.
Not that Hobbs took any particular offence. Indeed, as late as November 2007 in an article for the Sunday Independent, in which he defended his latest investment vehicle against its detractors, Brendan Investments, he wrote: "Previous mavericks like Quinn Direct and Anglo Irish Bank, which may seem strange now, were greeted with derision by incumbents and written off as no-hopers."
Reminded of that particular glowing tribute, he says: "I had forgotten I had said that, but to be fair, I didn't have access to data which showed Anglo Irish Bank was being run by people like David Drumm. I didn't have access to that kind of information. I had also suggested people put their money into Northern Rock at the time. Northern Rock had the highest credit rating and was regulated by the UK banking authority. If that authority isn't doing its job, then an independent financial consultant cannot see past the regulator.
"I would say in my defence, in 2006 I wrote a chapter in my book uniquely, which was predictive of the collapse of the US economy. That was financial heresy in 2006. But I put my hands up, those examples of mavericks really sucked. As events showed, I should have chosen Ryanair."
But while he's prepared to admit to his mistakes and weaknesses, Hobbs is damned if he's going to take the blame for anyone else's misdeeds. It's something his potential political rivals would do well to remember before they try to pick holes in his CV or summon up any skeletons.
Indeed, the consumer finance guru still smarts understandably when he recalls the ordeal he went through thanks to his involvement with the Taylor Investment Group which went bust in 1996, exposing its chief Tony Taylor as a fraudster.
"I was crucified for nearly 11 years for exposing a fraudster, Tony Taylor. The companies went into liquidation and it took 11 long years before it came to an end. That [period] was pockmarked by people suggesting that somehow I had conspired in the fraud, ignoring the facts that I had uncovered the fraud, went after the fraudster and did the right thing.
"When I did it [exposed the fraud], it was a very difficult time. So, when I stepped out in front of the flashing lights with Lucinda Creighton, I knew what it was like to have the mob coming at you."
Mob or no mob, Hobbs knows full well that a Herculean effort will be required if Reboot Ireland is to gain a sufficient foothold in the political firmament to effect the reform, which he believes the Irish people still want.
"People still want this reform to happen, but if they want it, they have to come behind the people who are promising to make it happen, and stand by them. It will get tough though, because when you hand over power to incumbents, whether it's the private sector with banks or insurance, or in the public sector, you can't negotiate it back," he says.
The party will also need strength in numbers if it is to secure enough Dail seats to call the shots with prospective coalition partners.
Asked how Reboot Ireland would drive its reform agenda with established parties who had already promised reform but failed to deliver, he says: "We won't go into government with anybody who doesn't adopt the principles we've got. It's as simple as that."