Wednesday 21 August 2019

Mick Wallace may have a white beard, but he's no Santa Claus

Far from being victims of the financial crash, property developers like the Wexford TD helped make it happen, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Mick Wallace
Mick Wallace

Mick Wallace is living proof that the rich are not just different because they have more money. They still live by different rules even after they lose it.

Last week the Independents4Change deputy for Wexford was finally adjudicated bankrupt at the High Court with accumulated debts "in excess of €30m", built up during his time as a property developer in the south east.

Once upon a time, that would have finished his career as a TD. No more. Two years ago the law was changed, meaning bankrupts have no fear of being kicked out of the Dail, except by the will of the electorate, and rightly so.

His financial future may be in the hands of an official from the Insolvency Service, but his political future should stay with the people of Wexford.

But last week's proceedings put the spotlight back on this strange and contradictory character, raising anew the question: How does Mick Wallace get away with portraying himself as the champion of those hardest hit by the recession, when he's a prime example of the greed and excess which led to the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger in the first place, for which we're all paying dearly?

He may look like Santa Claus on Dress Down Friday at the workshop, with hair that appears to be a stranger to the brush, never mind scissors, and a style in work clothes that brings a whole new meaning to the word "informal".

This, though, is a man who's had more money pass through his clumsy fingers than most ordinary people will see in a lifetime - more even than most of the establishment TDs whose supposed heartlessness and corruption he loves to berate from across the chamber. For years he lived the life of a king in a castle, for all that he's now adopted the role of defender of the humble pauper at the gate.

The moral of Mick's story is that it wasn't just the banks that caused the crash.

They lent recklessly - of course they did - but they did not force huge amounts of money they didn't have onto leprechauns. They gave the money to people who were quite willing to take it from them at the time.

That's not to have a go at those who may have borrowed a bit too much to buy a house that, strictly speaking, they couldn't afford, or to snap up an apartment abroad as an investment for retirement.

Blaming those people would be to replicate the blunder of Enda Kenny who, not long after becoming Taoiseach, told the masters of the financial universe at the World Economic Forum in Davos that the Irish people "simply went mad borrowing".

Not all partied to the same extent. Some partied with a capital P. They didn't just borrow a few times their salary for an investment that went belly up and landed their families with decades of debt. They borrowed millions. Lots of millions, in some cases.

Mick Wallace was one of them. He lived it up as a property developer in the south east; he dined in fine restaurants, indeed he owned some; his company, M&J Wallace, was master of the so-called "Italian Quarter" on Dublin's Ormond Quay. He had his own vineyard.

He told RTE Radio 1's Drivetime programme last week that, at one point, he owned about 40 properties in Dublin, Wexford and Italy, of which 39 were subsequently sold by Ulster Bank with his cooperation. An American vulture fund is pursuing him for the remaining debt, for which he had signed a partial personal guarantee. Bankruptcy was his only option, as he's acknowledged for some time.

The details were complicated. Lendings and liabilities at this high level usually are. His unsecured creditors include his ex-wife, who is owed €290,016, and the AIB in Ballsbridge, owed €51,329.

He also has mortgage arrears totalling €235,571 on three houses, one in Dublin and two in Co Wexford, which are all in negative equity.

Most of us would get a headache just thinking about it. All sides agree, though, that there is no prospect of him ever repaying the money.

So be it. There need to be reasonable arrangements to deal with those whose businesses have folded, and which can allow them to start over.

That's the compassionate way to do things. It's also the smart way. Businesses take risks. Sometimes those risks don't pay off. Future economic growth depends on giving risk takers a route back into the game. Putting all the cards in the hands of banks, who played a role in the disaster, probably is, as Wallace contends, a crazy way of arranging these things.

Nor should anyone take pleasure in the prospect of Wallace possibly losing his family home - whether that happens to be in Fairview, as he asserted on radio, or more upmarket Clontarf, where The Irish Times places it.

According to Wallace, he built it with his own hands 25 years ago and it's "the last property I own on the planet". Not even Ebenezer Scrooge should wish that fate on him.

But nor should we collude in a pretence that being declared bankrupt with debts of €30 million puts Mick Wallace in the same position as the next man or woman struggling to make ends meet amid personal economic ruin.

The court was told last week that he has "immovable property" totalling €1.1 million; a private pension worth €214,986, and a Dail pension of unknown worth, not to mention a substantial salary as a TD for as long as the good people of Wexford chose to give the green light to the vanity project of his political career. A man with Mick's history as a tycoon does not get to don the mantle of a fellow victim of the recession just because he used to have a hell of a lot more and was careless enough to lose it.

He doesn't get to play the class warrior fighting the system just because he got a copy of Socialism For Beginners in his stocking one Christmas

To be fair to his left wing colleagues in the Dail, they were campaigning on behalf of the poorest in society when Wallace was borrowing millions to grow his property empire. If any other developer suddenly appeared on Tonight With Vincent Browne and announced that he'd seen the light, and would now stand for the Dail on an anti-austerity, anti-capitalism ticket, does anyone seriously believe that he would get as easy a ride as Wallace continues to get?

Mick was a self-made man back in the day, and he continues to be self-made. The only difference is that now it's his image which is manufactured.

How is it that no one chokes on their morning coffee when he tells interviewers that he would "absolutely love" to be housing minister, that "it isn't rocket science", and asserts with a straight face that he has "spent my life" in the property sector?

He managed to lose all but one of his dozens of houses, but wants to be in charge of housing across the whole country? His deluded cheerleaders seriously think this makes him perfect for the job, but that being landlords on a far smaller scale should preclude other TDs from taking a position on the housing issue?

This is like Britney Spears declaring that she wants to be in charge of the nation's children, despite once losing custody of her own.

The shine may be coming off the Wallace brand. He topped the poll at first asking in 2011, with 13,328 first preference votes. In 2016, he was forced to wait until the 13th count before being returned.

Perhaps local people with problems that need fixing are finally starting to see through a man who once admitted that he'd rather "beg on the Ha'penny Bridge before I'd do (constituency) clinics".

That sums him up. He's your only man for the big declaratory speech, though even those have become increasingly waffly and unfocused - but when it comes to fleshing out the rhetoric with detail, he stumbles, falters, fails.

He has no back up game to follow the grand gesture.

"I'm not looking for sympathy," he says, and maybe he isn't. But he doesn't seem to want to shoulder much responsibility either.

For the collapse of his business, yes, and that's creditable enough.

For his enthusiastic embrace of a loadsamoney culture whose implosion brought the house crashing down around our ears, not so much.

For a man who claims to be struggling financially, he also didn't seem to have much difficulty offering, shortly before Christmas last year, to put up €5,000 bail for a student arrested on charges of IRA membership and for being in possession of components of a controlled explosive device.

Ultimately, it all comes down to what a man does and does not consider worth stumping up his money for.

Sunday Independent

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