Wednesday 26 June 2019

Willie Kealy: 'Bungalow eviction got the blood up -but wasn't at all what it seemed to be'

This was a complicated matter, and setting a mob on security men is no sort of solution

VIOLENCE: House in Strokestown where vans were burned out
VIOLENCE: House in Strokestown where vans were burned out

Willie Kealy

Some of our traditions are best left in the past. Like the hatred of the informer, necessary when we were fighting for our independence. And like the instinctive reaction against evictions, as if this was still the Famine times, and greedy landlords were putting starving families out of their hovels to die on the side of the road because they could not pay exorbitant rents.

Most evictions today happen by arrangement after all other avenues have been explored.

To date, 116,000 borrowers have successfully negotiated loan restructuring and 87pc of these are working well. But in the past two weeks, one case has caught everyone's attention, and for all the wrong reasons.

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Last Tuesday week Anthony, David and Geraldine McGann were evicted from a bungalow at Falsk, near Strokestown in Roscommon, on foot of a court judgment issued in favour of the KBC bank because of an unpaid debt, believed to be in excess of €300,000. Film of the eviction which went up on social media, showed a security team employed by the bank removing the McGanns from the property, in one instance, taking them out by the ears.

This got the blood up, and in the Dail, local TD, Independent Michael Fitzmaurice, told us that gardai had aided and abetted men from the North who "pegged three people out of the house, two of them elderly, and left them on the side of the road". (Does it matter that they were from the North? Does it make a difference that KBC is not an Irish bank, for that matter?)

Then in the early hours of last Sunday morning, a mob of about 20 men, armed with a gun and baseball bats, attacked the eight security men who had been left to guard the house, putting some of them in hospital. The next day two of the McGanns - David and Geraldine - moved back into the house. But Anthony did not move back.

Anthony was the owner of the house and about 100 acres of farmland. Anthony, it turns out, is no stranger to borrowing large amounts of money from different financial institutions and not always sticking to the repayment terms.

In 1997 the Circuit Court ruled against Mr McGann over a debt of €8,853 to the ACC Bank. That was repaid in 2002.

In 2009 there was a High Court judgment in favour of ACC Asset Finance for €37,960. And in the Circuit Court in the same year, Hanley Brothers secured a judgment on foot of €18,236 owed. In 2010 another High Court order was issued against Anthony McGann in favour of ACC Finance. In 2011 Bank of Ireland Leasing Ltd, trading as Land Rover Financial Services, secured a High Court order against Mr McGann. In 2012 the High Court issued a judgment in favour of the ICS.

In 2015 the Revenue Commissioners settled with Mr McGann for €429,501 because of an under-declaration of VAT. And earlier this year, an American finance company, Cabot Asset Purchases, had a judgment registered in the Circuit Court.

Mr McGann's difficulties with KBC go back as far as 2009, when negotiations between the parties began, but eventually in 2013 the Bank secured a possession order for the property. But it was only on December 9 last that the Sheriff delivered papers giving the Court-appointed time and date by which the property had to be vacated - December 11 at 1pm. At that moment, the house became the property of KBC. The Sheriff had done his duty and it was now up to the bank to effect the eviction, which it did by hiring a security firm (you would hardly expect it to send in bank clerks).

But after these security men had been savagely attacked by a vigilante gang, Pearse Doherty, the Sinn Fein deputy leader, went into overdrive in the Dail.

The security men hired by the bank were "enforcers and thugs" who broke locks and broke down doors after they had "entered into somebody's property", and "pushed people out of their own home and property".

Except they hadn't, they had entered the bank's property and removed unlawful occupants on foot of a court order. But predictably Mr Doherty didn't see it that way. To him it brought to mind "scenes of our past where families were being evicted and thrown onto the side of the road". And along with Mr Fitzmaurice, he too had a cut at the gardai who were present, not to effect or facilitate the eviction, but merely to prevent any potential breach of the peace, which they did.

Mr Doherty seemed not to have noticed that, in the words of the Taoiseach, the case involved "many years of debt and arrears, VAT fraud, tax evasion, and lots of other things". But Mr Varadkar did allow that it may well be "a wise thing and a good idea to now amend the law to cover the regulation of these security agents".

Anyone working in the security business in this country is regulated by the Private Security Authority (PSA) which ensures they are vetted, trained and registered and always wear a badge with their registration number. The loophole in the case of evictions is that the actual work of evicting people from a house is not deemed to be security work and therefore not subject to regulation.

However, the security staff who stayed in the house to secure it and were attacked by the vigilante mob could be considered to have been doing security duty, and as such, probably should have been registered. So that is all being examined now by the Department of Justice and by the PSA.

In his response to the issue, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan told the Dail about plans for the new Land and Conveyancing Law Reform (Amendment) Bill, which is aimed at making it more difficult to secure eviction rulings in court. No doubt there is need for this law, based on many cases that have been before the courts since the crash. But it is unlikely that the complicated affairs of Anthony McGann is one such case.

Sunday Independent

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