'I've made mistakes, which is different to having regrets'

 

SATURDAY INTERVIEW: IVAN YATES:His bookmaking business has gone into receivership, but former Fine Gael minister Ivan Yates is determined to ‘get on with things’ despite his ‘dented mojo’

The contrast between Ivan Yates’s public response to the €6 million collapse of the family gambling business and that of other Celtic Tiger high-flyers, whose billion-euro gambles imperilled the State, is one for the PR textbooks. While many of the latter play the Scarlet Pimpernel at home or reinvent themselves in sunnier climes, Yates stands his ground, takes responsibility for overweening ambition and doesn’t blame the banks.

It’s an impressive performance. The alpha-male cloak is an integral piece of the costume and is encapsulated in the brisk, brusque injunction – “just get on with it” – repeated ad nauseam to himself and others, the mantra by which he has lived his life, shaped his motivational speeches and roundly irritated more than a few listeners.

He manages to get on with it all day Tuesday in the teeth of media interrogation and flu symptoms. By the time we meet on Wednesday morning, for what he has determined is to be the last of the interviews in the 24 hours set aside for media, his stoicism is wearing thin.

He bounds to the door of the modest Sandymount rental, welcoming but obviously keen to get this phase over with. Deirdre, his wife of more than 25 years (and sole shareholder of Celtic Bookmakers), is putting her best face to the world, smartly made up, wryly humorous and hospitable. But the atmosphere in the house, with its low-key Christmas decorations, is redolent of a family bereavement. Emotions are barely suppressed.

While he explains why he of all people – a noted no-nonsense reader of the political and financial runes – was surprised by the depth of the bust, she can be heard, voice trembling, fielding another sympathy call.

The moment at which a beloved business passes into receivership is rather like a death. That moment for Celtic Bookmakers, set up in 1987, two years into the Yateses’ solid marriage, was noon on Tuesday, when bank accounts were frozen and cheque books wiped out. “The secretary of AIB [the creditor] signs a deed, and that destructs the business, as the legal ownership falls to that creditor. All the files transfer from your solicitors to theirs . . . It’s just like the IMF. They come in and take over – although the IMF were more discreet about it . . . But you’ve got to be realistic about it, just get on with it.”

Their mobile-phone service was lost to them for several hours as the switch from direct debit to a pay-as-you-go system kicked in. It meant he was unable to respond to the messages flooding in.

His own deep distress becomes evident when he begins to read a few lines from the more than 140 texts on his phone: soothing, encouraging words from lawyers, bankers and journalists and from businesspeople who have endured a similar fate.

“It’s the niceness of people,” he says, brokenly, the mask falling briefly away.

Is it like a bereavement? “Like a bereavement with a terminal illness,” he sighs. “At the back of your mind there’s an inevitability about it.” When he talks about the “horrendous stress and torment” of business owners trying to survive with a business model they know to be “f***ed”; when he describes the daft futility of inflexible, non-negotiable leases drawn up in the bubble era and the irony that they can be instantly repudiated by receivers and examiners, it is clear that he is also talking about himself.

He is acutely aware that all of this might come across as a sympathy plea and is at pains to point out that he doesn’t want “some kind of ‘celeb’ financial-ruin story . . . I’m not a pity-party person,” he says repeatedly, mainly because there are so many people in “equal distress” and also because he doesn’t want “to make a drama out of a crisis”.

But his problem is that this crisis has all the makings of a drama. Conflicting reports, for example, about the security of his 78-year-old mother’s tenure in the family’s old Enniscorthy estate, in the face of personal guarantees given to AIB, inevitably provoke further questions.

“The situation is that first of all, and as time goes by, I am going to be more assertive about this . . . I did the breakfast show on Christmas Eve, and there were 10in of snow, so I got the train back to Wexford, which took three hours. I got home at 5pm and I sat down with my mother and sister,” he says, pausing as his voice thickens with emotion.

“I met my other sister on St Stephen’s Day, and I laid all this out to them. Now, in fairness to my 78-year-old mother – and I rang my sister last night because she kind of minds her and asked her how was my mother – she said she has friends ringing her up crying and that sort of thing, and she has to go out to some senior citizens’ event tonight and she has to face the public. So I’m not going to do anything other than pull the shutters down . . .

“Just because I happen to work in the media now, I am not, for public titillation, going to discuss the exposure of my mother in this situation other than to say that I will fight tooth and nail to protect my extended family and my own family and I will do no more and no less . . . And just because I worked as a public representative and lived in a goldfish bowl doesn’t mean these people who don’t have the interest or inclination should be getting any publicity.

“I mean, there are pictures in today’s papers of ‘Ivan’s home’ and ‘the mother’s home’. That’s okay for Ivan’s home . . . I’ll make a few general points: one, your principal private residence is afforded some protection; two, none of the debts are in my mother’s name; three, the situation in relation to the family settlement of matters gives her lifetime rights in relation to residence and in relation to rights in terms of property.”

In short, as he trenchantly points out, these are “very sensitive issues”, and the last thing his mother needs is to be reading “some of this sh**”. One commentator has pointed out, however, that it was Yates himself who raised the subject of his mother.

Working on a few-holds-barred radio show – “I can be outrageously offensive to people because it just tickles my fancy,” he says later of his Newstalk programme – perhaps he should have known he was offering a hostage to fortune, or may be accused of tugging at the nation’s heartstrings. He believes he was merely offering the facts as transparently and honestly as he could.

“Friends of mine who have been helping me with the media, like Nigel Heneghan, say it’s not going too bad, that the papers have been fair and can see every side of it and the human side of it . . . But I regard any headline I read as just a total disaster, because the substance of the story is all I’m interested in, not the spin. Because it is a disaster.”

The credibility issue bites deep. While his breakfast-show contract with a “really supportive” Newstalk will take him up to July, the directorships and additional media work he had undertaken in the past three years to offset the loss of a salary from Celtic Bookmakers are unlikely to prosper.

“I do a lot of speaking gigs with Personally Speaking [a public speaking company], chairing and facilitating events, panel discussions and that sort of thing – but then keynote speaking on entrepreneurship and my 20 years in the public sector, the private sector, the difference between business and politics, success tips and all that – I’d say all that will combust now. It’s a credibility-deficit issue.”

Anyway, he is not looking for work anywhere else, he says. “The Newstalk gig suits me down to the ground.” Is there an element of relief that the end has finally come? “People said that to me and said, ‘In a year’s time you’ll look back at this and laugh.’ But no: that’s certainly not the case. I knew I was going to have to face a media storm after this.

“The relief won’t come until every last shop is dealt with. And then the separate stress will start, of my negotiation with the bank.” In relation to the personal guarantees? “Yes. Obviously, they’ve said they want to discuss the ‘wider issues’. I said, ‘How wide: would you like to go into your solvency or my solvency?’ ” he says, with a rare laugh.

The negotiations will also seal the fate of his controversial but stoutly defended €49,000 public-service pension, which, he says, “is going to be needed by AIB now”. But the pension was “within the rules”, as he puts it.

“I have no problem with cuts to public-service pensions. I just don’t want to be treated differently to anyone else . . . What I did resent was that, for the past year, people have been bitching about that and saying, ‘He’s a fabulously wealthy bookmaker with a huge business,’ and, ‘He’s a fabulously wealthy broadcaster, and there’s loads of other nixers,’ and they hadn’t a clue what my finances were . . .’

“One thing we’ve learned from the Celtic financial graveyard is that a lot of people you think are very wealthy are not very wealthy.”

Another difference between him and the high-flyers who see no obligation to explain themselves is his attitude towards his bank.

“Unlike them, I’m not decrying the bank. I’m saying the bank supported me every step of the way and they’ve actually supported me with the receivership as the preferred option. I have no bitching to do about the bank – and they said they would lend me €16 million. But that’s my call. How can it be the bank’s fault if I produce a business plan and they support me?

“This is where the developers have got it all wrong. Businesses since they’ve started have needed credit and capital, and, if banks are good enough to give it to me, the responsibility is primarily with me. I actually can’t say there was anything I asked the bank to do that they didn’t do, and they backed me to the hilt.

“And I know there’s going to be tough negotiations in a year’s time, and I do my best, because I have an honourable, bullsh** Protestant attitude to debt – and four starvin’ children – but we’ve got to be practical and realistic as well, because I have to live . . . All that has to be worked out, so I’m not saying I’m in love with my bank, but I cannot say, in the context of blame or responsibility, that hand on heart I can blame them. And I won’t.”

Another difference between him and most of the high-flyers is the contrast between his fierce commercial ambitions and his personal lifestyle. The ancestral home in Enniscorthy is a quietly tasteful, homely country house, utterly devoid of bling. The Volvo in the drive is five years old. “I have a very frugal life. I don’t dress properly, I don’t eat out because of my back [he has a chronic and painful back problem], I don’t go to the cinema, I don’t go to the theatre, I don’t read books. My passion in life would be to watch Sky Sports or TV sports any time I have time off . . . I’m just happy to work.”

Apart from bi- or tri-annual trips to Aintree – “a real treat” – he has only been on foreign holidays twice. “We went on honeymoon to Cyprus in 1985, and when I was minister we took a two-week holiday in Portugal and I nearly died,” he says, mentioning a slew of alarming shortcomings in the plane, before it emerges that he has a phobia about flying. “I hated every minute of it. The kids were quite small, and I was insufferable to be with. I said never again. My ideal break would be a self-catering cottage in Mayo for a week.”

His only “major indulgence” in the good times was a horse – a “miracle”, as he calls it, called See U Bob, whose photograph adorns the wall of the Sandymount house. The horse was acquired for him by the trainer Paul Nolan, managed to pay his dues by winning five races and, when the “distress” was coming, was sold on to JP McManus for the same amount that was paid for him. “So I’m the only one in the history of horse ownership who’s actually made money.”

But he wonders now about the point or value of the hours he put into the business in the early years. “I don’t do holidays . . . I love work. I work 70 hours a week. I love to work Sundays. That’s everything about me, and that’s the tragedy about this . . . In the early days when I was a TD, I would spend all my Sundays going through accounts and faxed bets over 500.

“The amount of time I put into it, the countless hours Deirdre put in in an unpaid capacity . . . and it all went down the toilet, a complete waste of time. Maybe I’d have been better off spending more time with the kids rather than growling at them, you know – saying ‘I’m busy’ . . . If I had done none of this, I’d be better off, a wealthier man today. So I don’t know.”

But he insists – characteristically, back in just-get-on-with-it mode – that he has no regrets. “I’m not a regrets person. I’ve made mistakes, which is different to having regrets . . . But the key point I want to get across is that there’s nothing particularly special about my story. It’s happening in every parish in every town across the country, and there is more to come.”

HIS VIEW OF the future is a rather bleak prediction that his life “innings” will probably be no better than his father’s, who died at 57 from lung cancer. But his father smoked 40 Major a day – and he doesn’t smoke at all? “It’s true – but my sister has cancer now . . . Maybe it’s just a childhood thing – that’s just my configuration . . . I’m looking for the landing strip of life. I met Vincent Browne last night, who said, ‘You’re such a young man,’ but I’ve been working so many years that I don’t regard myself as a young man at all.”

He told one interviewer this week that his “mojo” was “dented”. How rare is that? “Deirdre,” he calls out to his wife, “is it a very rare thing for my mojo to be dented?” Deirdre, heading up the stairs, reflects before answering. “I think your mojo’s been dented for a while, really,” she concludes.

And how is he when his mojo is dented? “I just don’t care – don’t care about anything,” he says with a shrug. The wonder is that, through all the grief, he has been able to plough on with his morning show in a private-sector station where “the huge ethos is to be positive”.

“In the last year, going through what I’ve been through while getting wall-to-wall reminders to ‘be positive’, and they pick out statistics about how great things are and I say, ‘Okay, yeah, yeah, I hear all that,’ because advertisers, shareholders and so on want all that . . . and my line is, (a) our obligation is to be accurate, don’t spin it up, don’t spin it down, just give me the facts; and, (b) in terms of people who are going through a hard time, to be empathetic – which wasn’t difficult for me given my own distress.”

There is plenty of pain to come, of that he is sure. “There are walls of debt, walls of other problems, walls of denial. The surprising thing for me in the last day is the number of businesspeople who’ve said to me that they have a kick-the-can-down-the-road strategy. They’re not repaying their debts, they’re just paying the interest, and they are losing money or just barely ticking over . . . And if the decline continues as the Government sucks money out of the economy, they are very, very fearful. But a lot of them have a thing: ‘What else can I do?’ Whereas my attitude is: ‘Let’s face up to this, deal with and get on with it.’ ”

Curriculum vitae

EducationSt Columba’s College, Dublin, which he left at 16 at his dying father’s request, to run the farm. Then Gurteen Agricultural College, Co Tipperary.

FamilyMarried Deirdre Boyd in 1985; four children.

CareerAt 21, the youngest TD elected to represent Wexford in 1981 for the 22nd Dáil. Founded Celtic Bookmakers in 1987 with Deirdre as sole shareholder, while pursuing his political career. Appointed Fine Gael spokesman on finance from 1990 to 1994, then minister for agriculture, food and forestry from 1994 to 1997. Instead of contesting the Fine Gael leadership when John Bruton resigned in 2001, he announced he was leaving politics to concentrate on family and business. At its peak, in 2007, Celtic Bookmakers had 64 shops and was valued at over €30 million. In the past two years Yates has diversified into company directorships and media work, mainly as Newstalk’s breakfast-show co-presenter, while working as a conference facilitator and keynote speaker for a public-speaker agency.