Peter Casey interview: ‘America is the key to Ireland’s success’
Candidate has already given presidential race an injection of Trumpean confrontation
Peter Casey, presidential candidate. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Peter Casey has certainly added colour to the presidential campaign. The Derry-born businessman has given what might have been a pallid election an injection of Trumpean confrontation. He has been more upfront with his criticisms of, and less deferential, to the incumbent Michael D Higgins. Of the six, he is the outlier, with an unusual approach, with unusual ideas, and with unusual observations.
Casey is a tall and imposing man with spiked grey hair but with the softest imaginable speaking voice, and a Derry accent that has remained undiluted despite decades living abroad.
We meet in the Clayton Hotel on the eve of the launch of his election. The delivery might be soft but no other candidate can pump up the volume quite like he can when it comes to rhetoric, or be so candid and mischievous (including his contention, which he subsequently withdrew, that the Áras intruder last month might have been a “stunt”).
Or, for that matter, produce yet another surprising dimension to his character – he is the author of a soon-to-be-published book about the enormously powerful Tata family dynasty in India.
The other candidates have tended to genuflect to the incumbent but Casey dispenses with the niceties. Asked if he has a realistic prospect, he says anything can happen in politics before launching a critique.
“Michael D has made some significant mis-steps which surprised me for a seasoned politician. When de Valera went for his last term he could have used self nomination but he did not. He went and got his 20 Oireachtas votes. Michael D could have done that but did not . . .
“He [also] said he was going to be one term and he has basically [reneged on that].”
Casey is also unhappy with what he saw as delaying tactics by the President who delayed announcing he would stand for re-election until the very end. “Then the summer vacation came in and councillors were away. We had the ridiculous situation where 10 or 11 councils were meeting on the same day. You could not get around them.
“He did it deliberately so that it would be very difficult for anyone to be on the ballot.”
Some people have viewed Casey’s pronouncements and his irreverence (including the video he tweeted of him driving a golf ball into the ocean) as a sign he is not a serious candidate and his ultimate goal is something other than a seven-year sentence in the Phoenix Park. He denies this vehemently.
He says that he first expressed his ambition to be president as far back as 1981, when he emigrated to Australia. But first he made his fortune. He started off doing sales for Rank Xerox and was clearly good at it. He then set up his own companies and made a lot of money. Then he lost it all. Then he made a lot of money again. Then he lost it all.
The first time he got scorched it was with the property market in Australia. There was a bubble which burst. “I made long-term strategic bets that turned out to be strategically disastrous.That was a return to zero.”
The second time was when he became involved in a tubular lighting product that made a lot of money but required huge investment; a subsequent patent dispute ended up disastrously for him.
“I was sitting in Atlanta with a minus €50,000 on my credit cards, I had maxed out the American Express,” he says.
He went back to first principles and set up his company, Claddagh. Through his contacts he got a small contract with SAP, the German business software company, and grew his company into a substantial undertaking bringing him back into the millionaire category, or “the helicopter candidate” as one of his presidential rivals has described him.
“As a company or individual I have zero debt, probably because of my previous history. My books are squeaky clean and there is absolutely nothing to hide. I have instructed my accountants on both sides of the Atlantic to open up my books if others do it.”
And so he had financial independence. His first foray was into the Seanad election two years ago. He said he must have driven 10,000 miles and met hundreds of councillors. It got him nowhere but he appreciates the kind of work councillors do. That partly explains, he says, why he will donate his salary to councils for charitable purposes and invite a different council to the Áras each month for information sharing.
His dominant theme is about Irish Americans. “America is the key to Ireland’s success and 28 per cent of our exports go there. We have 40 million people. They are our greatest but under-utilised asset.”
As president he said he would tap into that asset in a way that has not been done before, and bring the kind of coherence of purpose that has been achieved by the Jewish community.
He has some other controversial views: he believes Ireland should have a closer alignment with Nato and reconsider the long-standing policy of neutrality, for instance. On the TV show Dragons’ Den he has an unfiltered view, believing it is fun and that most who come before the “dragons” no longer need an investment and are more motivated by publicity. His best-known investment from the programme was in the Starcamp kids’ camps which are now run in centres throughout the State.
The TV series gave him some recognition but he’s not a household name. He accepts that, saying it is obviously a problem and the presidential campaign is “bizarrely short”.
He then discloses the reasons he was delayed in starting his campaign. He got an E.coli infection earlier this summer that developed into a more serious condition and left him in an intensive care unit in Atlanta for eight days. He lost well over 6kg in weight.
“I got out of hospital on a Thursday, flew back to Ireland on a Tuesday and launched on Thursday.”
Nowadays he divides his time 70:30 between Donegal and Atlanta. He had a 1,115sq m home over there but has sold it and now rents a smaller property. All of his five children are at university stage, or are working.
He says his strongest suits are business and the North.
“I think I know more about it than anybody else including Michael D. He can out-recite me in poetry but when it comes to understanding macro economics and political economics, I’m way ahead of the rest of the team.”
Casey was involved in the peace process after the Good Friday Agreement and has some very interesting views on how Brexit will play out in the North, including the possibility of an independent Ulster.
“[The EU and Britain could] kick the can down the road and give Britain two years for an acceptable backstop.
“In the meantime Theresa May will be voted out of office and they are hoping for another referendum to stay in. That’s probably the more likely scenario.
“The other scenario is . . . an independent Northern Ireland that would be part of the EU, funded by [the] EU and Britain. That would clearly please Britain as Britain does not want Northern Ireland.
“The only challenge is that you might have Scotland wanting an independent Scotland.”
But that might cause civil war?
“A hard border could start a war. If you put a border in you have to put in the mechanism to enforce it, if you start putting in cameras and electronic surveillance.”
Would that mean the North would be an autonomous region or full independent?
“Independent Northern Ireland would be manna from heaven for Britain if they could get away with it,” he said, adding that the Unionists would only accept it as a last resort.”
Is is fanciful? Is a Peter Casey presidency fanciful? As he himself says, anything can happen in politics.