The many faces of Seán Gallagher
The would-be president shows many sides to the public but his real identity has been hard to pin down
SEÁN GALLAGHER was born in July 1962 and is the youngest of the seven candidates in the presidential election.
He was born in Co Monaghan, brought up in Co Cavan and now lives in Blackrock, Co Louth. He has had a varied career. He has worked as a farmer, a social worker, a community worker, a full-time constituency organiser for former Fianna Fáil TD Rory O’Hanlon, and deputy chief executive of the Louth County Enterprise Board.
However, it is as a businessman with Smarthomes, and his role as an entrepreneur on RTÉ’s Dragons’ Den,that he has come to prominence more recently.
Last year, he married Trish O’Connor (37), a cosmetic company representative, from Kanturk, Co Cork. It was his second marriage. He married Irene McCausland in 1997.
They had met when he was working for the Louth Country Enterprise Board. The marriage ended in divorce and annulment in 1999.
In an interview last year he referred to the marriage split-up: “While it was a tough time, letting go of it it was the right decision . . . I am really happy that she is now happily married. I have nothing but good wishes for her. I am definitely a better person and partner as a result. I learnt honesty, compromise and telling the truth faster.”
Gallagher was also a fitness instructor and massage therapist in the early 1990s. One of his earliest companies planned to establish a chain of massage centres.
He was born with congenital cataracts and was blind until he received corrective surgery aged three. He still has a significant visual impairment and has said he cannot pick out faces in an audience he is addressing.
There remains a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity about the extent of Gallagher’s links with Fianna Fáil and when, and to what extent, he severed them. He became involved with Ógra Fianna Fáil during the 1980s in Cavan and was appointed as political secretary by Monaghan TD Rory O’Hanlon when he was minister for health.
Gallagher was then not involved with Fianna Fáil for a period of 14 years after O’Hanlon’s ministerial career ended in 1992. He returned to the fray in 2006 in Louth for the general election of the following year at the request of Louth TD Séamus Kirk, whose seat was said to be in danger from Sinn Féin. Gallagher was his director of elections.
Kirk’s press releases were very republican, almost to a sabre-rattling degree. The strategy was a success. Kirk topped the poll, a feat that local activists have privately said did not endear Gallagher to the other Fianna Fáil TD and then minister, Dermot Ahern.
Sources close to Gallagher were quoted earlier this summer as saying he had never joined a cumann. But his spokesman said last week he was a member of the Ravensdale cumann of the party. He canvassed cumainn in Louth to become a constituency delegate to the national executive and was elected in 2009. However, he attended only two meetings and said he became disconnected. “That was not where my interests lay,” he told RTÉ’s News at Onein July.
In a series of interviews Gallagher said he had had no active involvement with the party since 2009. But officially, he remained on the national executive until January 5th this year, when he formally resigned in writing. He did not refer to leaving the party, only to leaving the executive, in the letter to general secretary Seán Dorgan.
He stated in the letter that in recent times it had proved increasingly difficult for him to attend party constituency executive meetings in Louth. “I am regrettably resigning as constituency delegate. I want, however, to express my continued support to you and your colleagues in this challenging period for the party.”
Gallagher has said he joined the executive to campaign for sub-contractors who had been ripped off. But local activists in Louth have privately said that was not his function, that he was there as constituency delegate representing Fianna Fáil in Louth.
Indeed, the Comhairle Dáilcheantair made an official complaint to Fianna Fáil headquarters in the summer of 2010 and demanded his resignation because of his non-attendance at meetings. His campaign team say he indicated verbally to Dorgan in September 2010 he was stepping down but decided to make it formal in January. The team also say he resigned from the Ravensdale cumann in March 2010.
But Gallagher did not completely cut ties with the party. He seriously considered running for the party in December 2010 before deciding against it towards the end of the month. He said it was one of a number of offers he considered but other activists dispute this, saying he eventually decided against because he knew he could not get the support of sufficient cumainn, some of whom were vehemently against him over his non-attendance at the national executive. The residual effect of that was seen when all four Fianna Fáil councillors on Louth County Council voted for Mary Davis and not Gallagher during the nominations campaign.
During the general election campaign in February, he appeared on platforms and at launch campaigns with four Fianna Fáil candidates: Billy Kelleher, Dara Calleary, Charlie McConalogue and Margaret Conlon.
Gallagher became a businessman at a comparatively late stage, in his early 40s. While working with the Louth enterprise board, he and a friend, toolmaker Derek Roddy, came up with an idea for a smart cable system for cable TV, broadband, telephone systems and alarms in homes. The first incarnation of the company Home Wiring Systems was given a €25,395 loan by the enterprise board in 2001, which became the subject of a long-drawn out legal battle before the matter was eventually settled in 2008.
A subsequent company, Smarthomes, grew rapidly during the boom, from an initial turnover of €40,000 in 2002 to over €7 million in 2007. The then taoiseach Bertie Ahern opened its new headquarters in 2006 at a time when the company announced a €10 million expansion, which would create 100 jobs. It made a pre-tax profit of more than €500,000 that year and €105,000 in 2007.
The company experienced record orders during 2007 and 2008, to over €18 million. But it was a double-edged sword. “At this time construction companies were finding it more difficult to sell homes, and were turning to in-home technology to make developments more attractive to buyers,” said a spokesman.
Many of the orders did not materialise and problems arose. The company made a provision for €208,000 in bad debt in 2008 and its overall bad debt amounted to €1.2 million, said the spokesman.
Gallagher used the non-payment of one €186,000 debt to Smarthomes as the basis for a campaign in 2009, highlighting the fact that sub-contractors had been left unpaid by developers. Smarthomes posted losses of €490,000 for 2009, the last annual accounts available. The company has reduced its liabilities to creditors from more than €1 million to closer to €500,000, has no outstanding creditors, and having repositioned itself to cater for a growing smart energy market is predicting a return to profitability this year.
Gallagher resigned as director in April 2010 and is no longer connected with the company.
Smarthomes received more than €700,000 in funding from Enterprise Ireland since 2004 and also received €41,000 funding from the North-South body Intertrade Ireland, of which Gallagher was a director for a period.
It said in 2009 it would create more than 100 jobs but they did not materialise.
It is not possible to evaluate the exact amount of money Gallagher made from the business during his decade-long involvement. In 2008, he and Roddy received more than €500,000 between them. That comprised €196,000 in rent for the company’s headquarters (which they owned); €55,000 in pension costs; and €195,000 in directors’ remuneration.
“The remuneration at the time for the directors was in line with the level of business the company was carrying out. The rent payable was in line with rents in Co Louth. The patents payable are in line with legal advice,” said a spokesman, who also stated Gallagher received €167,000 in patent income over 10 years.
The rent bill fell to €10,000 last year because the premises was sublet to another company. The patents are now owned by Smarthomes.
His P60s from Smarthomes, which he published on his website, showed he was paid €50,999 in 2009 and €12,300 in 2010 up to his departure in April.
The image conjured up by the TV series Dragons’ Denis that the entrepreneurs are all multimillionaires, worth tens if not hundreds of millions. That may be the case for the British dragons – whose wealth would be comparable to the likes of Dermot Desmond, Denis O’Brien and Michael O’Leary – but the wealth of the five Irish dragons is more modest. Some, like Gallagher, amassed their wealth directly or indirectly as a result of the property boom.
It is difficult to gauge Gallagher’s net worth. It is certain that Smarthomes was a massive beneficiary of the boom, particularly during 2006 and 2007. The total remuneration package for both he and Roddy from Smarthomes in 2008 was €500,000, including almost €200,000 in rent.
Gallagher left Smarthomes in April 2010 and divested his remaining shares earlier this year.
Since 2009, he has focused more on his motivational speaking business though Beach Homes Training and Consulting, where his wife Trish is listed as a director. It listed a total of €153,000 for debtors recorded in its latest accounts, which are for 2009. Gallagher was also recorded as having a director’s loan of €89,000 in that year.
In a number of interviews, Gallagher has said he has invested in property and also in pension funds. Besides his family home in Blackrock, Gallagher owns a small bungalow at Killygordon, Co Donegal (the ancestral home of his father) which he has assigned, rent free, to his aunt (the sole remaining member of his father’s family).
He owns 11 acres of agricultural land at the property. He owns a quarter share of the family home at The Square, Ballyhaise, Co Cavan, with his three other siblings. He has a beneficial interest in, but is not the owner of, an apartment in an assisted-living scheme in Ardee, which was purchased with his mother, who is now deceased.
He owns a two-bedroom apartment in Berlin, which is an investment property. He also partly owns a three-quarter acre site at Giles Quay, Co Louth, and is the joint owner of the Smarthomes factory building in Dundalk.
TEAM GALLAGHER: WHO'S WHO
THERE ARE 15 members of the core campaign team in Dublin, with a 50/50 split between paid and voluntary staff.
The team is led by Cathal Lee, a former Fianna Fáil urban district councillor in Louth, who is a long-time friend of the entrepreneur. Lee is the director and has been working alongside Gallagher since spring.
He has assisted with strategy, messaging and the overall direction of the campaign.
Two senior advisers with the last government are also working on the campaign on a professional basis.
They are Donal Geoghegan who was the Green Party’s top adviser when it was in government and Richard Moore, who was press adviser for former minister Dermot Ahern for almost a decade.
Geoghegan is in charge of the campaign tour, co-ordinates volunteers and oversees the logistics. The number of volunteers nationwide has shot up from about two dozen three weeks ago to some 1,300 as of this week, following Gallagher’s surge in the polls. The overwhelming majority have approached the campaign, according to his team.
The vastly experienced Moore, who is popular with journalists, has become the main contact for the media. He has previously advised ministers Mary O’Rourke; Alan Dukes and Michael Lowry.
The other main media adviser is Suzanne Collins, who is a former press officer with Fianna Fáil, who also worked for the SDLP.
Gallagher’s wife Trish is also centrally involved with the campaign and accompanies him everywhere.
Communications consultant Jack Murray, whose company handled PR for Smarthomes, is also involved as a voluntary adviser. Murray is a former press officer for the Progressive Democrats.