No room for doubt in developers' world view


Paddy Kelly and Seán Dunne have little to say about their role in the Irish economic downfall, writes Fintan O'Toole

PADDY KELLY owes the banks "hundreds of millions" of euro, secured on assets that, by his own account, nobody wants to buy. Seán Dunne borrowed €400 million from the banks for two sites in Ballsbridge. Both men turned up in fascinating interviews, with Eamon Dunphy and Marian Finucane respectively, on RTÉ radio over the weekend. Although their attitudes were in some respects very different, they were clearly agreed on one thing - nothing that has happened is their fault.

A naive outsider might look at the history of the property bubble that has made us one of the biggest losers in the current economic crisis and pick out certain salient features. It might seem obvious that the mess was created by a triangular relationship between politics, development and banking. Politicians - especially but not only in Fianna Fáil - represented the interests of the property developers and facilitated an unsustainable boom. Developers worked themselves into a speculative frenzy, paying huge prices for land in the belief that the market would continue to rise and rise. And bankers provided the eye-watering levels of debt that fuelled the whole mad tumult.

But none of this really happened. The developers were not close to Fianna Fáil. Paddy Kelly told Eamon Dunphy that while "we supported various political parties", he really had very little to do with politics. The corruption that led to such disastrous planning was, he said, the fault, not of the developers who paid bribes or of the politicians who took them, but of the planning system itself. He was, to be fair, seeking to explain rather than to condone what happened but that explanation gives a fascinating insight into the way the development industry saw the problem: "The planning system was very inefficient. If you had paid, say, a million pounds for a site, there was a real temptation to take a short cut if there was resistance ."

Seán Dunne, surprisingly, had nothing to do with politics either. He may have accompanied Bertie Ahern on his official visits to address the UK parliament and the US Congress but, as he told Finucane, this was purely a personal matter: "I was never close to any government in Ireland. I was a friend of our former taoiseach." Bertie and Seán were just pals, and when Seán tried to persuade Bertie over a pint to change the stamp duty regime, he was rebuffed. So there was no alliance between developers and Fianna Fáil.

As for the banks, while even Paddy Kelly conceded that they got things wrong, Seán Dunne still believes that the decision, for example, to lend him €400 million for his two Ballsbridge sites was "prudent business". He retains such faith in the bankers that he reckons they are the best people to lead us out of the current crisis: "The banking fraternity are the people who know how to sort it out." Alongside the bankers in leading us out of the wilderness will be, of all people, the property developers: "It needs business people with business acumen, people who started with zero and have built a business and know how to maintain a business." Not only, it seems, are the bankers and property developers not the problem, they are the solution.

Where does it come from, this extraordinary capacity for denial, this ability to shrug off any sense of responsibility? In part, from the global nature of the crisis, which allows Seán Dunne to say that the whole problem "started on the far side of the world". The specific nature of the Irish crisis, the home-grown follies that will probably make the depression longer and deeper here than in most other western European countries, can be hidden in the wider chaos.

But part of it comes from something I've written about before - the role that a certain kind of historical self-pity plays in the psyche of parts of the Irish elite. It is an elite that still thinks of itself as being on the outside. The "establishment" is still somebody else, it is "Them" not "Us". Why? Because of a sense of historical victimhood. Paddy Kelly talked fascinatingly about how, when he was building houses on the great Anglo-Irish Castletown estate, "it was time the Irish went through the front gate. I always remember Kevin Boland talking about the belted earls . . . We, the ordinary Irish, had to have a say as well." He went on to talk of his great-grandfather being evicted from his land in Laois, and of his belief that his family had had its land confiscated in the Plantation: "All that suffering in a sense is all part of what we are."

You may have, as Paddy Kelly corrected Dunphy, not one Rolls Royce but "several". You may have not one house on Shrewsbury Road, but two. But you're still a victim, an outsider, a representative of the oppressed. When Dunphy asked Kelly when he felt he had made it, he replied "I don't think I feel I have." In a world where you've never made it, you're never responsible for what you have made.