Johnny Ronan was known in some media organisations during the Celtic Tiger as 'the buccaneer'. It suited him, from his sheriff of Nottingham hair, to his €640,000 Maybach, to the swagger with which he conducted some of his personal relationships – on one occasion, sending a press release to the newsdesk of TV3 to announce the ending of his relationship with TV3 presenter Glenda Gilson.
Ronan has cut a quieter figure in recent years, as he rebuilt his empire and personal wealth after the crash, to the point where he now says he has seven million square feet of projects in the development pipeline. But despite the sycophantic 'He's back!' headline that greeted his emergence from the National Asset Management Agency in 2015 with all of his debts repaid, he wasn't really back – at least not at his previous levels of 'Let's fly to Morocco for dinner, Rosanna' ostentation.
That changed last week, when he barged into public consciousness with a series of videos leaked on to social media that showed the earlier hubris remains very much undimmed.
To be fair, the videos were not meant for public consumption. They were filmed for "the lads" when coronavirus interrupted Ronan's cycling holiday with former Irish Olympic cyclist Philip Cassidy in South Africa in February. But they're illuminating nonetheless, each one a pastiche of boom-time Ireland, miniature vignettes of the days when ruddy-faced developers and their pals routinely larged it up in the sun, high on juvenile humour and the vapours of their own significance.
In the videos shot by Cassidy on February 29th, Ronan is seen coughing into a napkin and wiping his brow with it, before posing in front of a Corona beer sign. Later, he fashions a ‘mask’ from a paper napkin, to chuckles from his buddies.
Eddie Jordan is there but, wisely, waves the camera away. Safe to say, it's not the funniest thing to come out of South Africa since Trevor Noah. It's not even the funniest thing to come out of South Africa since the vuvuzela.
Ronan and Cassidy have apologised. Cassidy told Liveline he deeply regretted the video which is “not funny now”. Ronan said he was entirely unaware of the threat of coronavirus at the time and that the videos did not represent how he thinks about the “the devastating impact it has had, and continues to have on individuals, on families, on society and on the global economy”. In fairness, he didn’t have a crystal ball; he couldn’t have known the scale of what was coming. He could have known that 3,000 people had already died worldwide; 81,000 were sick and that the first case of the virus on the island of Ireland had just been reported. He should have known that joking about it wasn’t funny.
Then again, Ronan is not famous for his tact: in 2015 he had to apply to the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry to remove the expression "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work will set you free") from his written evidence, the phrase emblazoned over the gates of Nazi concentration camps during the second World War.
The answer should be that one of the highest-profile developers during the boom that led to the crash would give something back
The videos last week were nowhere near so egregious, and might not have gone viral if it wasn’t for their timing, and the ugly reminder they heralded that, no, coronavirus is not a great leveller.
They landed just as the closure was announced of Bewley’s cafe on Grafton Street, with the imminent loss of 110 jobs. Its owners, the Campbell family, realised they couldn’t afford to reopen post-lockdown. Covid-19 was the final nail in the coffin; several of the preceding nails were what they call the “excessive” €1.5 million rent they pay their landlord. That landlord is Johnny Ronan.
Ronan Group Real Estate (RGRE) responded with a statement that said it was “saddened and surprised” the cafe was to close and that it “had attempted to engage with the Campbell family”. But how surprised can it really have been? For every three cups of coffee sold at Bewley’s, one was going straight to the landlord. That’s a tricky business model to sustain in good times; for a tourist-focused business post-pandemic, it was never going to be a runner.
There are much greater tragedies to come out of Covid-19 than the closure of Bewley’s. There are far more upsetting sights than a group of late middle-aged men on tour, cracking out the coronavirus hot takes. But the juxtaposition of the two was an unsettling reminder of an Ireland that hasn’t gone away. Under the Cape Town sun, the golden circles forged in Ireland still gleam. Property development is still regarded by some as our most prestigious national sport. The culture and character is still being leached from our capital city in the name of wealth creation.
During the fallout last week from news of the closure of Bewley’s, there were calls for the cafe to be nationalised. But many more businesses and beloved institutions will be lost before we emerge from the pandemic, and the State won’t be able to step in every time. A GoFundMe to pay the rent – another well-intentioned suggestion that would be a gift to RGRE – is not a solution either.
The answer should be that a man who was one of the highest-profile developers during the boom which ultimately led to the 2008 financial crash would decide that now is a good time to give something back. The country is again on its knees. But what are the chances of that?
The Green Party MEP Ciarán Cuffe revealed last week that when Bewley’s was last under threat 16 years ago, he called Ronan and asked if he could help. “Business is business,” was the reply. These may be extraordinary times, but some things never change.