The angry men, the eccentrics and some familiar faces — Ireland’s new property wars
A new feature of the Irish property scene is how tactics from the 1880s Land War, Parnellism and the War of Independence, complete with historical inaccuracies, are being blended together to block property sales. Will Hanafin takes a sometimes surreal journey through the loose coalition of angry men involved and finds some eccentrics, and some familiar faces
‘ENGLISH SCUM OUT!” and “Ireland is not for sale!” are slogans we'd associate with the H-Block protests of the 1980s, but not with the genteel surroundings of St Stephen’s Green in 2013. Ireland is becoming a very strange place when you see formerly super-wealthy, middle-aged businessmen disrupting auctions, while quoting everyone from Parnell to Michael Davitt.
But those were just some of the widely reported slogans used during an extraordinary protest last July at a distressed properties auction in Dublin. The Allsop Space auctions had previously been held 11 times in the Shelbourne Hotel. But, this time round, a group of protesters entered the hotel and managed to halt the auction. One bystander was reported as saying: “They were roaring, ‘Go back to Britain with your tails between your legs like in 1916'.” Allsop is an English company, but Allsop Space said afterwards it was a jointly owned British and Irish company. A spokesman for the auctioneers said: “The actions of some people attending were both unlawful and intimidatory, resulting in people being prevented from going about their lawful and necessary business as well as being put at risk of personal harm.”
T he high-profile, fire-sale proper ty auctions hosted by Allsop previously featured on TV news bulletins as a flicker of hope that our property crash had finally bottomed out. What was extraordinary about the dust-up was the sheer plethora of protest groups that surfaced that day including People for Economic Justice, Defend Our Homes, Direct Democracy Ireland and Friends of Banking Ireland. The protest also included TDs like Mattie McGrath, developer Jerry Beades, who's an ex-Fianna Fail national executive member, and business people who have ended up in massive financial difficulties. There was a moment of comedy when one of the protesters, businessman Tom D'Arcy, told RTE news that: “Constant Markievicz gave up his life to enable us to eradicate suppression, taxation, eviction, criminality.” He managed to change the sex of the 1916 revolutionary Constance Markievicz, get her name wrong and mistakenly say she lost her life during the Rising. It was the first real public manifestation of a new tactic in the battle between banks and some in financial difficulties. Tactics from the 1880s Land War, Parnellism and the War of Independence — complete with historical inaccuracies — are being blended together to block property sales.
One prominent presence at the Allsop auction protest was Jerr y Beades, an ex-Fianna Fail national executive member and former close confidant of Bertie Ahern. I tracked Jerry Beades down on the phone; he was at Istanbul airport, waiting to catch a flight to Kurdistan. He has a business laying Easy Screed floors and gets most of his business in countries like Kurdistan, Qatar, South Africa and Uganda. In Ireland, he's currently battling Ulster Bank in the Commercial Court as the bank has a claim for a €3.5 million judgement against him.
“The Markievicz thing was just a slip up by Tom, who's a businessman who is cheesed off with banks,” he said. Beades also fronts Friends of Banking Ireland, who have opened an office in Mary Street in Dublin. “The Friends of Banking are fighting the major unjust nature of banks and receivers. The office is staffed with people offering a free service to people to file to courts.”
Since the disruption of the Dublin Allsop auction, they have expanded their protests and have prevented auctions in other parts of the country. “We stopped an auction in Galway last Friday . . . 60 people turned out . . . we had a truck outside the Imperial Hotel and they buckled.”
The developer claims that his organisation is binding together other small protest
groups. “We have a steering committee that meets every Saturday, which is mainly made up of business people wiped out by the banks — not lefties,” said Beades.
What of the allegations of racism and anti-Britishness levelled at Beades and the others? “During the protests at the auctions, I read Parnell's speech from Ennis, the one that says, ‘When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must shun him on the roadside when you meet him, you must shun him in the streets’.”
Beades also has a vintage truck that he parks outside the auctions that has the Parnell Ennis speech reproduced on placards attached to the sides of the vehicle.
“Allsop is an English franchise. At the Allsop protest in Dublin I read the speech, sang the national anthem and some of them didn't stand. They had to be told. That's how it started,” he said.
Beades is also planning an escalation of protests against repossession and debt enforcement in the coming months. “We are going to bring the whole thing to a standstill. We are going to target the sheriffs, the banks and the receivers. After Allsop’s, it all took off. I had no intention of setting up a protest movement and I've been shocked at how we have managed to stoke public anger.”
The Friends of Banking Ireland chief is deeply disenchanted with the legal system. “The courts are ridiculous. They are getting judgements that they can only wipe their arses with. I owe them €3.5 million — but you can't get blood from a stone.
“The new insolvency service won't be able to cope. There are 400,000 who face losing their home. It's a European problem. Europe has to accept the Euro is fucked. There should be a massive writedown of debt. Just start the printing presses and forget about upholding the euro's reputation.” Is there a risk that his group is giving false hope to people who are in desperate situations with financial institutions? “We are not giving anyone false hopes. Anything we've done, we've delivered,” he says. And after the scuffles at the Allsop auction, is there a real risk that it's going to spill over into violent conflict? “We have had no problems with violence. I've talked to leftie groups — told them they're welcome to come along, as long as it's peaceful. We're mainly business people who have lost everything.” Has his old pal Bertie Ahern been giving Beades any tips? “Bertie wasn't listening when the storm clouds were gathering. I told Cowen as well to sack six ministers. They didn't listen.”
Another major figure associated with the Allsop protest was Ben Gilroy. T he charismatic, silver-haired ex-bodyguard managed to beat Labour into fifth position in the Meath East by-election in March, running for the fledgling party Direct Democracy Ireland. Gilroy also fronts People for Economic Justice and has established himself as a lay litigant advocate for people in financial difficulties during cour t proceedings. He has also been to the fore at protests when the sheriffs attempt to gain access to properties.
Gilroy was prominent at the Allsop Shelbourne Hotel protest. “I had been protesting outside rather than inside because I was barred. At a previous auction I stood up and said, ‘Take your British accent and bring it back with you!’ They were selling someone's stuff without any court case. When I heard him with the British accent saying, ‘I'm going to sell this property' I just said I wanted him and his like back out of this country. They reminded me of vultures. I know huge numbers of people in the UK, including relatives. I said these things not because he was English, but because of what he was doing.” Direct Democracy is a new political party that performed respectably in the Meath East byelection with around 6 per cent of the vote. So what would they want if they went into power? “The only way we'd go into power, or hold the balance of power, is if Articles 47 and 48 are reinstated.” These are two Articles in the 1922 Constitution that allowed a petition system by citizens to force referenda.
Gilroy feels very disillusioned about the exclusion of his party from the media during the by-election. “Looking at shows like Prime
Time, it felt like we were in a race and someone was holding you by the jumper. I was watching Prime Time the week before the election and all the main parties were on it. It was the same auld bullshit we've been hearing since I was a child. ‘I'd be a strong voice' etc. It's all bollix.” The alienation that voters feel from mainstream politics worked to his advantage. They don't even call their party a party, referring instead to it as a service. “We ended up getting a good spread of votes on the ground. We had 10 people out, at most, canvassing, but we had the right message. We beat Labour, the Greens, all the independents and socialists. We beat a party in government who were able to concentrate all their work on one constituency,” he said.
But can Direct Democracy capitalise on the Meath East election result? “We're active in a number of constituencies like Carlow, Waterford, Wicklow and Donegal, as well as North Dublin. It does take time and money and we have no money coming in.”
Gilroy hails from Raheny and came from a household that was staunchly Fianna Fail, and his mother had pictures of the Sacred Heart and Charlie Haughey side by side. He previously worked as a bodyguard, including a stint protecting Don Tidey. He then had his own electrical security business — which isn't going as well as it was. “We're broke, but I can handle that. I told my mortgage company that I cannot pay them and we have a kind of stand-off agreement.”
Through his People for Economic Justice group, he helps lay litigants in court. Is he paid for this? “They come to me in trouble. I don't ask them for money, just expenses if they have it. There is a donation button on the website as well. I help people because in this country you're only equal before the law if you have money.”
He is very, very angry about the Irish political system and the present administration in particular. “They said all the right t hings before going i nto government, but they have gone worse. Taxing our water! It fucking sticks in my craw. There are four suicides a day in Ireland. We are sitting on a powder keg here. Instead
‘The President should sign in a new law — punch Noonan in the face every time you see him’
of shooting themselves, they're going to shoot sheriffs.
“These bankers said to the government, ‘We can't screw enough money so we want you to change the law. Change the law to evict families out of their homes’. The Constitution is thrown out the window.”
Has the present Government not gone to great lengths to restore the reputation of the country since the disastrous crash? Not in Gilroy's mind: “Gobshites! Did you ever see a face that needed to be slapped more than Noonan? Why are politicians not standing up? This gobshite Enda Kenny. He collects the European man of the year award. When he was pulling on his pants that morning, why didn't he ask himself, ‘Why am I getting it?' And he was a bigger gobshite to go over and collect it.”
His hatred of Noonan is particularly acute. “The way that Noonan talks does my head in. He's such a conniving little rat. The President should sign in a new law — punch Noonan in the face every time you see him. They are like two gombeen men.”
He has little time for President Higgins either, because of his agnostic beliefs. “The President is an atheist but he has to swear the oath of office under God. What does he say? I swear under what? The five lamps?”
Gilroy believes the President shouldn't have signed the abortion bill into law after the Council of State meeting. “He had no right to do that. I don't know anyone in favour of that legislation. It looks like you can have an abortion at a drop of a hat if you're depressed. The lady that died [Savita Halappanavar] — it had nothing to do with abortion. This is the media spin.
“If we had direct democracy it wouldn't happen. I am very much pro-life, but I do not ram my views down people's throats, I educate people instead. Abortion is not a solution for depression. If someone has been raped and then the advice is ‘kill your child’ — does that make things better for her? The people should decide.”
As someone who helps indebted people in court, he reserves particular ire for the Irish legal system. “People who have worked all their lives and now they are in trouble and are part of a family unit, are afforded no help. But still they'll pay for legal aid for some gurrier down the town who hits a girl.” Some of Gilroy's opinions are, frankly, bonkers. He launches into a diatribe about the Freemasons in Ireland. “The Freemasons Hall is just across the road from the Dail. I'd say every judge is in it — this ‘help a brother in trouble' stuff. That Freemason Lodge is the second oldest and the second most important in the world. There is one lodge in every Irish town, with 50,000 members.”
At this point, I had to draw a breath. Pastor Niemoller's poem came to mind: “First they came for the communists and I didn' t speak out because I wasn' t a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist . . . then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”
I ask Gilroy if he's simply a far-right Trojan horse and instinctive racist who's codding gullible people with a conspiracy-based political movement, taken largely from the Freeman movement in the US. Freemen believe if they declare themselves to be ‘free
men on the land' they remove any vestige of consent to be governed by the Government of Ireland, meaning they don't have to obey statute law.
“I hate people telling me what I am. I think the Freemen movement . . . a lot of them make great sense . . . but don't tell me I'm one of them. Don't call me right-wing and racist — I'm not. Then make me look like a pussy and appear that I'm not strong in my own convictions. Once I am pigeon-holed, they can attack. I have been accused of being everything from far-right to far-left, then I helped the Nigerian church in Navan. Then during an LMFM interview I was accused of being anti-English — but a person I helped, Lee Wellstead, was English. They say I have links to Nigel Farage and UKIP because I posted one of their videos. I'm an ordinary bloke with a family, who's very pro-life and had to ask my mate Johnny what far-right was.”
He was particularly annoyed by a feature in the Law Society Gazette in March by barrister Keith Rooney about the Freemen. Rooney highlighted a YouTube video featuring Gilroy ‘defeating' the sheriff of Portlaoise in a clip entitled ‘constitution halts sheriff '.
“They ridicule me — these West Brits attack me. In this video you're there, the sheriff is there, you're not at your best. I know I made a few mistakes in the video,” said Gilroy. I spoke to the author of the article, barrister Keith Rooney, about his attitude to these types of debt campaigners. “Ben Gilroy says he's not a Freeman but has a lot of the same traits. It's a different brand of these false legal beliefs, taking a literal meaning of the Constitution, like Article 43, that the family has inalienable rights.” But surely these new groups are a response by desperate people who are being chased down by financial institutions for large debts which they cannot pay. “I never blame the people. There are three levels. People who genuinely believe this stuff. Then the second level are those who push other people to take this line in court, while the third level are the people in the room who I have nothing but sympathy for,” said Rooney. “The entire legal system is set up for an economic system that worked normally . . .The process for recovering debts or mortgage requires government to change. The money was there. This is an extraordinary circumstance. This is an environment where people want to blame the bankers.”
Speaking to many in the legal profession for this article, there is a perception that many court actions nowadays are essentially two bald men fighting over a comb, as no one has any money to satisfy the judgments.
“If Ben Gilroy is helping someone — normally the person will have a standard form of affidavit and then say they want Ben Gilroy to speak for me. Some judges are lenient and there is some forbearance and he's given an opportunity to speak. There is a legal concept called a McKenzie friend — where lay advocates are allowed to have someone there,” adds Rooney.
I went to the Four Courts with Gilroy as he advised someone. He was due to help a man facing a large demand from a major bank. In the small, second-floor court in the Four Courts, the barristers for the banks firstly outlined their case. Then the respondent spoke and asked: “I move the court to have my friend speak for me.” The judge responded: “I can't allow Mr Gilroy to speak for you.”
“I will bring a challenge to Europe then — I feel I am not getting justice . . . I left school at 13,” said the man. “I have no complaint about Mr Gilroy's conduct as a McKenzie friend — but a person who assists someone else is not entitled to represent them and I must enforce that rule,” added the judge.
The man appeared to be reading from a script and regularly consulted with Gilroy who was sitting next to him. The judge gave judgement, but allowed an appeal to the Supreme Court, and put a stay of execution for three months. After the case I ask Gilroy, who has a background in security-camera installation, would he trust a judge to install a CCTV system? Why not let them do the job they are trained to do? “I understand what you're saying , but I have studied securitisation and banking for many years. I understand a good deal about court procedure. I can argue very well in court.” Even though Gilroy rejects the Freeman philosophy, he commonly argues in court about the entire process of securitisation of loans and other tactics like voiding court orders — which the Freeman groups argue for as well.
At the court, I give him a chance to retract a few of his controversial assertions — such as the Masonic conspiracy. “Even if there's one judge, that's one too many,” he says.
People Before Profit TD Joan Collins has been involved with bank-debt protests, but has reservations about some of the tactics being used. “If the Freeman movement is growing, it's because people are so frustrated and are latching on to any idea. The Labour and trade-union movement have failed them, so they fill the vacuum. One in seven mortgages are over 90 days in arrears.”
“Some of it involves being ‘men of the land' and ‘ bound by sea' and they check the number of strings on the harps in the court. I worry that if people are given false hope — and courts can be very overpowering places — if they're misinformed, they may find themselves in jail,” the TD added.
Before I leave I ask Gilroy what he'd do if he were Taoiseach. “The citizen is stymied by the EU and unelected bureaucrats are running Europe. We are a sovereign state abundant in everything here. We have fertile ground, but one in four children go to bed hungry because of politics. We could be the organic food centre of Europe and take control of oil and gas. Our government should issue debt-free currency and we'd never have a national debt. We just need to print our own money.”
‘We’re going to bring the whole thing to a standstill’ — developer Jerry Beades, centre left (holding brochure), protests
at an Allsop auction
‘Don’t call me right-wing and racist — I’m not’ —
Ben Gilroy at the Meath East
Jerry Beades with Bertie Ahern in a corporate box at Listowel Races in 2006