This article was originally published by The Business Post.
**Appearance:** An unlikely warrior
**Newsworthiness:** The anti-repossession campaigner has just struck a deal with AIB
David Hall, the public face of Ireland’s anti-repossession movement, has spent the past four years waging a multi-faceted guerrilla war against the establishment. He has engaged a range of tactics – from sipping tea on the sets of morning television shows to nit-picking legislation for errant apostrophes.
Invariably, inevitably, Hall’s insurrection has targeted one group in particular: the banks.
Yes, he has criticised politicians, policymakers and regulators for failing to tackle the country’s chronic mortgage crisis. But in the world according to David Hall, banks remain the root of the problem, retaining excessive control in their dealings with hard-pressed borrowers.
So there was some surprise in official, and banking, circles when Hall last week announced an entente with the biggest bank of them all: Allied Irish Banks, 99.8 per cent owned by the state. It has agreed to provide Hall’s advocacy body, the Irish Mortgage Holders Association (IMHA), with €150,000 to run a third party body that will advise distressed mortgage holders.
Essentially, AIB is paying the association a stipend to act as an independent mediator between the bank, along with its EBS and Haven subsidiaries, and customers seeking a permanent restructuring of their mortgage.
The money is for a six month pilot programme, but the expectation is that AIB will dig deeper into its coffers in the coming months as demand for the service escalates.
The money will be used to scale up the association, with five new staff on the way. The deal brings Hall and his fledgling association into the big league, guaranteeing it a place at the negotiating table.
So just who is David Hall, and how did the 42-year-old Dubliner become the voice of a generation trapped by boom time mortgages and crippling negative equity? And, as his organisation and influence grows, what is the long term plan for both Hall and the IMHA?
”David is a genuine guy,” said one close friend. ”He is a believer. He believes he can make a difference. He sees a problem and, unlike most people, he will try and do something about it. He has always been like that.”
Altruism aside, it is difficult to understand why, and how, Hall has spent the last four years lobbying, agitating, arguing and litigating. For a start, he has a pretty sizable business to run. A qualified paramedic, he established Lifeline Ambulance Service in 1999 with money he borrowed from his parents.
In the early days, he was a one man operation, with Hall driving the ambulance rather than a car to keep his costs down. Today, it is the largest private ambulance company in the country with 44 vans on the road and 70 full-time staff.
The company moves 20,000 patients a year and coordinates the transplant of organs and blood products. It is a tough bruising business, however, and Hall has been forced to fastidiously guard his patch, taking several legal actions over how the HSE allocates business to private ambulance operators.
This has brought him into sharp contact with HSE unions, who wield significant control over the ambulance service. Despite his social conscience, Hall has a capitalist core – last year, he presented the Minister for Health, James Reilly, with PricewaterhouseCoopers research that said the HSE could save between €18 million and €30 million by privatising routine ambulance routes.
The business has been hit by the decline in the health insurance market and turnover has fallen slightly to around €5 million a year. Nonetheless, it remains robustly profitable – in the last few days alone, it has placed orders for four more ambulances.
Hall spends 50 per cent of his working week on Lifeline, most of it remotely – he is known to carry around a battery of mobile phones and portable electronic devices. His long-standing management team at the Co Kildare based company take care of the nuts and bolts day to day business.
The Lifeline profits have enabled Hall to fund his work as a campaigner. Certainly, he has not made much monetary gain from his mortgage work.
He said last week that he has earned the sum total of €450 from his advocacy activities in the last three years, all of which came courtesy of three separate appearances on the Marian Finucane show on RTE, which paid €150 apiece.
By contrast, he estimates that he has spent close to €100,000 of his own money funding his various causes.
First there was New Beginnings, the action group for struggling borrowers that he co-founded with barristers Ross Maguire and Vincent Martin in late 2010. The group was conceived by the three friends over coffee to provide legal representation to traumatised borrowers and to take on the banks.
To an extent it succeeded, representing hundreds of borrowers and even securing some write downs from banks. Its biggest success, however, came when Maguire spotted that a clause routinely used by lenders to repossess property had been left out of the new Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act.
New Beginnings won a landmark test case, which stalled any repossession that has started since December 2009. The government is only now getting to grips with the problem, and has been forced to amend legislation to deal with the so-called Dunne judgement.
However, Hall and New Beginnings parted company in July 2012, when Hall grew frustrated with the body and resigned. Hall said he disagreed with the route that the advocacy body was taking, and felt it should be more vocal.
Hall felt that the much heralded personal insolvency legislation was a smoke-and-mirrors game, stacked in favour of the banks. Officially at least, New Beginning gave the new legislation a cautious thumbs-up.
He quickly launched the Irish Mortgage Holders Association. This left two not-for-profit bodies occupying the one space – helping and advising distressed borrowers. Fortunately for both, there is more than enough distress to go around, with more than 82,000 mortgages in arrears of more than 90 days.
Hall’s group scored a coup in September when property company Allsop Space signed an agreement with the IMHA committing that neither it nor its subsidiary companies will offer repossessed family homes for sale at auction.
Not content with tackling the government on mortgage reform, Hall has also gone legal over the bank bailout. Hall believes that the state’s decision to issue €30 billion-plus worth of promissory notes to the former Anglo Irish Bank, the EBS and the Irish Nationwide Building Society was unlawful, and asked the High Court to back him up.
The court ruled that he was not a TD so could not take the case, a point he has appealed to the Supreme Court. In his absence, the independent TD Joan Collins has adopted the case, and it remains live.
Many have tried to second guess his motivation for his work, with reports linking him to a tilt at political office. A former member of Fianna Fail (he left in 2008), he was particularly close to the late finance minister Brian Lenihan. There has been speculation in recent weeks that he may run for the European Parliament, although he has distanced himself from such speculation.
Not that he is ruling out politics altogether, although it is likely he would run in his Dublin West constituency as an independent. His appeal is obvious – he has tapped into the recession zeitgeist and is regarded as an honest broker, struggling for the little man.
”Sometimes people look for a motivation when there is none,” said one close friend. ”With David, there is nothing more to it than he believes in the cause. He has always been a campaigner. Look at his record.”
The record is certainly impressive. In 1991, while working for a different ambulance company, Hall regularly took young patients on day trips around the country. When one girl said she would really like to see an upcoming Bon Jovi concert, Hall and his colleagues got in touch with the band’s record company and made it happen.
Hall then established the Irish branch of the Make A Wish foundation, an international charity that works with children with life-threatening illnesses, and worked as voluntary chief executive for a decade.
In 1999, Hall joined the international Make A Wish board, and, two years later, was asked to chair it internationally. When his term expired, he was approached by the singer Ronan Keating’s family about helping establish the Marie Keating Foundation. He ended up chairing the charity for more than seven years, and is now on the board of the Beaumont Hospital Foundation.
Indeed, he even volunteered with St John Ambulance as a teenager before studying social science at NUI Maynooth. While there, he spent a year as vice president of the students union – his future New Beginnings co-founder Vincent Martin was president.
He trained as a paramedic in Britain, before returning to Ireland, first to work for, and then to establish his own, ambulance company. He is married to Sue, a nurse, and they have four year old twin girls.
Nominally his hobby is golf, although he has not played in more than a year. Instead, his time is burned away meeting with politicians and policy makers and media appearances.
He has other business interests too, although he recently sold his small minority holding in the Fitzwilliam card club in Dublin – he was a former chairman of the Gaming and Leisure Association of Ireland, an industry lobby group. He has also made some property investments, some of which have gone sour. He revealed last year to The Sunday Times that he had restructured his debts to ”protect my family, my staff and my business”.
His foray into debt advice has upset some in the industry, with many brokers and financial advisers feeling his non profit organisation is encroaching onto their patch. Many point out that his body is not regulated and not therefore accountable.
They are right – there is no requirement for the IMHA to be regulated as it has a charitable status.
Nonetheless, last Friday, the group applied to the Central Bank to be regulated under the new debt management legislation, a move which will give the Central Bank oversight of its client engagement.
”The advisers are annoyed because he is taking their business and doing it at a fraction of the cost. They are in it to make profit, the association is not,” said once source.
Some finance sources think Hall’s ultimate goal is become the Irish version of Step Change, the British creditor-funded debt management charity that is now (successfully) running the Central Bank’s burden-sharing pilot scheme.
”There’s clearly a gap in terms of domestic providers of scale to run large programmes like this and if Hall can aggregate enough financial advisors who don’t want the hassle of trying to get a foot in the door with AIB and the other banks, he could mimic their model,” said one analyst.
For now, however, Hall intends to keep going, and keep battling the banks. He has been pointing out flaws in the new insolvency regime and campaigning for amendments and changes.
The campaigner will keep on campaigning.