Soros’s Foundation Fights Irish Bankers Over Home Foreclosures

  • Billionaire’s Open Society makes legal case against evictions
  • Banks get new headache with $4.9 billion of mortgage arrears

George Soros.

Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

War crimes, attacks on media freedom in former communist states and prejudice against Europe’s Muslims. Now mortgages in Ireland have made it onto the ignominious list for George Soros’s campaigners.

The billionaire investor’s Open Society Foundations is opening a new front in the fight against evictions as the legacy of one of the worst real-estate market crashes in history continues to haunt Ireland. About one in 10 Irish mortgages is in arrears, or 4.5 billion euros ($4.9 billion) of missed payments, and foreclosures tripled over the last five years.

“Essentially, we are aiming to apply a human rights approach in repossession cases,” said Marguerite Angelari, senior attorney at Soros’s organization. “It looks pretty easy to get a repossession order in Ireland. Based on European Union law, it shouldn’t be.”

It’s an indictment of the problems still facing Ireland, as the legacy of the financial crash plays out in court rooms. Now 86, Soros created his foundation almost 40 years ago and it tackles some of the world’s most “intractable problems,” according to its website. Among its fiercest critics are Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the self-styled champion of “illiberal democracy.”

While Angelari is based in Budapest, she’s spent the last nine months focusing on courtrooms 1,200 miles away in Dublin. Open Society is spending about 100,000 euros working with Irish lawyers and helping finance seminars across the country highlighting what it says is a failure of Irish courts to apply European law in eviction cases.

“We began looking at six countries -- Spain, Ireland, the U.K., Hungary, Croatia and Greece,” said Angelari. “But since April, I have been exclusively working on Ireland, partly because of the severe mortgage crisis there and partly because there has been most interest from there.”

Cultural Taboo

It’s not the first time Ireland has drawn in Soros. On the investment side, his hedge fund built a stake in Hibernia REIT Plc, which sold shares in 2013, helping to finance its commercial and residential developments across Dublin. Last year, the fund sold it. 

For bankers, the cases driven by his foundation are another headache. Evictions are traditionally a cultural taboo in Ireland given the country’s history of poverty and British rule. Opposition lawmakers seize any opportunity to halt foreclosure.

The group representing Irish lenders, Banking & Payments Federation Ireland, said it’s “monitoring the situation closely” as the new legal challenges unfold. “This has the potential to be yet another impediment that lenders can face in exercising their rights in respect of their security,” the Dublin-based organization said in response to questions.

Pressed in parliament on the questions highlighted by Open Society, the government said it’s taking legal advice.

Patience Please

Late last year, the campaigners scored a win, helping one Irish couple gain the right to challenge the repossession of their home. According to court reports, confirmed by their lawyer, the case involved a loan of about 130,000 euros taken out to refinance the family’s debts as the nation’s real estate bubble began to ebb. By 2009, the couple was in default, and five years later, was served with repossession papers.

Their lawyer, Gary Fitzgerald, argued that the terms of the contract were unfair, and seizing the couple’s home would breach their rights. The judge in the case agreed to a judicial review, which has yet to be heard. 

The case is starting to having a ripple effect, with local court officials in Waterford in the south of Ireland postponing some foreclosure cases until the legal ground is firmer.

“All parties here need to be patient,” said Niall Rooney, court registrar in the city. “I fully understand the pressure that both sides in these cases are experiencing, but the need for calm now cannot be overstated.”

— With assistance by Peter Flanagan

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