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Paws for thought

Paws for thought
Michael Walsh All pics: Cian Redmond

Who let the dogs out?

Cork-born Michael Walsh of ByrneWallace talks with Mary Hallissey about property, COVID’s business impact, diversity, and the drive to modernise Ireland

Good airport connectivity is a weighty factor in any multinational decision to locate in Dublin, Michael Walsh says. The head of property at ByrneWallace believes passionately in mobility, and points to London’s pre-eminence as a world city because of its deep investment in hyper-mobility for its huge population.

Paws for thought
Michael Walsh Pic: Cian Redmond

Paws for thought
Duke and Dora Pic: Cian Redmond

“We should have a developed underground and overground light-rail network in Dublin, for starters, and we just haven’t grasped that,” he says. Dublin must become truly safe to cycle, with pedestrian priority at key junctions, he adds, and decision-makers need to get to grips with clear gaps in the city’s transport infrastructure.

“Not having Dublin Airport linked by light rail to the city centre would be one of the things considered by multinationals,” he says. “Can my international workforce get home easily for the weekend to see their family?” they ask.

“If getting to the airport is a stressful, traffic-dependent event, that is not acceptable, in comparison to other capital cities.”

As a society, we are often not so good at making difficult decisions, he believes. “We need greater housing density in city centres and close to transport hubs, but we give undue weight to objections or concerns, even in suitable locations,” he says.

Beds, sheds and meds

Michael Walsh joined ByrneWallace in 1999 and, for the past decade, he has been head of property. He is also a member of the firm’s management committee. A UCC BCL and LLB graduate, he trained at the former Noel Smyth & Partners before moving to Beauchamps.

“A lot of my work in the ‘Celtic Tiger’ era was in retail-related development. I was involved in a number of retail and town-centre developments, including Dundrum Town Centre and Athlone Town Centre.

“The focus today is on ‘beds, sheds and meds’. A recent development we concluded was for Twinlite at Clongriffin, Dublin, which involved the construction of a 400-unit residential scheme that was forward-purchased by Tristan Capital.”

Michael also acted for Jaguar Land Rover in the expansion of its R&D facilities in Ireland, and for online retailer Zalando on its European HQ Dublin let.

But he has also seen some unwelcome changes: “We are doing a lot more work and taking on more responsibility, for lower fees. This is especially so since the post-Tiger recession, where huge market forces brought about the commoditisation of much of the work we do.”

Holding our own

“Conveyancing is no longer the ‘bread-and-butter’ work that it once was, which can be seen by the number of firms no longer proving private-client conveyancing services.”

When Michael qualified, the Irish market was largely domestic. Now it is a hugely international affair: “I believe the quality of legal service provided in Ireland is exceptionally high by international standards. We often face firms in other jurisdictions, and we ‘hold our own’ very well,” he says.

He observes a high degree of respect for property-owners in the Irish legal system. This legal certainty is what underlies the influx of foreign capital to the Irish property market. “There is a reason why international investors are interested in making very, very, considerable investments in Ireland – because we have a long-established history of clear laws that are judiciously and fairly applied, by a sophisticated and capable judiciary. My take is that, in general, the law will be biased towards the land-owner and the landlord,” he says.

The international investor is absolutely vital to the health and continued development of the Irish property market and economy generally, Michael believes. International investors deliver the financial capacity to allow for the development of the residential units needed as the population grows. The downside is the potential for over-dependence on that global capital.

“It’s a market that arrived very quickly and could equally evaporate,” Michael warns. “Governments have been quite aware of that, and it’s very important that there are no unannounced changes in tax status or in how regulated entities are treated, since such stability is one of the core reasons for investing in Ireland.”

The key challenge, politically, is to maintain the structures and tax regime substantially as it is, so as not to scare off investors, Michael says. Multinational clients are only interested in Ireland’s stable predictability, and would quickly reassess their investment decisions in light of any shocks.

Build-to-let schemes

Michael is currently working on what will be one of the first dedicated build-to-let schemes, in Santry in north Dublin, where he acted on the development and forward sale to an institutional entity. Such developments have the potential to bring in a new population base on a medium-term basis, he says.

“These developments have a particular planning use, which states that the individual units cannot be sold separately to each other and, therefore, the entire asset must be effectively held as one,” he says.

Because blocks are owned and managed by an institutional entity, the rented environment is maintained to a high international standard, and this is good for the living experience of the occupants. “That suggests to me that one can consider renting long-term in a development that has been designed exactly for that, knowing that the level of services is not going to wax and wane,” he says, pointing to mobile tech workers who plan to stay here for a number of years, without ever buying property.

“Our property market has been too focused on the traditional concept of the three-bed semi-detached house,” he says. “Arguably, we need different types of places to live – a more dynamic property market with more choice and fewer constraints.

“In European countries, it’s much more sophisticated, with many different types of places in which one can live – more suitable to the stage one is at in life,” he says.

Through supply and demand, the plethora of new student housing now on the market as a result of investor activity will moderate prices, he believes. However, with the virus, everything is up for grabs, and sensible business will respond in a flexible way to fill up the student beds that have been emptied out during lockdown, he says. And, with the tourism short-let market in flux, a significant number of properties will come back to private rental, with a knock-on price-moderation effect.

Post-virus impact

Dublin will need to rethink its overall strategy for the ‘new normal’, he adds. There will be change, post-virus, he believes: “Offices are not dead, but they will get smaller, because we will use them for meetings and in-person collaboration, and to do work that requires physical presence,” he says. “The future of city centres is the subject of a lot of high thinking, but businesses will have to be flexible around the wish to work from home,” he believes.

While the COVID shadow has been long and dark, it has also saved Ireland from an overly negative focus on Brexit, he believes: “We could easily have talked ourselves into perceiving things as worse than they actually are,” he muses.

While some sectors have seen significant Brexit impact, others, such as Irish mushroom growers, have already self-corrected and found new markets. “If there is anything we can say about the Irish market, it is that it is extremely agile. We will seek new markets and workarounds, such as freight transiting directly from the south of Ireland to France,” Michael says.

“The upside of a relatively small market is that we can pivot quite quickly and, so far, we’ve done a good job in restructuring to minimise the Brexit effects,” he says.

We compare much better than we give ourselves credit for, despite the inequalities that need to be addressed. “From my perspective, Ireland is the best country in which to live … if you consider the relative safety and security we have.”

Diversity of thought

Michael believes that diversity of thought is essential to the strength and resilience of any organisation – and in remaining resistant to groupthink and other limiting behaviours.

“We listen to our clients in ByrneWallace. We don’t lecture our clients. That type of partnership has a lot of resonance in the market. We work hard to try to avoid the trap of adopting the first view that’s expressed.

“Rigour demands that you look at a problem from an number of different perspectives, for example, by bringing in a contentious lawyer into a non-contentious matter. We always find that the additional layer creates such texture and colour in terms of the advice that we give,” says Michael.

Diversity and inclusivity benefits everyone, and visible role models are important for younger lawyers, he says. As a gay man, he believes that the profession has made huge progress on sex discrimination, LGBT, and other equality issues. “This is not just a numbers game, but also we see diversity at the level of market leaders – our former managing partner Catherine Guy was one of a number of leading female solicitors who made it to the top.”

Michael points to subtle, yet powerful changes, such as the recent Law Society initiative to change the salutation in letters from the traditional ‘Dear Sirs’ to move away from the third-person masculine default.

The second city

Cork is a very different place now to the city he left 30 years ago “without any job offer”, Michael muses. Ireland’s second city has huge potential to become a credible alternative to Dublin, with the proper macro-level investment, he believes.

He makes the point that we should apply the same tolerance for national debt in the context of how much money was made available for COVID supports, in order to make the types of investments that would transform the regions and address so many of the inequalities that still remain.

Working from home in rural areas, with high-speed broadband, offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink our relationship with the physical place, as we become more electronic and digital in our dealings.

“I wouldn’t rule out returning to Cork – it’s a very vibrant, vital city. Cork people have huge pride in their city and country. But when I moved to Dublin, I realised the landscape was broader and wider.

"Dublin had an incredible energy in the early 1990s. It felt to me like a pluralist, open-minded place, where culture had meaning, and commerce was starting to look overseas for clients and business. The energy was infectious, and that was even reflected in its clubbing culture. It had an amazing night-time culture as well as a daytime economy, and it provided a good place for me to develop as a person.

“Competition between two cities can only be good, and Cork just needs a leg-up to position itself to compete with Dublin. If I’ve learned anything from business, it’s that competition brings out the best in both.”

Modernising the profession

In his sixth year on the Law Society’s Conveyancing Committee, Michael has just been appointed vice-chair and will take the chair role in due course.

As part of his duties, he was the convenor of the Pre-Contract Investigation of Title Task Force that brought about the 2019 Conditions of Sale, a major Law Society initiative with a quick turnaround. He also has ongoing work on a number of the Conveyancing Committee’s other task forces, dealing with commercial certificates of title, landlord and tenant, and the building agreements for the new homes market.

“My work for the Law Society is symbiotic with my work as a lawyer,” he says. “Usually I will get involved in areas of special interest to me or where I have particular experience. I tend to shy away from areas where I feel there are better experts than me, and that seems to work for everyone.

“There is a strong sense of camaraderie on the committee and task forces. It is an excellent forum for the sharing of knowledge and ideas, and bringing about change,”
he says.

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