INTERVIEW: We meet Ireland's first female sheriff

The first female sheriff in Ireland tells Dan Buckley she opposes positive discrimination

INTERVIEW: We meet Ireland's first female sheriff

Juggling two jobs, a young family and a two-hour daily commute to and from work is challenging, to say the least, concedes Sinead McNamara, the newly appointed Cork County Sheriff and a solicitor with a commercial practice.

Appointed in March, she has hit the ground running, relocating the Sheriff’s office from the South Mall to her own office at Fitzgerald Solicitors on Lapp’s Quay where she is a partner.

“I am double jobbing at the moment and that is a bit of a challenge,” says McNamara. “There are different processes involved with this new job but the sheriff staff have been fantastic. They are so experienced and have made the transition very easy. I also have received huge support from my colleagues and other sheriffs around the country, particularly the Cork City Sheriff, Martin Harvey. He has been a huge support to me.”

Still, there are only so many hours in the day, as McNamara is discovering. “At the moment, half my time is spent on sheriff’s business and half as a solicitor where I do a lot of commercial and banking work and it means long working hours.

“That will probably change as things go on. It is a very exciting time and, as I develop into the role, I should be able to ease back, but I am not exhausted by it yet. I am what my mother-in-law describes as ‘happy tired’ and that’s a good thing.”

She lives in Clonakilty with her husband, Shane McCarthy, who works as a solicitor in Skibbereen. They have three little girls, aged five, four and the youngest who will be two in June. “Shane has a shorter commute and no traffic issues, unlike me. I used to try and leave at 7am to get to town for 8, but with school for the eldest, it is not so easy. The journey normally takes an hour but, if I leave late, it can take up to an hour-and-a-half. You could say I come to work for a break,” she says, cheerfully.

Rather than rail against the inconvenience, McNamara savours the solitude while driving. “I enjoy the commute because it gives me time to catch up on the news and the hour on my own each way is bliss. At work, it is all systems go the minute I come in the door and then in the evening I go home to my three girls where I am Mom and not the sheriff. I try not to bring work home with me too often as the day here in the office is long enough and the children are entitled to the exclusive time with me.”

As sheriff, her hardest job is to wrestle payment from reluctant debtors but back at the ranch in Clonakilty, “my biggest challenge is to wean the baby off the bottle”.

Originally from Cork city, McNamara is one of four sheriffs in Ireland — two in Dublin and two in Cork — who combine the powers of Revenue Commissioners’ officials and county registrar.

As Cork County Sheriff, she operates within the remit of the departments of Justice and Finance and the Revenue Commissioners. She is responsible for enforcing court orders in civil debt, the collection of tax debts on behalf of the Revenue Commissioners, and acting as returning officer in general elections and referenda.

Apart from the Cork and Dublin sheriffs, there are 12 more ‘revenue’ sheriffs nationwide whose primary responsibility is to collect taxes on behalf of the Collector General.

It is a busy time for sheriffs these days, as the recession has brought hundreds of business people and householders to the brink of bankruptcy — and despair.

“Every case is difficult,” she says. “There are very different types of debtors. There are those who won’t pay and those who can’t pay. It is a lot easier to use the full extent of the law against those who are resisting you than it is to do so against someone who has never been in the situation before and would love to pay but simply can’t.

“There are some very sad cases out there and you would not be human if you did not feel sorry for some people, particularly those who have never found themselves in debt before.”

While McNamara is the first woman sheriff in the country, she firmly believes that all such appointments should remain on merit alone, without any gender preference or weighting. “I would hate to think I got the job because I am a woman and there was a better male candidate. I respect those who advocate positive discrimination but I am not a fan myself. I would much rather see a better system of child care because the current situation makes it difficult for women to stay in jobs once they start a family. The drop-out rate is a lot higher for women than men so, if you get child care right, it will ensure women can stay in the workforce. I prefer that approach.”

She often meets people at their most vulnerable. “I feel particularly sorry for people who sold farms and put the money into bank shares and are now wiped out. These are people who are awash with debt and, unless they get a windfall, their situation will not improve. Also, where children are involved, it can make things even more difficult.”

She also points to the merits on the other side of the equation where creditors may be in dire straits because they are owed large sums of money.

“Some of the figures owed are quite significant. I have on my desk a civil matter where €120,000 is owed and that’s a lot of money. If, for instance a small contractor, like a plumber, is owed €50,000 that could mean he cannot pay staff or the rates or people he brought goods from. Debt like that has a knock-on effect, so it is important to have a system in place to try and recover at least some of it.

“My role is to get money for people who are owed that money. When a hard-pressed creditor gets what they are owed it makes a huge difference to them and they are very grateful to the sheriff’s office. I sometimes get phone calls from people who say they are so relieved to receive a cheque from us as it takes the pressure off. At the end of the day, that is what the job is about: helping people.”

In the process, though, some will get hurt. “The hardest thing is when you are dealing with repossession of a family home where a bank has gone to court and been granted a Possession Order. It is not easy to get one and seizures are not increasing but I imagine they will, down the road.

“If the house has been vacated, it is not too bad, but it is hard if the family are still there and there are children involved. It is my duty, though, not to look at the merits of any individual case. That has already been decided. I am not the judge or jury — just the executioner.”

Figure of myth and reality

To the uninitiated, there are two kinds of sheriff: One is the despotic Sheriff of Nottingham in hot pursuit of Robin Hood. The other is the tamer of the American Wild West, beloved of schoolboys and Hollywood.

Ireland’s sheriffs are neither. Originally comprising a single ‘high sheriff’ with many ‘under-sheriffs’, the office is a remnant of English law introduced into Ireland in the 12th century, when sheriffs acted as agents of the king.

After independence, the 1926 Court Officers Act abolished the office of high-sheriff and transferred under-sheriff functions to county registrars.

It looked like Ireland’s sheriffs would bite the dust, but obfuscation won the day, with under-sheriffs continuing to operate.

With Dublin’s country registrar stretched to the limit, the Court Officers Act 1945 (amended in 1964) saw the re-transfer of powers back to the city sheriff.

This was repeated elsewhere until 1980 when 12 revenue sheriffs were appointed, with primary responsibility to collect taxes on behalf of the collector general.

Dublin and Cork each have two sheriffs — city and county — with wider responsibilities, among them acting as returning officers in general elections and referendums.

Each sheriff is obliged to establish, finance and supply his or her own office. In respect of goods and property seizures, they are paid a fee known as ‘poundage’, which is set at 5% of the first €5,500 seized and 2.5% of the rest.

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