Sean Quinn: Former billionaire remains a local hero
He was once Ireland's richest man. But now Sean Quinn is bankrupt, under siege from the Irish government – and an unlikely local hero
Belfast-born David McKittrick has been reporting on Northern Ireland since 1971, He has written for the East Antrim Times, the Irish Times and was The Independent's Irish correspondent for many years. He is the author of several books including Making Sense of the Troubles (2000) and Lost Lives (1999).
Friday 03 August 2012
Not long ago he was Ireland's richest man, with a personal fortune of billions, a fabulous international property portfolio and a private jet complete with gold bathroom fixtures. But those days have gone: Sean Quinn – once known as the Mighty Quinn – is now bankrupt and embroiled in complex legal battles to preserve remnants of his once immense empire.
His nephew Peter Darragh Quinn, facing a prison sentence over his role in the financial fallout, has fled to Northern Ireland. Beyond the reach of the southern civil courts, he has taunted the authorities with public appearances at Gaelic sports fixtures, apparently unconcerned about being photographed in the stands.
His uncle Sean was one of the most spectacular casualties of the Republic of Ireland's economic collapse, losing billions in the financial fiasco.
Yet despite his troubles, and the many allegations made against him, the 65-year-old entrepreneur remains a local hero in his native border area of Fermanagh and Cavan.
Starting from a small-scale gravel business, he expanded into cement, healthcare, hotels and shopping centres, and built up a huge insurance concern. He and his family are credited with providing thousands of jobs in a generally neglected area, with thousands turning out at a recent rally in support of him.
A woman at the demonstration explained: "The area would be nothing without that family. There would be no employment here if it were not for them."
The initial story of his life was one of a self-made man who, in accumulating fabulous riches, never forgot his humble origins, looking after his workforce and always ready to contribute to local causes.
The new Quinn narrative, however, is very different. He admits that some of his financial troubles are due to his own mistakes, but maintains the authorities are pursuing a vendetta against his family, with his son in jail in Dublin. Sean Quinn himself may face prison if he does not co-operate with the courts.
He blames the Dublin government and the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, set up to deal with the affairs of the toxic Anglo-Irish bank which cost the Irish taxpayer billions. He lost a large part of his fortune in extraordinarily rash dealings with Anglo.
The IBRC is tasked with tracing half a billion euros of missing cash which it suspects is stashed in a network of secret offshore accounts in locations which include Moscow, Belize, Switzerland, Kiev and the Virgin Islands. The state-owned IBRC has repeatedly taken Quinn to court as it seeks to retrieve the money on behalf of the taxpayer.
His response is to counterattack, declaring: "Mistakes in business should not result in a life sentence. They are doing everything in their power to destroy us and they've done a damn good job of it."
Accused of being obstructive and unco-operative, he choked back tears as he told a court he is acting with honour and integrity.
The courts do not believe him. One judge, Ms Justice Dunne, concluded that the conduct of Quinn, his son and his nephew was "as far removed from the concept of honour and respectability as it is possible to be".
They were evasive and unco-operative, she charged, and had acted in a blatant, dishonest and deceitful manner.
Another judge found the family had put in place a devious system "of mesmeric complexity reeking of dishonesty and sharp practice designed to feather the Quinns' own nest".
A judge in Belfast reached similar conclusions, declaring that the Quinns' behaviour "smacks irresistibly of an orchestrated, elaborate and illicit charade".
Last month, the Dublin High Court sentenced Quinn's son Sean Jnr and his nephew Peter Darragh Quinn to 90 days in prison for their contempt of previous orders instructing them to desist from moving overseas assets beyond the reach of the IBRC.
Sean Jnr is currently held in a low-security unit but Peter Darragh Quinn has fled the Republic
A warrant has been issued for his arrest in the south, but no attempt has been to arrest him in the north. It is reported he may be safe from extradition since the matter is civil rather than criminal. Sean Quinn himself was not jailed, apparently in the hope he would change his stance.
A lawyer acting for him said it was wrong to lock up one member of the family in the hope another would act, protesting against "this almost medieval approach of holding the son to see what the chieftain father will do".
The judge responded that this was a practical way of trying to encourage compliance with orders.
Other legal proceedings are on-going, such as lawsuits the IBRC has filed in Cyprus, the Ukraine, Sweden and elsewhere to prevent the Quinns moving assets around. The legal saga will go on for years.
There is clearly support and sympathy for the family in Fermanagh and Cavan, Quinn country, where there is a fervent hope that jobs they created can be preserved.
Elsewhere in Ireland, however, this is balanced by the belief that at least half a billion euros of taxpayers' money is somewhere out there in the financial ether and should be recovered.
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