The banker who became Ireland's most hated man

Sean Fitzpatrick's reckless lending helped to bring the Celtic Tiger to its knees. David McKittrick finds out what he did next

Monday 31 January 2011 01:00

Sean Fitzpatrick, Ireland's most toxic banker, is so unpopular that in a recent charity auction, 30 people competed for the opportunity to push the button of a wrecking machine to crush his old BMW car.

Mr Fitzpatrick, the former head of Anglo Irish Bank, is the most unpopular man in Ireland, blamed more than any other individual for the country's economic disaster. He could be described as Ireland's Sir Fred Goodwin but he is held responsible for much more than excessive bank bonuses. The charge against him is he virtually bankrupted Ireland, wrecking the living standards of generations to come through a mixture of economic illiteracy, vanity and, above all, greed.

His BMW was repossessed after he was declared bankrupt. The opportunity to destroy it was advertised on eBay: "This is your chance to crush this cursed car which is the symbol of all that was wrong with the Celtic Tiger." His bankruptcy hearings were told all he had left was €500 (£430)in cash, a monthly income of €188, a two-year-old Volkswagen Passat and the BMW, said to have no value. Technically, he had assets worth €51m. Trouble is, he had also run up personal debts €147m. He is said to be financially reliant on his wife who, luckily for him, has assets of more than €1m.

Although he said he accepted "full responsibility for my own ruin", he has at other points been notably less penitent. He is also toxic politically: the recent revelation that Brian Cowen, the Prime Minister, golfed and socialised with him some years ago contributed considerably to Mr Cowen's resignation. Although nothing illegal is alleged, that golf game symbolised the existence of a circle of cronyism encompassing the ruling Fianna Fail party, builders, developers and bankers, particularly Mr Fitzpatrick.

Most go along with the assertion of Jose Manuel Barroso that Ireland's problems "were created by the irresponsible financial behaviour of some Irish institutions and by the lack of supervision in the Irish market". The European Commission President did not name Sean Fitzpatrick: he did not have to.

Mr Fitzpatrick started his career as a chartered accountant. He never excelled in exams, but he took the helm at Anglo in the mid-1980s. Back then he resented Dublin's big established bankers for looking down their noses at him, regarding him as "not quite one of us". But his moment came with the arrival of the "Celtic Tiger" boom and the unprecedented expansion of the construction sector.

During these years, Dublin's skyline was dotted with large cranes as hundreds of developments took shape. The government did all it could to encourage building and speculation, offering new incentives and relaxing lending regulations. Mr Fitzpatrick was vociferous in saying government should get off the backs of the bankers. "The tide of regulation has gone far enough," he declared. "We should be proud of our success, not suspicious of it." He was regarded as so successful that some of the bigger banks were drawn to compete with him.

Mr Fitzpatrick proudly strutted around Dublin, a snappy dresser with the sharpest of suits and trademark bow ties and expensive shirts. He was debonair, well-mannered and companionable, with a ready smile and a readiness to give advice – though many lived to regret that they took it. He was never fully accepted socially into the highest echelons of banking, but then he did not need to be: he golfed with ministers and built a social network among the rich and powerful. The outsider became the ultimate insider. He did not, however, adopt a full set of airs and graces: he continued to live in a comfortable but not ostentatious house.

His preoccupation was with Anglo's balance sheet, as in the course of a decade its loans zoomed from €3bn to €73bn. As such, he was one of the main creators of a new culture, that of getting very rich very quickly.

When the international crisis hit, Ireland crashed further than most countries as its building bubble burst. And Anglo crashed most spectacularly of all, notching up the biggest losses in Irish corporate history. The authorities were forced to deploy ever-larger guarantees to guarantee bank deposits and loans. Anglo was nationalised as the government desperately tried to avert the collapse of the entire financial system. But the scale of the problems was so big that it overwhelmed the government, which last month finally admitted defeat and called in the IMF and EU for a huge bailout.

In the impending general election, Fianna Fail will be punished for its ruinous policies. Mr Cowen has been swept away: his successor, Micheal Martin, has said how sorry he is for the party's mistakes. But the public anger directed at Mr Fitzpatrick is even greater and has been fuelled by revelations of his highly unorthodox dealings within Anglo.

Two years ago it was revealed he had taken secret personal loans of €87m from his own bank, avoiding scrutiny for eight years by temporarily transferring the loans to another bank so they would not be spotted in annual audits. When his conduct became public, he resigned from Anglo and other boards. "The transfer of the loans between banks did not in any way breach banking or legal regulations," he maintained. "However, it is clear to me, on reflection, that it was inappropriate and unacceptable from a transparency point of view."

It later emerged he had developed into something a deal junkie, using the undisclosed money to invest in dozens of ventures in property, shares and other projects. In other words, he secretly used Anglo as his own personal piggy bank. He used the bank's funds to take stakes in a Nigerian oil project and a casino in Asia. He was to admit: "I would invest here, there and everywhere. I'd say: 'Yeah, yeah, that sounds great, put me in for that.'"

There were other apparent irregularities. Most of his investments turned out be foolish, meaning that today he owes Anglo €110m.

It came as little surprise when, in March 2010, the police moved in on his seaside home south of Dublin, arresting him on suspicion of fraud. A substantial file has been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

In interviews for a new book, The Fitzpatrick Tapes, the banker offered apologies. "I am very happy to put my hands up," he said. "I am very happy to apologise to all my creditors. I don't feel ashamed but I do feel regret, very serious regret, and I am sorry that it is going to cause people losses."

He also conveyed, however, that he viewed himself more as a victim than a villain, arguing that blame should also be shared by regulators, the government, punters, investors and colleagues. His words have done nothing to improve his standing in Ireland, where his actions brought national ruin, saddling taxpayers with debts of tens of billions of euros.

He is still seen as the rogue who had his own rogue bank, as the bankrupt banker who went from hero to zero. And zero, coincidentally, is both the state of his reputation and of his current personal worth.

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