Sunday 24 September 2017

Obituaries: Ex-Irish Permanent boss Edmund A Farrell

The former Irish Permanent chief was a captain of industry in the Haughey era, says Liam Collins

ASTUTE: Edmund Farrell, former head of the Irish Permanent, leaving the Moriarty tribunal in 1999. Photo: Chris Doyle
ASTUTE: Edmund Farrell, former head of the Irish Permanent, leaving the Moriarty tribunal in 1999. Photo: Chris Doyle
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

There was something incongruous about Dr Edmund A. Farrell, a tall, patrician figure in a well-cut Italian suit and one of Ireland's wealthy elite back when not many people had money, donning a pair of boxing gloves to mock-spar with an aspiring young lightweight Monaghan boxer with a squeaky voice called Barry McGuigan.

Maybe he had some interest in pugilism but if he had he kept it well hidden in the ballroom of the Shelbourne Hotel where a lucrative sponsorship deal between the Irish Permanent Building Society and McGuigan's manager, the Belfast promoter Barney Eastwood, was unveiled sometime in the mid-Eighties.

The Irish Temperance Permanent Benefit Society, founded in 1884, became the Irish Permanent Building Society in 1940, with Edmund Farrell Snr as company secretary, and later managing director, until his death in 1975.

Its mission was taking deposits and "the provision of advances for the purchase of private dwellings" and it became in effect the Farrell family business when, on the death of his father, Edmund A Farrell succeeded him at the tender age of 28.

A qualified doctor, Farrell had never practised because of an inner ear infection and his new position and handsome salary suited the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed.

By the mid-Eighties, the Irish Permanent Building Society was the biggest such institution in the State with an imposing headquarters on St Stephen's Green and later Westmoreland Street, which was named after Farrell Snr.

Living in a large stone-cut mansion on Merrion Avenue in south Dublin (now the Iranian embassy), Farrell was astute enough to anticipate the coming era of big business and sports sponsorship and so he latched on to the Barry McGuigan bandwagon.

The Irish Permanent was also accused of "ambushing" Opel, the official sponsors of the Republic of Ireland soccer team, during the Jack Charlton era by doing a side deal with the players. The matter was settled on the steps of the High Court, and although both sides claimed victory, the motor company won out.

The Irish Permanent was by far and away the biggest of the building societies, benefiting from an avalanche of money in the Eighties.

Building societies, unlike banks, were not obliged to disclose the identities of depositors to Revenue. Deposits in building societies shot up from 5 per cent to 18 per cent of the total money on deposit in financial institutions by 1985.

As befitting a captain of industry in the Eighties, Edmund Farrell would frequently ring the Taoiseach's office to invite the then incumbent, Charles Haughey, "to luncheon".

In time, the Taoiseach, who would become the beneficiary of considerable sums of the building society's money, would return the calls and reciprocate the lunch dates in his office.

After an event in the Berkeley Court, Haughey told Farrell pointedly in 1981 that campaign funds "were low" and a sizeable donation was made to himself and the Fianna Fail party. Dr Farrell also contributed a substantial amount for a painting to celebrate Haughey's decade-long tenure as leader of Fianna Fail.

With changing trends in the financial world, and coming under increasing criticism for his autocratic style, Dr Farrell, as he styled himself, recruited heavy-hitters from the Dublin financial scene such as Roy Douglas, John Bourke, Peter Fitzpatrick and Peter Ledbetter ahead of the public flotation of the company.

However, in mid-1993, in the run-up to the flotation of the society, the board dismissed him as chief executive after it was discovered that he had sold Grassmere, his new Foxrock home, to the society for £275,000, and after the society had invested £400,000 in upgrading the grand property, sold it back to him for the original sale price.

He was also accused of inserting a 'golden handcuff' deal in his contract which entitled him to a £300,000 payment, and another £200,000 as a tax-free lump sum from a patent company associated with 'The Permo'.

Several court actions ensued with Dr Farrell suing over pension entitlements while the Irish Permanent countersued him for €1.3m. Grassmere was sold during the housing boom and the Farrells moved to Booterstown, Co Dublin.

Dr Farrell died at the age of 67 in the Bon Secours hospital in Dublin last Monday and is survived by his wife Zora, two daughters and a son.

Sunday Independent

Also in Business