News Courts

Thursday 18 September 2014

Lise Hand: Court 19 settles in for what may be the State's longest criminal trial

Published 06/02/2014 | 02:30

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The media outside the court. Inset from left, William McAteer, Sean FitzPatrick, Pat Whelan
Sean FitzPatrick

DUBLIN'S Criminal Courts of Justice complex is a jaw-dropping building. Completed in 2009, it's a €140m homage to architecture, 11 storeys of glass, steel and wood gracefully displayed under a soaring atrium, a lasting reminder that the country once had the funds to spend on beautiful things.

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In the centre of the great hall, there's a fleet of glass-walled lifts silently whisking visitors up to the top floor, where Circuit Criminal Court 19 can be found.

But it wasn't difficult to find Court 19 yesterday. A steady stream of lawyers lugging boxes, bewigged senior counsel, all sorts of interested parties, dozens of reporters and members of the public streamed through the doors for the opening day of the trial of three former executives of Anglo Irish Bank: Sean FitzPatrick, who was chairman; Pat Whelan former MD of lending in Ireland; and William McAteer, who was Anglo's chief risk officer and director of group finance. The three men have pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

The courtroom has the feel of a well-appointed church, with a muted congregation sitting attentively in rows of wooden pews, surrounded by oak-panelled walls and a vaguely reverential atmosphere.

Or perhaps the atmosphere was more akin to that of a planeload of passengers settling into their seats for a long-haul flight, spreading out their stuff around them, mentally preparing for the lengthy odyssey ahead.

There was an unhurried air about proceedings as the first day of the case unfolded. All involved are aware that it may run for the next four months until May 31, which would make it the longest criminal case heard in the history of the State.

The room was packed not only with spectators and participants, but also with stacks of large cardboard boxes crammed with folders – the case involves 25 million pages of evidence.

The complexity of the trial soon became clear. It took the presiding judge Martin Nolan some time to read out the names of the 103 witnesses on the list and the reading of the list of charges against the former Anglo Irish Bank executives took almost 20 minutes.

Throughout it all, on the left hand side of the court-room, the three accused men sat quietly and silently in the dock. Pat Whelan, the youngest at 41, wore a dark suit and pale, open-necked shirt with no tie. Next to him in the centre sat Sean FitzPatrick, clad in a dark suit, blue and white check shirt and rose-pink tie, and on the other side of him was William McAteer, who was dressed in a white shirt, light pink tie and dark suit.

The trio remained silent, each in turn only speaking to confirm their not guilty pleas. Occasionally, one of the men would lean forward to take some notes, check their phone or lean back and survey the room – a vista which they will surely come to know intimately as this trial takes its course day after day, week after week.

AND given the expected length of the trial, for the first time ever, the evidence will be heard by 15 jurors instead of the traditional 12. As senior counsel for the prosecution, Paul O'Higgins, explained to them: "At times jurors get sick and very occasionally die."

The first part of the morning was taken up in selecting a new juror, but eventually the trial rumbled out on to the runway and was ready for take-off.

Paul O'Higgins finally began to outline the prosecution's case. He told the jury that he didn't want to teach anyone to "suck eggs" but wanted to help them understand what had transpired at Anglo Irish Bank which led to the trial of the three men.

He expounded on the relationship of the bank with Sean Quinn and how the executives had discovered how the businessman had built up a significant stake in the bank through contracts for difference (CFDs), which he described as "an extraordinary form of gambling" that is offered to members of the investing public by "financial geniuses".

And he recounted how, in order to deal with the financial difficulties caused to the bank by the CFDs, some Anglo executives sought out potential investors while they were on holiday in the South of France and Portugal, suggesting that the reaction of most vacationing people "who saw their bank manager in the distance would be to head for the nearest sand-dune".

After a two-hour narration, the scene had been set by Paul O'Higgins and Day One was over.

Everyone's buckled in tightly. A long trip now lies ahead.

Irish Independent

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