Business Irish

Monday 20 November 2017

So who is out to stop Paddy McKillen bouncing back?

Paddy McKillen at the High Court in London, on one of his rare forays into the public arena
Paddy McKillen at the High Court in London, on one of his rare forays into the public arena

Shane Hickey and Andrew Lynch

WHO IS out to get Paddy McKillen? The list of suspects is certainly a long one.

The Belfast-born businessman has made some powerful enemies in both our own Irish and the British establishments during his epic legal battle to control a group of luxury London hotels.

NAMA, the former Anglo Irish Bank and the mysterious Barclay brothers have all crossed swords with him – and a court hearing in Dublin next month will show that the struggle is still far from over.

To say that Mr McKillen has shunned the limelight would be something of an understatement. But as the public learns more of him through court hearings, his struggle is more akin to a man more sinned against.

He has built up a vast property empire at home and abroad, most notably the Jervis Centre off Henry Street in Dublin. As a developer, he dressed so casually that he was often mistaken for another workman – and until recently only two grainy photographs of him were known to exist.

In 2004, Mr McKillen made what he must have thought would be his crowning investment. He joined a £750m (€890m) consortium that took control of London's Maybourne Hotel Group, including such prestigious five-star addresses as Claridge's, the Connaught and the Berkeley.

Led by Dublin financier Derek Quinlan, the investment team also featured Riverdance creators John McColgan and Moya Doherty, as well as Anglo Irish Bank chairman Sean FitzPatrick.

It was a classic Celtic Tiger story of Irish investors buying up British institutions – and when the tricolour was hoisted over the Savoy Hotel, Quinlan actually cried with pride. Since then McKillen himself must have occasionally felt tearful for very different reasond.

Mr Quinlan fell on hard times and handed over control of his 35pc stake to the Barclays in February 2011 by allowing them to buy up his Bank of Scotland loans, taking their overall share of Maybourne to 64pc. Mr McKillen still owns the remaining 36pc and is furious at this development, claiming that company rules should have given him first refusal on any sale.

The Barclay twins are strange and formidable opponents.

They own the 'Daily Telegraph', live on their own island off the coast of France, counted Margaret Thatcher as a personal friend and are almost as media-shy as Mr McKillen once was. Not without reason, he now believes he has been stitched up.

An incident from 2010 suggests that the clash is cultural as well as financial. Frederick Barclay allegedly berated a concierge at the Ritz Hotel for allowing Mr McKillen into the famously stuffy London institution without proper neckwear – a claim which the Englishman denies.

The McKillen-Barclay dispute has already resulted in a lengthy hearing at London's High Court, with armies of legal representatives and accusations, counter-accusations and denials flying from both sides.

Bono Tony Blair and John Rocha all received mentions in this business story while loyal Barclay lieutenants have been putting out the side of their ageing masters who did not give evidence.

In the end, Judge David Richards dismissed the majority of the proceedings against the brothers.

Mr McKillen had lost but he vowed to fight on, while the Barclays claimed it was a "comprehensive victory".

And so it was back to court earlier this year, this time the Court of Appeal in London.

Mr McKillen was defeated for a second time, a judgment which was met with glee from the Barclay side. Once again, however, the Irishman raised the possibility of further court action.

Now, Mr McKillen has started a legal bid in Ireland to stop the billionaire twins from buying his €250m of loans used for the hotels from the Irish Bank Resolution Company (IBRC), formerly Anglo Irish Bank. He says that the brothers are trying to get their hands on this debt as part of a hostile takeover bid, but a source close to Mr McKillen told the Irish Independent that Mr McKillen would make this the "fight of his life".

"I would say that Paddy will not only win this battle, but will come out of it stronger, fitter and even more determined than ever. You pick a fight with this guy at your peril and if you do you need to be sure you've got the heart and desire to go to the bitter end."

Mr McKillen's relationship with NAMA is strained. Like many Irish property developers during the boom, he built up strong ties with Anglo Irish Bank.

So when NAMA was created, it saw him as one of its natural clients. However, Mr McKillen had different ideas and is in a far different league to the vast swathe of developers – he can actually pay back his loans.

He resisted NAMA's request to hand over €2.1bn of his debts, pointing out that his loans were still performing and that he had not bought any Irish assets since 1998. Although he lost his High Court challenge, that verdict was sensationally overturned by the Supreme Court in 2011 – a victory that many hope will prove to be an omen for events in Dublin next month.

The war of words did not end there. During the initial Barclay case in London, Mr McKillen claimed that Derek Quinlan's share of the hotel group should have been offered to him under a clause in the shareholders' agreement of the company – a pre-emption agreement. He insisted that NAMA had offered "improper assistance" to the Barclays in the battle for control of the hotels.

A NAMA executive, Paul Hennigan, said it was dealing with a dysfunctional group of shareholders and that he did not care who took over Coroin (the company behind the hotels), only that its debt was repaid.

"Paddy McKillen's view that we were bad for him and bad for the company was wrong," claimed NAMA's head of asset management, John Mulcahy.

It also emerged during the case that Barclay executives had discussed leaking information about the pay and bonuses of NAMA staff.

The legal sparring between McKillen and NAMA has dragged on ever since.

Last April, it emerged that he was suing the agency amid claims that it breached his privacy and released confidential information, a claim which NAMA said it would contest vigorously.

Mr McKillen's legal actions have also stretched to the US after he alleged that the Barclay twins had violated US law by unlawfully obtaining documents detailing his financial affairs. Now yet another showdown is on the way.

Earlier this month, it emerged that the liquidator of IBRC had amazingly rejected a cash offer from McKillen to pay off a €133m debt associated with the Jervis Centre. An insider told the Irish Independent: "This has caused massive consternation with Paddy, as here is a man who wants to pay the full Jervis Street debt, only for it to be turned down for whatever reason."

This is what perplexes many observers. The Belfast man is clearly keen to regain control of his full portfolio of assets and appears to have the means to do so. Why then has the liquidator not done a deal, many in the financial world ask.

His decision to sue IBRC's liquidator shows that he will certainly not give up without a fight.

Oscar Wilde famously wrote that a man cannot be too careful in his choice of enemies. But has Paddy McKillen made foes in the Irish State itself?

The over-riding question has to be; who would ultimately benefit from the prize assets of an Irishman once again falling into UK hands?

Irish Independent

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