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Monday 16 September 2019

'Baron of Ballsbridge' starting afresh in US as his dream crumbles to dust


SEAN Dunne had hoped to be the Baron of Ballsbridge by now, proudly showing off his own 'Trump Tower' on the old Jurys hotel site in the heart of south Dublin.

Instead, the man known as 'Dunner' has left Ireland for a new life in the US with his second wife Gayle Killalea, and now NAMA is forcing the sale of many of his prized Irish assets to help pay off some of his ¿350m debts.

The Jurys deal in 2006 was the pinnacle of his property development career that now looks like total madness.

But those were heady days.

In the frenzied scramble to buy up the prime properties left on the Dublin 4 monopoly board, this swaggering developer didn't come up with a bidding price based on a few scribbles on the back of an envelope.

He just asked his wife to pick a number that lead him to bid ¿250m, or more than ¿50m an acre for the site.

It was a staggering amount of money even at the height of the property bubble and he went on to pay ¿55m an acre for part of AIB's headquarters in the same neighbourhood months later. Through a spokesman, he said at the time he considered it to be "good value".

Mr Dunne had a vision to transform Ballsbridge into an upmarket and vibrant neighbourhood more like London's Knightsbridge.

First he would build a 32-storey tower of apartments, four 11-storey towers, two glass pyramids, an ice-skating rink and a jazz club there. The scale of the project was breathtaking.

Ironically, this folly wasn't his undoing this weekend, as he borrowed the bulk of the money for that site from Ulster Bank, which as part of the Royal Bank of Scotland, doesn't fall into NAMA's operations.

It is the loans he owes to the Bank of Ireland and Irish Nationwide that are being called in by NAMA.

It has now sent a receiver to sell properties including Hume House, adjacent to Jurys, to get what it can for them -- ultimately on behalf of the taxpayer.

Originally from Tullow in Co Carlow, Mr Dunne qualified as a quantity surveyor and went on to amass what was once a multi-million-euro fortune through a series of successful developments.

His first big deal came when he acquired 70 acres of land in Bray, Co Wicklow, where he built a number of housing estates.

He was part of a consortium put together by Davy Stockbrokers to buy a large piece of land in Booterstown in south Dublin in the early 1990s.

They created a plush housing development that was a bit ahead of its time.

They struggled to sell the highly priced homes. Soon Mr Dunne was rowing with some of the other partners and that led to a legal dispute.

Some who know the developer say this early battle "toughened him up" and left him unafraid to take legal actions against opponents.

And there would be many in the years to come.

He fought with his Shrewsbury Road neighbour -- Blacktie founder and 'Dragon's Den' star Niall O'Farrell -- over the boundary of his property.

Then there was a spat with rival developer and lawyer Noel Smyth after he objected to Smyth's holiday home at the exclusive K Club in Kildare, where Mr Dunne also owned a fine property.

There was a legal tussle with accountant and deal maker Kevin Warren over the Whitewater Shopping Centre they built in Newbridge, Kildare.

In more recent times, there have been bitter rows with his neighbours in the US over his refurbishment plans for his home in the exclusive Belle Haven enclave.

He is described as a man who "goes straight for the jugular".

"If you are on the wrong side of him you had better watch out," according to one source.

Mr Dunne really only became a household name when he married Ms Killalea -- a former gossip columnist -- and their taste for the high life became infamous.

They met in the notorious Fianna Fail hospitality tent at the Galway Races and married in Thailand after a whirlwind romance.

Three months later, they held a party in Italy, bringing their friends and family to a bash on Aristotle Onassis's legendary yacht, Christina.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern is a close friend, as is Des Richardson, a former party fundraiser.

Mr Dunne is said to be "steeped in Fianna Fail" and cabinet ministers were always invited to social occasions at the Dunnes' home.

His other great passion in life is rugby and he is a long-time member of Lansdowne Rugby Football Club.

Mr Dunne seems to be starting afresh in the US and only time will tell whether he will be successful there.

He still has a say in what may ultimately happen at Jurys, and that throws him a lifeline to realise part of his dream in the future.

But this weekend he has been forced to walk away from other parts of his once mighty empire.

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