Tuesday 23 July 2019

Portrait of the tycoon as maverick art patron

New gallery owner Ben Dunne paints a picture of politicians out of touch with Irish voters, writes Ronald Quinlan

Ronald Quinlan

Ronald Quinlan

IF ever a picture painted a thousand words, then it hangs on the wall of Ben Dunne's office in Blanchardstown.

A revolver and two spent shells from its chamber sits on the table of the jury room depicted in the massive canvas of Guilty or not Guilty while twelve gentlemen determine the fate of the accused.

Frozen in time for all time, the bespoke-suited figures will never reach their verdict, leaving the unseen accused languishing in a legal limbo.

Talking to Ben Dunne about his favourite painting, you somehow sense Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples' work reminds him daily of his own appearance in another court, that of public opinion, and how it set him free.

Having thrown himself upon all our mercy long ago with candid confessions of his cocaine addiction and other misdeeds, Dunne has no need now to wait for the judgement of his peers, or for our approval.

And so with the hellish past firmly in the past where it belongs, life for the former supermarket supremo turned gym boss is good, and looks set to get even better.

This autumn, Ben Dunne's obvious appreciation for art will move beyond his West Dublin office and find its expression in the Nora Dunne Gallery, which he intends to open in memory of his late mother. It will be beside his Carlisle gym off Dublin's Kimmage Road West.

While some might see it as just the latest in a long line of money-making ventures from a serial entrepreneur, for Dunne it would seem to be a labour of love.

Asked about the naming of the gallery in honour of his mother, he says: "It means that I'm going to stick at it, and I hopefully will make it successful. You don't name something after your late mother without it stirring up a certain amount of emotion and love, and a desire for it to be successful and stand for the standards that my mother had.

"The Nora Dunne Gallery will be a friendly place, a place of quality.

"It will be a place where everybody will be welcome, where people will buy many, many pictures and get lots and lots of pleasure out of looking at those pictures."

In paying tribute to Nora Dunne, Ben also seems intent on bringing the surviving members of the estranged family dynasty together once more. To do so will be no mean feat given the ire he provoked within the Dunne family when details of his largesse -- courtesy of Dunne company funds -- to the late Taoiseach Charles Haughey emerged at the McCracken and Moriarty tribunals.

Asked if he would issue an invitation to his sister Margaret Heffernan and brother Frank Dunne to attend the gallery opening, he said: "If they want to come, they're more than welcome. But it's not a wedding we're having. Why should I send an invitation out and name the ones I want. Obviously, my family, my immediate family, my brother and sister are welcome, my own children, my nieces, nephews, but generally anybody who wants to come."

With the Nora Dunne Gallery set to take just 25 per cent commission from each painting it sells, as opposed to the customary 50 per cent charged by established galleries, Ben Dunne expects a sea change in the Irish art world.

"The whole way that people sell art or buy art in this country will be changed with the opening of the Nora Dunne Gallery. It will change an awful lot of the old ways of doing business in art," he says.

"I think what's going to happen in the business is more and more artists will realise that paying galleries 50 per cent-plus commission to sell their paintings is going to become a thing of the past."

Dunne isn't worried that the supermarket notion of stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap won't translate to art.

Asked for his views on the premium that some people placed on price when it came to purchasing artistic works, he was clear: "There are people who go to restaurants and because the restaurant is expensive they think the food is better.

"People think because they spend big money on a picture, that it must be very good. The first thing they want to remember is that if they buy it from a gallery, 50 per cent of what they're paying at least is going to the gallery. In my case it's going to be 25 per cent maximum. There might be times when there'll be tighter margins."

So is the Nora Dunne Gallery an attempt to get away from the elitism that traditionally has been associated with the Irish art world?

"I have a big difficulty with elitism. Any money that I have made, I have made by dealing with the Irish people in general, and it was always the ordinary people of this country who have made me my money. The people I care for most are the ordinary people of this country. The people who support me are the ordinary people," Dunne says.

Ben Dunne's concern for the ordinary people of Ireland is something many have become accustomed to hearing about given his regular appearances on shows such as Joe Duffy's Liveline on RTE radio.

But while cynics might question his sincerity, Trinity College's University Philosophical Society is in no doubt that Ben Dunne means what he says. The august body, which in the past has included Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and Bram Stoker amongst its members, is set to make Dunne an honourary patron later this year for his "worthy contribution to society".

Nobody should be surprised if Ireland's future in Europe comes in for mention in Ben Dunne's acceptance speech.

Speaking on the subject of Europe to the Sunday Independent, he said: "My only concern would be that we remain democratic. I question how quickly after the referendum the Government is debating having another one. I think there's a lot of debate required on the European issue."

Dunne clearly doesn't appreciate the manner in which European Affairs Minister Dick Roche has expressed his views on the matter lately.

"I heard Dick Roche say that the people who voted No were now being seen in Europe as lining themselves up with right wingers. There's one thing I know, that Irish people aren't stupid. For the minister to say that is downright bad manners."

Dunne is also critical of Fine Gael MEP Gay Mitchell for his handling of the subject.

"I heard Gay Mitchell on the radio say to businessman Ulick McEvaddy that he is a businessman and that he should stick to his business. I think politicians should stick to their business and look after their customers who are the people who vote."

The millionaire businessman also warns of the consequences for Taoiseach Brian Cowen should he put the Lisbon Treaty to the people in another referendum.

"He knows what's at stake. If the Lisbon Treaty is shot down a second time, that will be the end of Brian Cowen's career as Taoiseach.

"I think the voters know the consequences of voting Yes and No and if there's enough debate, they'll know far more," he says.

Dunne advises the Taoiseach to seek out the best possible negotiator in Government should he wish to put Lisbon to the test again. And he isn't sure Dick Roche is the man for the job

"The one thing I always knew in business is that if you had a job to do, send in your best negotiator. In an important situation, make sure the negotiator doesn't rub people up the wrong way. I think Dick Roche is attempting in his way to rub people, the No people, up the wrong way. It's extraordinary for an intelligent man that he can't be more diplomatic."

But isn't Dick Roche merely saying what others in Government and other political parties are thinking?

Dunne isn't so sure.

"I think it would be very interesting if there was a General Election before the next referendum. I'd like to see how many of them would stand and say their position on the Lisbon Treaty is to vote Yes. When your job is at stake, you think completely differently," he says.

The Taoiseach will be somewhat assured to find out that he already has a vote of confidence from Ben Dunne when it comes to how he might handle the fallout from the rejection of Lisbon.

"I think he's an intelligent man. I think he got an awful surprise with the result of the referendum, but he's an intelligent man. I think he's smart enough to realise people like myself -- and I'm not a political animal -- can be, with enough debate, swung around. If I can be swung around, others can be swung around. But I won't be swung around by being bullied."

Turning to the issue of Mr Cowen's response to the current economic crisis, Dunne is of the view that the Taoiseach has found himself in difficulty as a result of international factors beyond his control.

"You cannot blame him for what is going on at the moment. It's worldwide.

"You can't blame Brian Cowen for the international credit crunch. If you're to blame anybody, blame the top men in the banks for losing our money.

"The reason the banks have run out of money is they put it into businesses they shouldn't have. I can speak with a lot of authority here. If I had a second choice, there's lots of things I would have done differently, but I never took that approach. I've done it, and I had to get myself out of those difficulties."

Citing the case of four of Britain's top bankers who presided over writedowns of £20bn (€24.7bn) in the past year, Dunne expressed his disgust that none of the individuals concerned were answerable for their actions despite their massive salaries.

When told that Taoiseach Brian Cowen appeared at present only to be available to the media through a photographer's lens on the golf course, Dunne was both surprised and concerned.

"He's wrong. If that is the case; if you are a public servant, remember what you are. You have to be available to the public.

"And one of the ways in this day and age that you make yourself available to the public is through the papers or through the radio, not through long-distance lenses out at the golf club.

"If you're the head of the Government, you've got to make yourself available to talk to the media about the economy or whatever.

"You're running Ireland, you've got to make yourself available. Hiding behind spin doctors -- and I'm not saying he's doing that -- people don't appreciate that any longer. People won't tolerate it."

The millionaire businessman recalled the difficulty he experienced in facing the media following his return from the US in 1992 in the wake of his arrest for cocaine possession at a Florida hotel in which he had been shacked up with a prostitute.

"Look I came back off a flight from Florida and I had to face the music. And I had very little time, but I had to face it.

"Now I had the choice to hide and say this might go away, but I took the choice of facing the media, and I have no doubt in my mind it was the right choice."

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