Ronald Quinlan: Punkah wallahs and Maserati appear as McKillen and Barclays case hots up
The increasingly bizarre case has heard of cloak and dagger measures and royal treatment, says Ronald Quinlan
'LORD Grabiner, we are hoping that the serried ranks of punkah wallahs will be able to improve the atmosphere."
That was the lighthearted response of Mr Justice David Richards to the appeal of Queen's Counsel for Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay for the air conditioning in court 26 of the Royal Courts of Justice to be turned up a notch last Tuesday.
To be fair to him, Mr Justice Richards wasn't really offering to bring a troupe of child servants from the Indian subcontinent in to fan the brow of Lord Grabiner or any other of the dozen barristers arrayed across the three rows of benches below his own.
But as the case taken by Belfast-born property investor Paddy McKillen to overturn the sale by Nama of €790m of loans associated with Claridge's, the Connaught and Berkeley hotels to the billionaire Barclay brothers enters into its final days, such flashes of the judge's mischievous wit have played their part in relieving the tensions between the warring sides.
Not that last week's proceedings were otherwise devoid of humour, however unintentional that humour may have been.
Indeed, given the evidence of financier Derek Quinlan, but more particularly his associate, Gerry Murphy, it's easy to see how Mr Justice Richards could have conjured up the image of punkah wallahs in response to Lord Grabiner's complaint that the courtroom's atmosphere had become "quite overbearing".
Recalling, for example, a trip he and Mr Quinlan took to Abu Dhabi in September 2009 to meet Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan to discuss the potential sale of the financier's assets, Mr Murphy spoke of the "royal treatment" they had received.
"We were met by a Rolls Royce at the steps of the plane, courtesy of Sheikh Nahyan," he said in his witness statement, referring to the limousine that had been laid on to convey them to the prince's palace.
"It was clear to me that Sheikh Nahyan respected and really liked Mr Quinlan, as he put him sitting right beside him at the top of the principal's podium," Mr Murphy said.
Commenting on the seating arrangements at a later function in which a Saudi cleric had delivered a lecture on Compassion in Islam, Mr Murphy noted how he and Mr Quinlan had sat within a "few seats" of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the British ambassador.
Following the lecture, the two Irishmen were taken to "another feast in one of the largest tents I have ever seen", he added.
The apparent childlike wonderment of Mr Murphy at this world he had come to inhabit as a result of his involvement with Ireland's erstwhile property Midas wasn't confined to the sands of the Middle East.
Asked, for example, by Queen's Counsel for Mr McKillen, Philip Marshall, to comment on the multimillion euro fees both he and Mr Quinlan had been seeking as part of the sale of the latter's assets, Mr Murphy regaled the court with an extraordinary account of "Project Maser", a deal which, had it been seen through to its conclusion, would have seen the Qataris buy the Maybourne Hotel Group stake which is now the subject of this increasingly bizarre courtroom battle.
Recalling the odyssey he and Mr Quinlan had been on in an effort to clinch a deal with Sheikh Hamad of Qatar, Mr Murphy said: "When Mr Quinlan and I travelled to Doha, we went down twice after June 2010. Then in July we went to Sardinia, but before we went to Sardinia, we went to Mougins. I hope I am not confusing the issue. We went to Mougins. Mr Quinlan arranged a meeting."
The security arrangements surrounding that meeting clearly impressed Mr Murphy, as did the upholstery of the car in which he and Mr Quinlan travelled.
Describing the cloak-and-dagger nature of this particular jaunt, the 57-year-old businessman said: "I was staying in St Jean Cap Ferrat at the time. For security reasons, we were asked to drive to Cannes. We were met by a car outside the hotel in Cannes. When we arrived there, there was a rather nice Maserati waiting for us, and Mr Quinlan and I were admiring the quality of the leather in the car as we drove to Mougins to meet Sheikh Hamad.
"I said if this project gets legs, we will call it Project Maserati. Then I decided, no, we will call it Project Maser."
In the event, Project Maser didn't get quite get the legs either Mr Murphy or Mr Quinlan had imagined in the course
of being spirited across the south of France in the manner of tycoons more usually depicted in the novels of Ian Fleming or John Le Carre.
Not that Derek Quinlan was acting out of pure self-interest in continuing to live the high life in the face of his acute financial distress. Explaining the former tax inspector turned financier's rationale for splashing other people's cash (in this case at least stg£1.5m Mr Quinlan and his wife Siobhan received by way of loans from the Barclay brothers between 2010 and 2011), Mr Murphy said he had taken the view "that in order to maximise the value of his various interests, it was vital that he did not look like a distressed seller".
Elaborating on that theme, Mr Murphy added: "On that basis it was clear that style was as important as substance and it was vital that Mr Quinlan maintained his lifestyle as a successful investor. By doing so, he was not only maximising the price of his own shares [in Coroin -- the company behind the Maybourne hotels] but also the value of other investors' shares."
Mr Murphy insisted he had tried to maintain cordial relations between Mr Quinlan and Paddy McKillen and the other shareholders of Coroin, notwithstanding the "few bob" he stood to make personally from helping the high-flying financier to broker a deal with the Qataris.
Asked by Mr Justice Richards just how much a "few bob" was, Mr Murphy said that while Mr Quinlan had requested a fee of stg£5m on his behalf, he was of the view that a sum of between stg£100,000 and stg£1m was achievable. But whatever financial incentives there may have been from his association with Derek Quinlan, Mr Murphy was adamant that he had tried to keep a line open to Mr McKillen at all times.
On this, he said: "Oftentimes I saw it as my role to save both Mr Quinlan and Mr McKillen from themselves. For example, Mr Quinlan is a larger-than-life, fun-loving and charismatic individual who was responsible for creating an enormous high-end property empire as a hugely successful property investor. Mr McKillen was also a successful property investor. In each case, their approach could get them into difficulties and I thought I should help as their honest broker."
The involvement of another 'honest broker' in the affairs of Paddy McKillen is set to feature prominently in proceedings when the Belfast businessman takes to the witness stand this coming Thursday for a final cross-examination by lawyers for Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay and other defendants in the case.
While Queen's Counsel for the Barclays, Kenneth MacLean, has stated his intention to delve into what he believes to be a "long-standing relationship between Mr McKillen and Tony Blair Associates", it is understood that the Belfast businessman will tell the court how his friend, the former prime minister, personally entered the fray last February to help him mend bridges with Al Mirqab, the Qatari investment vehicle which now stands ready to help him buy out the Maybourne Hotel Group in its entirety should he win his case.
The plot thickens and the case continues.