Tuesday 10 December 2019

Smurfit's tribute to 'a giant' as AIB seeks to claw back €45m

Michael Smurfit
Michael Smurfit
SADDENED: Michael Smurfit. Photo: Susan Williams/AFP
Ronald Quinlan

Ronald Quinlan

LEGENDARY businessman Dr Michael Smurfit has come out to pay tribute to Sir Anthony O'Reilly and to express hope that his friend can resolve his difficulties with AIB – which is currently pursuing him for the recovery of some €45m.

In an interview with the Sunday Independent yesterday, Dr Smurfit said he had been "deeply saddened" to read of Mr O'Reilly's situation, and of the manner in which it was now being handled by AIB, a bank where he himself had served as a director for a number of years.

"It's really, really sad to see one of the creators of modern Ireland in this sort of difficulty, and it's a sad reflection on the way society is that we take delight in seeing the 'big' brought down. There but for the grace of God go I. That's the way I look upon it," Dr Smurfit said.

Tomorrow AIB is due to advance its pursuit of Mr O'Reilly for the recovery of the €45m debt it claims he owes, with an application to the Commercial Court division of the High Court to fast track its proceedings against him.

Two of Mr O'Reilly's investment vehicles, Indexia Holdings and Brookside Investments, are also being pursued by AIB as part of its efforts to secure the recovery of the €45m Mr O'Reilly borrowed in three separate loan facilities.

The 78-year-old businessman is being sued personally for €22.6m after giving personal guarantees on a loan for personal investments, while Indexia, the investment vehicle that holds some of his stake in INM – the publishers of this newspaper – is being sued for some €18.5m. A further €4.1m is being sought from Brookside, an Irish registered company with an address at Mr O'Reilly's Castlemartin stud farm.

While Mr O'Reilly is believed to have sold interests valued at some $150m since 2011, his adviser Bernard Somers is understood to have told AIB earlier this month that he had "no cash to make a material upfront payment".

The bank issued legal proceedings on May 16 last when its request for an unconditional lump sum payment of €2m and other conditions were not met.

Asked if he saw any irony in the fact that the bank now pursuing Mr O'Reilly would have been brought down itself had it not been bailed out by the Irish taxpayer to the tune of €21bn, Dr Smurfit said: "I have no idea what Tony O'Reilly paid in taxes over the years but I'm sure it's an immense amount, tens and tens and tens of millions.

"I was a director of the AIB a number of years and I just thought this could have been handled better. It's going to get far more headlines and it's going to generate a lot of media interest and speculation too in the way that it's been handled."

Indeed, with the AIB's decision to pursue Mr O'Reilly through the courts for the recovery of its debt, there has been speculation that the case could prompt other lenders to take their own action against him.

Paying tribute to Mr O'Reilly and the achievements he had enjoyed over the course of a lengthy career, Dr Smurfit said: "He was a giant who bestrode the world stage. He did a great deal for this country, for Ireland. I think his legacy would be the Ireland Fund which he created. It's a worldwide enterprise and I'm deeply saddened, very saddened indeed, to read of his current difficulties. I hope he can resolve them satisfactorily."

The paper packaging tycoon placed Mr O'Reilly among the four or five entrepreneurs of his own generation who had "really counted" when it came to contributing to the creation of the modern Irish economy.

"There were really only four or five guys in my time that really, really counted. Tony was there, there was myself, Larry Goodman and Tony Ryan. I only had one transaction with Tony O'Reilly, when I sold him the Sunday World. He was great to deal with, very straightforward. There might have been rivalry from time to time, but it was healthy," Dr Smurfit said.

Reflecting on the circumstances which he believes may have led to his friend's present travails, Dr Smurfit added: "I think in retrospect he probably took on too much in his life with Fitzwilton, Atlantic Resources, Providence, Waterford Wedgwood and then Independent News & Media and the other private interests he had. You know when you stretch the elastic band, you might just break it."

Sunday Independent

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