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This is no country for indebted men

IRELAND'S latter-day Flight of the Earls is in full swing. But while it was noblemen who departed our shores 400 years ago, today's exodus is more likely to include developers, bankers and foreign property dealers.

The reasons for leaving are myriad, but what they all have in common are massive unpaid debts back home in Ireland.

Some left to restructure their businesses or seek out fresh starts.

Others point to Ireland's restrictive bankruptcy process, which can take up to 12 years compared to just one in the UK and three in the US.

Take some of the high-profile property developers who have upped sticks: Sean Dunne, John Fleming and Greg Coughlan.

All had very different reasons for leaving these shores.

With his plans to transform Ballsbridge into a mini Knightsbridge on hold, Dunne set up a new property development company in New York last May and moved his family to Greenwich, Connecticut, about an hour's drive from the Big Apple.

But it appears the heavily indebted builder is not planning to do any development work himself.

Shortly before Christmas, the new firm was transferred into the name of Mr Dunne's wife, Gayle Killilea.

She later said in court papers that she was setting herself up as a property developer and had already identified a number of possible land deals.

How the former socialite and gossip columnist is to bankroll her property investments has not been revealed.

However, her husband has insisted he is not involved in any US property deals and that he remains committed to the running of his businesses back home in Ireland.

He frequently commutes between Ireland and the US.

Another reason for the move appears to have been privacy, with the Dunnes indicating a desire to get away from the intense media coverage of indebted developers in Ireland.

After the Irish Independent revealed the couple's new residence last November, a tersely worded statement on Mrs Dunne's behalf read: "Her marital affairs, her place of residence and her finances are not legitimate matters of public interest."

Cork developer John Fleming had very different reasons for moving abroad. He and his wife Noreen moved England after his group of building firms collapsed under the weight of €1bn in debts.

They subsequently filed for, and were granted, bankruptcy in an Essex court.

Their circumstances are much reduced and they are living in a modest end-of-terrace house in a commuter estate.

However, the advantage of filing for bankruptcy in England is that they can hope to emerge from the process by the end of this year.

Another Cork developer, Howard Holdings chief executive Greg Coughlan, took off as creditors circled and he faced demands from the court to provide details of his assets.

Now living in Portugal, he faces arrest for contempt of court if he returns to Ireland.

A former close associate told the Irish Independent that Mr Coughlan simply buckled under the pressure after his firm became over-stretched with developments around the continent.

"Greg was a visionary and Howard Holdings had some smashing developments," the former associate said.

"But in the end, he had too much going on. I would say he virtually had a breakdown. He was stressed and overcome and something just snapped."

Of the property speculators to leave, Derek Quinlan has probably been the most secretive. The financier has rebuffed requests for comment on his relocation to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he and his wife Siobhan have moved while he attempts to sort out debts of €600m.

The move guarantees Mr Quinlan more privacy than he would receive in Ireland or the UK, where most of his interests remain. Trying to avoid press scrutiny for very different reasons is former Anglo Irish Bank chief executive David Drumm, who now lives with his wife, Lorraine, near Boston, Massachusetts.

He has managed to avoid questioning from garda investigating alleged widespread irregularities at the bank while he was in charge.

One thing he couldn't outrun was his debts, with €8.5m owed to his former employers.

The money was used to buy bank shares, which are now worthless.

However, Mr Drumm has also been able to avail of a less severe bankruptcy process than he would have had to endure in Ireland.

He can expect to emerge from bankruptcy after just three years.

In contrast, the bankruptcy process for his former close associate, ex-Anglo Irish chairman Sean FitzPatrick, is expected to take at least a decade, as he remains in Ireland.

Despite his supposedly crippling debts, Mr Drumm has been able to send his two teenage daughters to a private, fee-paying school, which comes with an annual cost of more than €25,000.

Similarly, the children of Karl Morris, a former Dublin-based overseas property agent who is being pursued through the courts by clients for millions of euro, are currently attending a fee-paying school in Marbella, Spain.

He is being sued over allegedly "missing" property deposits following the collapse of his Simple Overseas Properties business and claims to be close to bankruptcy.

No criminal charges have been brought against him by Irish authorities and he denies any wrongdoing.

Irish Independent