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Empire builder vs FG leading lady

The developer whose companies owe a billion to Nama was resolute on the stand in his defamation case, writes Ronald Quinlan

MICHAEL O'Flynn's suit was simple and his shoes were sensible. Granted, his gold wrist watch was rather nice, but if truth be told, his timepiece paled alongside the bulk of the Breitlings being sported by the barristers down at the High Court last week.

Sitting on the bench at the back of courtroom No 12 with his winter-weight Bugatti trenchcoat draped across the well-worn briefcase beside him, the Cork developer cut a distinctly ordinary figure as he waited patiently for his opportunity to take to the stand to give evidence in his claim for defamation against Minister for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton.

Certainly, he didn't look anything like a man in control of a property empire stretching across Ireland, the UK and Germany, with a passion for the sport of kings which he still holds dear to this day. Indeed, in between checking the texts on his mobile phone and sifting through the file relating to his case, Mr O'Flynn took the time to clip a bothersome fingernail with the nail clippers he carried on his person. As game faces go, it was an impressive display.

Ms Creighton, for her part, sat just several feet away on the same bench. Turned out impeccably in a smart business suit, the Dublin South East deputy was inscrutable notwithstanding the seriousness of the action being taken against her over comments she made about the developer two years ago at the MacGill Summer School and in subsequent interviews with RTE and The Irish Times.

There could be no room in Fine Gael for "cute-hoor politics", the then backbench TD Ms Creighton had charged amongst other things in the course of her speech on standards in public life, after reading just two days previously in the Sunday Independent of Mr O'Flynn's participation in a golf fund-raiser hosted by her party at the exclusive K Club in Kildare.

In the same address, she called on Fine Gael in government to be "much more than Fianna Fail-lite", saying they could not condemn Fianna Fail for entertaining developers in the Galway races tent while on the other hand extending the "biscuit tin for contributions from high- profile developers who are beholden to Nama".

While his companies owed and still owe more than a billion euro to the State's 'bad bank', Mr O'Flynn – as was his right – took grave exception to the Fine Gael TD's remarks, taking them to mean that he was a person whose presence at the K Club event would lead to suggestions of "low standards" within her party.

Efforts to extract what he considered an appropriate and sufficiently public apology from Ms Creighton in the immediate aftermath of the political and public furore that followed came to a standstill soon after, with Mr O'Flynn unwilling to accept that a press release on her website and to The Irish Times could undo the harm that had been done.

Asked in the course of questioning by his Senior Counsel Declan Doyle last Wednesday how he had responded to that offer from the Fine Gael TD, a visibly irritated Mr O'Flynn insisted he wanted his apology to come in an "open press release" as opposed to one confined to her website and the so-called paper of record.

"I wanted it across the media. I did not want it on a website that people have to visit. I just wanted this apology to be public and to be given in a way that dealt with the issue of attack on my reputation, on my person, and that is all I wanted at that particular time.

"And that was refused and that is why the correspondence came to a conclusion."

Mr O'Flynn was adamant that he had been reasonable in his approach to Ms Creighton, pointing out how he resolved issues he'd had with a number of media organisations with whom he had difficulties in the form of apologies.

Asked if there had been any further apology since efforts between his and Ms Creighton's lawyers had come to a standstill, he said: "No. No attempt has been made independent of the efforts that were to agree it to come out in any public way, not that I have heard of anyway. I don't think they appeared on her website or anything like that. I don't look at her website, I have no interest in the world of it."

But while Mr O'Flynn's interest in the world of Lucinda Creighton may well have been limited to pursuing her through the High Court in relation to her ill-considered attack on his reputation, his effort to vindicate his good name certainly didn't come without its own attendant risk.

Indeed, as Ms Creighton's Senior Counsel Paul O'Higgins got to his feet last Wednesday to begin his cross-examination of the developer, one could almost feel the oxygen being sucked from the courtroom such was the anticipation of the line of questioning to come.

Following a testy exchange in which he sought to establish Mr O'Flynn's awareness of the publication by the Sunday Independent on July 18, 2010, of the story in which we outlined his participation in Fine Gael's K Club golf fundraiser, Mr O'Higgins upped the ante considerably by distributing copies of the four pages carried by this newspaper to the members of the jury and to the developer himself for their consideration.

"Can I have one too?" Mr Justice De Valera asked politely from the bench.

As Mr O'Higgins read the front page story out to the court, the discomfort among Mr O'Flynn's legal team was almost palpable. Their concern was given full expression in legal argument after lunch in which they pleaded that the distribution of the Sunday Independent's K Club coverage to the jury had the potential to be highly prejudicial to Mr O'Flynn.

Mr Justice De Valera ruled, however, that the background context to the Cork developer's case was important and for that reason, he would allow the newspaper copies to be given to the jury members.

Not that the Sunday Independent had been targeting Mr O'Flynn in its coverage of the K Club fund-raiser, a point which Mr O'Flynn readily accepted in his evidence.

"The revelation today that Fine Gael is accepting political donations from developers whose companies owe hundreds of millions to Nama and by extension the taxpayer raises serious questions in relation to Mr Kenny's political judgment and his suitability to lead Fine Gael into the next general election," Mr O'Higgins read before asking: "Now I think that that is a question stated by the Sunday Independent, not about you, but about Fine Gael; isn't that correct?

"Yes," Mr O'Flynn agreed.

What followed very much got to the heart of the misunderstanding between Ms Creighton and the developer.

As Mr O'Higgins delved into the issue of the of the O'Flynn group companies' massive indebtedness to Nama, Mr O'Flynn countered easily, pointing out the sheer scale of his business, the assets underpinning it and the income that supported it.

"You may suggest that there is scaling issue here. There is also massive assets, massive rent, massive many other things that go with large borrowings," he said.

Responding to a battery of questions on the massive hole blown in the balance sheets of the banks as a result of their lending to property developers, Mr O'Flynn said he could only speak about his own situation.

"I can't comment on exactly what happened because I am not privy to the detail of how others did their business with banks," he said.

And he went on to make it clear that the money his companies had owed to the banks was still owed to Nama.

Defending his business's status as one of Nama's top 10 most indebted developers, he said: "The top 10 have also got huge assets, a lot of them have got huge income, our particular group has huge income and the distinction, whether you are in the top 10 or bottom 10 it is a question of your business, how good it is, how much it is returning and how you want to finalise and do your business with Nama.

"I have given in evidence that I am working in Nama, I have moved through different stages and that is all I can give evidence on, not some suggestion that because I am in a group at the top 10 that there is some particular extra contamination associated with a structure there that was put into by the Irish Government through the Oireachtas."

Questioned by Mr O'Higgins on the advisability of a political party accepting a political donation from a developer who could possibly have been bailed out by the taxpayer by virtue of their companies' borrowings with Nama, Mr O'Flynn took the opportunity to lob a well-aimed hand grenade into the well of the court.

Nodding in the general direction of the Minister for European Affairs, he said: "I look down there and I see her husband is also a politician and I have contributed to his campaigns in the past. Does one have to sit here and analyse every payment one makes?"

"Who is the "her" whom you mention? Who is the "her"

whom you mention, you said her husband is a politician, I gave him money," Mr O'Higgins inquired.

"I am referring to Ms Creighton," Mr O'Flynn responded evenly.

It was a timely point at which to bring that day's proceedings to a close.

And while no one outside of a close circle around the parties to the matter knows for certain precisely what happened between last Wednesday night and the following morning, by Thursday lunchtime, Mr O'Flynn finally got what he had been seeking for the past two years from the Fine Gael minister.

Addressing the jury, Paul O'Higgins read the following into the record of the court: "On behalf of Ms Creighton I would like to read the following statement:

"I gave a speech at the MacGill Summer School on the 20th July 2010 and interview subsequently to RTE and The Irish Times. I made comments about Michael O'Flynn and his attendance at a fund-raising golf classic for Fine Gael, in particular concerning low standards and wrongdoing. I am happy to confirm that Michael O'Flynn is an upstanding developer and a person who operates his business to the highest standards. He has not done any wrong and any suggestion to the contrary was not intended by me. I apologise to Mr O'Flynn and his family for any hurt and distress caused by my comments. I have agreed to pay a contribution towards his costs."

Sunday Independent