| 13.8°C Dublin

Ronald Quinlan: Shy developer McKillen battles Barclays in court

'I'M not sure I understand the concept of a binding gentlemen's agreement. I thought that was the distinction that the term 'gentlemen's' introduced."

Those were the charming terms employed by Edmund Nourse, counsel for the billionaire Barclay brothers, in a recent pre-trial hearing for Paddy McKillen's bid to reverse Nama's sale of €790m in loans associated with the Maybourne Hotel Group to them.

The Belfast-born property investor's much anticipated legal challenge to the decision by the State's so-called 'bad bank' to sell the Maybourne debt to the Barclays gets under way at the Royal Courts of Justice in London tomorrow.

Just how gentlemanly an affair Mr Justice David Richards will preside over in the course of the next three weeks remains to be seen.

Among the colourful cast of characters lining up to be grilled in the witness box are the famously reclusive Mr McKillen, former tax inspector turned financier Derek Quinlan as well as Nama head of portfolio management John Mulcahy. Notable by their absence from the proceedings will be Frederick and David Barclay. Explaining this, a source close to the self-made billionaires asserted that the case is being taken against their company, the Ellerman Group, and not the Barclays themselves.

No doubt Mr Justice Richards is looking forward to the "joy" -- as Mr Nourse put it at the same pre-trial hearing -- of exploring the respective roles of Messrs McKillen and Quinlan in the "hawking market" where everybody was looking to do a deal to maximise their money.

Judging by the details already revealed by lawyers for the Barclay brothers at the pre-trial hearings, it would appear the market for Claridge's, the Berkeley and the Connaught hotels has been a veritable hive of activity.

"There are Malaysians, there are Qataris, the Abu Dhabi and some Chinese interests. It is all happening. Everybody wants these hotels. It is just that simple, my Lord. They are very prestigious assets," Mr Nourse said, referring to the jewels in the crown of the Maybourne Group, over which the question of ownership is now down for decision.

But whatever appetite might exist in the Middle or Far East for the prestigious hotels, it's abundantly clear that Paddy McKillen wants them more.

Indeed, such is the Belfast man's desire to wrest control of the hotels from the clutches of David and Frederick Barclay, he has, according to sources, "steeled himself" to break the cover he has maintained for years to defend his interests.

"Paddy has an absolute aversion to publicity and the press. He is a businessman who just wants to get on with his business. He has absolutely no time for self-promotion.

"The attention the case will attract will be uncomfortable for him, but it's a price he's willing to pay to protect his interests and the hotels he loves," one well-placed source told the Sunday Independent.

The discomfort of the global publicity that his clash with the Barclay brothers guarantees will pale, however, alongside that which he is set to endure from his stint in the witness box, which is expected to begin tomorrow afternoon or on Tuesday morning at the latest. Indeed, lawyers for the Monaco-based Barclays, Nama and Derek Quinlan are all expected to probe Mr McKillen aggressively in an effort to undermine his assertion that he has the financial muscle to buy the Maybourne Hotel Group outright.

Their interrogation of his finances will be strengthened significantly by the direction given by Mr Justice Richards in a judgement on February 28 last in which he ordered the Belfast businessman to disclose all documents relating to the possible raising of finance for the purchase of Mr Quinlan's shares in the Maybourne Hotel Group.

In making the order, the judge acceded to a request from Mr McKillen that the information would only be made available to lawyers for the defendants as opposed to the defendants themselves.

In limiting access to Mr McKillen's financial information, Mr Justice Richards said the Belfast businessman was entitled to have concerns given the efforts of "Barclay interests" to obtain confidential information about him and his finances and to buy his loans from his own bankers.

Not that Mr McKillen will be alone in his discomfort as the case proceeds.

Ireland's erstwhile property Midas, Derek Quinlan, won't relish having his business dealings or the nature of his friendship with the Barclay brothers under interrogation by Mr McKillen's lawyers when he takes to the stand on March 30 and April 2.

And while sources close to Mr Quinlan insist that the focus on his relations with the Barclays and the financial support they have given to him and his family since October 2010 is immaterial to the case, the judge has determined that this should be considered by the court in the context of allegations by Mr McKillen that the financier had "shown a willingness to do what he was told by, or on behalf of the Barclay brothers" as they sought to gain control of the Maybourne Group hotels.

Lawyers for Mr McKillen are expected to question Mr Quinlan closely on the source of the funding for his lavish lifestyle in London which includes the €4,144 weekly rental of an impressive period home in London, the €108,000 Range Rover he drives as well as thousands of euro spent on hospitality at the Berkeley Hotel and elsewhere.

Details of communications by text message and email between Mr Quinlan's associate, Gerry Murphy, and David Barclay will also be aired in court by Mr McKillen's lawyers in an effort to support his claims that his one-time business ally had essentially gone behind his back as he sought to map out his personal exit strategy from the hotels they had bought together as partners in Coroin during the boom.

On May 6, 2011, for instance, Mr Murphy texted David Barclay and Mr Quinlan saying: "We are 100 per cent committed to you and so who owns our debt will NEVER be an issue between us. You do NOT need our debt to tell us what to do. We will ALWAYS do that anyway."

Mr Quinlan won't be the only one called to account for his conduct in relation to the Maybourne Hotel Group. Indeed, Paddy McKillen will also be accused of attempting to do a deal without reference to Derek Quinlan while the Barclays were trying to do deals with the Qataris.

In assessing that allegation, the court will be asked to consider the contents of an email from Mr McKillen's co-director Liam Cunningham to Coroin director and Barclay brothers' associate Richard Faber in which he discusses approaches the Belfast businessman received from the Qataris and the Malaysians in relation to the hotels.

The draft email read: "Regarding historical discussions, Paddy responded to approaches from both the Qataris and the Malaysians. You might remember it was the Qataris who reneged on a deal with DQ [Derek Quinlan] by dropping the price from £900m (€1,080m) to £800m (€960m) at the last minute, which resulted in DQ introducing the Barclays to the company."

But as aggressive as the Qataris may appear in their dealings with the two Irishmen, the unfortunate Malaysians look set to be depicted in court as the epitome of emperors without any clothes.

Referring to their offer of £900m for the Maybourne hotels at the pre-trial hearing, Mr Nourse, for the Barclays, said: "The Malaysians were always higher but they have no credibility because they want to load the company with £900m of debt and do not appear to have any money.

"There are great details that will no doubt emerge at trial of meetings on yachts and the like with the Malaysians, but there appears to be some question as to whether, despite the fact that they are on yachts in Monaco, they actually have the money."

Sunday Independent