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The denial and fall of a man who flew too close to the sun


IT was the Celtic Tiger equivalent of the moment when the wax binding Icarus's feathers melted. Sean Quinn was standing outside the Four Courts, in full flow about the vicious destruction of his companies, as he sees it, when a guard put a hand on his sleeve: there was a holding cell waiting.

Jailed. A fall to earth few could have foreseen in the aftermath of the financial collapse, and no one at all could have predicted in the chutzpah days.

Yet another twist in the bankrupt entrepreneur's exceptional life story manifested itself yesterday, as fortune's wheel took a spin that put him in the back of a garda van headed for Mountjoy Prison.

For months, it has been a case of when and not if the Quinn paterfamilias would go to jail. It was inevitable if he continued to defy court orders and shield assets -- the State's authority could not be flouted indefinitely.

The chances of him complying were always slight. If he wasn't willing to unwind transactions to allow his newlywed only son walk free from jail, he was unlikely to do it on his own account.

And so the day of reckoning arrived. Although expected, there was nevertheless a whiff of shock about it: Quinn is the first of the tiger era Goliaths to be put under lock and key. Time will tell if he is the last.

His nine-week sentence is for contempt, rather than directly connected with any of the events that almost sank the ship of the State.

However, a certain level of symmetry is discernible in the fact that Quinn's problems can be tracked to one source: greed. Greed was the official creed of the tiger years. Not necessarily for money in his case, but for empire-building. And even today, greed prevents the businessman from shouldering his responsibilities.

It motivated him to engage in a complicated and secretive share-buying spree in Anglo Irish Bank using borrowed money. If that punt had paid off, Quinn would have accumulated wealth off the Richter scale. Instead, his debts are crippling.

Greed also prompted him to put almost half a billion euro of foreign assets beyond the reach of his fellow citizens -- tucked away to benefit family members.

In doing this, he thumbs his nose at the law: behaviour which cannot be excused because he was once a large-scale employer, or donated generously to charity, or supported the GAA.

He is a victim of the crash; one of the biggest losers in the global downturn, according to 'Forbes' magazine. But he is not a martyr. And if he is a fallen hero, his tumble was self-propelled.

History is littered with defeated figures who knew better than everyone else. Like Quinn, they were incapable of taking advice, or listened to stupid suggestions. Quinn was ill-guided by his nephew Peter Darragh Quinn, architect of a "complicated, complex and, no doubt, costly series of steps designed to put the assets of the IPG beyond the reach of Anglo in a blatant, dishonest and deceitful manner," according to Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne.

Quinn can reverse the contempt at any time. The suggestion it is beyond his powers is ludicrous -- why put properties he believes to be his family's so far out of reach that they can't be retrieved?

Yet he prefers nine weeks in jail to complying with court orders. So be it. That's his choice. It deserves no sympathy.

However, he continues to be championed in the border region, where many people know they may never work again following the meltdown of the Quinn economy. Successive governments neglected them, and the emotion underpinning their support is not hard to understand.

His advocates were out in force again recently at a rally in Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, saluting him in the manner of a tribal chieftain. But no one is above the law -- no matter how many jobs he created.

It's undeniably odd to see first one Quinn, then another, in jail while others have walked away scot-free. Such an anomaly partly explains why divisions in public opinion are thrown up by the Quinn saga.

On a human level, a heavy toll is being taken. It's apparent on the face of Sean Quinn and, above all, on that of his wife Patricia. But his behaviour does not withstand scrutiny on multiple levels.

For example, he is personally responsible for a 2pc increase in insurance costs in the Irish Republic following his mismanagement of Quinn Insurance. And while the €2.3bn he borrowed from Anglo to buy shares is currently the subject of a legal dispute, there is no ambivalence about some €455m he agrees is owed to the Exchequer.

Money to meet that bill has been salted away for his children and grandchildren. But what about the other children and grandchildren of the State?

It's too bad that mediation, recently suggested, wasn't engaged in long ago. Too bad, as well, that the Quinns refused a consensual deal offered by the receiver whereby they would not be pursued for outstanding debts after any assets were realised.

From the outset, however, Sean Quinn has been in denial about the part he played in his fall. His attitude smacks of a man convinced someone maliciously moved the sun too near to him, rather than that he flew too close towards it.


Irish Independent