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'We should never have listened to Cowen' – Sean Jr


Sean Quinn Jnr

Sean Quinn Jnr

Sean Quinn Jnr

Sean Quinn Junior's jaw is swollen. Nobody punched him, Quinn Jr explains with a quiet smile. A week earlier he had his wisdom teeth out. He takes out his iPhone to show pictures of how badly bruised he was then. It's a moment that reminds you he is only 34.

Between turning 30 and today he has gone from being the tall, dark heir to a €4bn fortune to watching his family lose their empire and his father go bankrupt. Quinn Jr sits down in the bar of the Castleknock Hotel, north Dublin. It is just around the corner from the penthouse (which is now up for sale) he owns with his wife Karen Woods.

Accompanying Quinn Jr is his brother-in-law Stephen Kelly, a solicitor from Dublin who is married to his younger sister Aoife.

Quinn Jr moves a hotel coaster emblazoned with its owner FBD's logo, a former rival of his family's old business Quinn Insurance, off the table. "We wouldn't want that in any photos," he jokes.

We'd spoken before. It was in the courtyard of the High Court, moments after his father, Sean Sr, was jailed last November. Quinn Jr's eyes had watered back then, but he'd stayed in control.

Now we were meeting again. Quinn Jr is friendly but on his guard. He makes it clear he doesn't want to discuss his cousin Peter Darragh Quinn (a fugitive in the North ordered to pay Anglo €145m). "I'll stay away from that one," he said.

His wife Karen (a good-looking Dubliner beloved of press photographers) is also off limits. "Now Tom . . ." he shakes his head.

I place my tape-recorder openly on the table in front of him when the interview begins.

There are no hidden devices like the one that caught him out, along with his cousin Peter, negotiating with tricky Ukrainian businessmen on how best to hold on to the family's overseas fortune.

Quinn Jr is here to discuss business, not his relatives or his private life.

Most of all, he wants to discuss what he believes happened to Quinn Insurance whose collapse has led to a levy of up to €1.6bn being charged on all insurance users.

"We are getting blamed for the losses to the taxpayer, and both we and the insurance customers who are faced with the levy are entitled to know how this levy has arisen, what it is comprised of and how it can be reduced," Quinn Jr said. "We want a public inquiry and any member of the family who would be useful to that would be eager to assist.

"There are many ways a relatively simple, low-cost inquiry could be carried out to uncover the true facts of exactly what happened and determine if the €1.6bn call on the fund is necessary," he said.

How the Quinns lost Quinn Insurance is an important factor in understanding everything afterwards. Essentially, the family feels Quinn Insurance was under strain – but not critically so.

The Financial Regulator, for a variety of reasons, decided to put the business into administration. It felt the opposite of the Quinn family: things were not only bad but if left unchecked it would get worse.

The board of Quinn Insurance decided not to resist.

"We were advised to work consensually . . . as the best way forward," Quinn Jr recalled.

The then Taoiseach Brian Cowen rang Sean Quinn Sr directly to reassure him this was the right thing to do. "This will all be sorted out," Cowen said.

"Brian Cowen felt that a solution should and would be found and he appointed Enterprise Ireland to try and put a plan in place," Quinn Jr said. Listening to Cowen and other advisers, he believes, now, was a "big mistake".

The family was on their way to losing Quinn Insurance first and then all of the Quinn Group. Any slim chance they had of ever repaying Anglo up to €2.8bn vanished.

Three years later, Quinn Jr has had plenty of time to mull over what went wrong.

Speaking about the nine weeks he spent in prison last year, he said: "I reflected on the fact that the system is far from perfect, especially when you see the people who brought this country to its knees now pontificating on how everyone else is to blame."

The loss of their insurance business was the trigger that caused the Quinns to make it more difficult for Anglo to take control of their $500m overseas property portfolio. Quinn Jr said his family was "disturbed" by a radio interview by Mike Aynsley, former chief executive of Anglo Irish Bank, talking about changes at the Quinn Group.

That was when they discovered that Anglo had met agents to sell some of their assets.

"We were very fearful that they were going to try to take assets we believed they had no entitlement to," he said.

"At that point we decided to try to do what we could to protect the assets, which was prior to any court orders." (These claims are disputed by the bank and are the subject of continuing litigation.)

Quinn said rumours that during this time the family had moved wads of money to far flung spots like Switzerland or Singapore were untrue. "All family members have disclosed all of their assets," he said.

The Quinns do accept they made mistakes in business, he said, but they weren't the only ones.

As part of telling their side of the story, the family has produced a 40-page report setting out why they believe things went wrong with Quinn Insurance.

The report questions every aspect of what happened and has a list of questions at the end.

"The main questions centre on whether the company should have been put into administration," Quinn Jr explains.

"The manner in which it has been managed since, the nature of the sales process, and how the €1.6bn was arrived at."

The report, however, is only one side of the story. In part, this is because the Quinns only know their side of the story.

The report starts by looking at where things were just before the administration.

It says that FTI Consulting, a UK financial consultancy firm, had delivered a "positive assessment" of the Quinn Group.

The FTI report actually notes breaches of financial covenants.

It says that in Quinn Insurance there were experience gaps and other deficiencies, which it warned could lead to poor reserving and it feared losses in the UK were only going to continue.

"There were issues around the insurance company back then," Quinn Jr acknowledged, before admitting he hadn't looked at the FTI report "in the last couple of years".

Kelly interjected and said, yes, there were issues identified by FTI, but "nothing was flagged as catastrophic".

"In fairness, solvency was tight in Quinn Insurance but Quinn never breached EU regulations," Quinn Jr said. What about Irish rules? "It did breach Irish guidelines, yes it did," he replied.

Solvency, Quinn Jr said, was "lower than what the board was comfortable with". He agreed that things were going to get worse once property assets in the insurance business were written down by €200m. "We had a plan to increase solvency," he insisted, "but we weren't given time."

How big the financial peril was at the time is certainly an area any inquiry would have to consider.

The issue that Quinn Jr is most interested in is whether the Financial Regulator was right at the time to put their business into administration.

One of the reasons it did was because of €448m worth of guarantees of assets held in the insurance company's reserves which were also pledged to banks and bondholders of the overall group. These assets when given a value of zero in the insurance firm's reserves, because of the guarantees to the group's banks and bondholders, pushed Quinn Insurance into administration.

The Quinn family, having thrown billions into Anglo Irish Bank shares in controversial circumstances, did not have the money to fix things. They tried to work on their own plan to turn things around but suddenly needing €448m was too much.

Quinn Jr believes the guarantees had no impact on the insurance firm's solvency. Moore Stephen's, a global accountancy firm, has produced a report for the Quinns which agrees.

"There was never any suggestion the guarantees were going to be called," Kelly added.

Quinn Jr said he wanted the legal advice the regulator took before placing the business into administration to be made public. This never usually happens but the Quinns believe an exception should be made in this case due to the scale of the collapse.

The Financial Regulator's reasons for placing the group into administration also referred to corporate governance issues.

In 2008, Sean Quinn Sr had received a record fine for raiding his insurance reserves to support his punt on Anglo shares and was ordered never to be involved with the insurance firm again.

But a report on corporate governance found that Quinn Sr remained a major influence on key insurance company executives after the fine was handed down.

"Dad was fully off the board. He was not taking part. That is absolutely wrong," Quinn Jr said.

In the family's report, the Quinns also take issue with how the figure of €1.6bn for fixing their insurance company was determined.

They say, for example, that €365m was taken from Quinn Insurance's reserves as part of the deal Anglo and Liberty Insurance struck to take over their business.

About €100m of this is due to be paid back.

Another €200m of this was used to pay off bondholders, owed €448m under the guarantees, at 45c in the euro.

Kelly said the Quinns' position was that the guarantees were worthless and the bondholders should have received nothing.

But administrators Grant Thornton's legal advice was that the guarantees were probably valid, so it was better to settle. These are diametrically opposite conclusions.

Quinn Jr's other argument is that not enough was known about how Quinn Insurance's Irish business was sold to Liberty.

For example, the Quinns argue that some lines of the UK business were valuable and that Liberty was allowed gradually take over this operation for a song.

Maybe, but 60 different parties looked at buying Quinn Insurance's book in Ireland and the UK in a process run by Macquarie, a reputable Australian investment bank.

Surely, if the UK business was good it would have attracted a bidder long ago? "We don't know exactly how the sales process was conducted," Quinn Jr responds. "There has been no visibility of it."

The Quinns maintain that the €1.6bn bill for Quinn Insurance includes the 'kitchen sink', and the number will be much smaller.

The Department of Finance, for budgeting purposes, did tell the administrators to ensure it included a worst-case scenario.

The Quinns are right that the number will be less than €1.6bn; it may only come in at €1.1bn but this is still a very big number.

"They came out with this blow out money of 1.6," Quinn Jr said.

"If they come out with a number less than that they'll have done a great job when the only reason they did that was through their own mistakes."

Quinn Jr certainly believes what he says passionately. It would take a team of insurance experts to determine where the truth lies, and the family hopes their report will lead to a public inquiry.

The question for the Quinns is whether anybody will listen.

In the K Club in July 2007, playing golf, Enda Kenny was eager to chat with Quinn Jr. With both their situations now changed, Quinn Jr would like to talk to him again.

"I would welcome the opportunity to explain our position to the Taoiseach or any other minister," he said.

The interview winds down. I ask Quinn Jr what was it like always fighting? "Consuming...all consuming," he replies. Will they ever make a comeback?

"It took my father 38 years to build up the company, yet it has been destroyed in three, so whilst we expect to be successful again, that fortune cannot be restored."

The Quinn report and its list of questions were submitted to both the Central Bank and Grant Thornton, the administrators of Quinn Insurance. Below is their responses:

Central Bank: "The Central Bank's investigation into certain historic matters at Quinn Insurance continues. We cannot comment in relation to the specific issues outlined."

Grant Thornton: "As officers of the High Court we have, since our appointment, provided the court with 13 reports to date, setting out in detail how the call on the Insurance Compensation Fund materialised. We continue to update the High Court on developments on an ongoing basis. Furthermore, we have appeared before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance and Public Expenditure, and answered all questions from all parties. Should an inquiry be convened then Grant Thornton would fully co-operate as it has at every stage of this process to date."

Irish Independent