Monday 16 December 2019

Martina Devlin: Sean Quinn is costing the taxpayer -- he isn't a hero

Sean Quinn poses outside his company headquarters in Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, last year
Sean Quinn poses outside his company headquarters in Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, last year

'NO man will ever write a better tragedy than (King) Lear,' wrote George Bernard Shaw. In acting out the story of a powerful man whose foolishness and vanity led to his downfall, Sean Quinn may just have trumped Shakespeare's creation.

Once Ireland's richest man, Quinn is currently its most indebted. The family owes Anglo Irish Bank €2.88bn, while other lenders to the Quinn Group are due almost €1.3bn.

It must be a bitter pill to swallow for Quinn that his nemesis -- Anglo Irish Bank -- now effectively controls the companies he built up from scratch. But Anglo has been nationalised and those who run it have no connection with the Seanie FitzPatrick-David Drumm era. Today, the bank acts on our behalf.

So in locking horns with Anglo and the court-appointed receiver as they attempt to take control of the Quinn Group's foreign assets and clear some of the family's debts to the taxpayer, he is at loggerheads with the State. He has pitched himself against us, the citizens of this country.

Despite this, some continue to see Sean Quinn as a local hero.

Despite his post-dated defence that he received bad advice, Sean Quinn took a punt on Anglo Irish shares.

A massive punt. At one stage, he secretly owned 25pc of the bank. If his speculation had paid off, the entrepreneur who was then the world's 164th-richest man may have climbed a few rankings.

But his gamble went sour. Even worse, he was risking money that he didn't have, instead pledging his businesses against the Anglo loan. Sean Quinn no longer has any role in running the companies -- covering everything from hotels to insurance to manufacturing -- that bear his name.

The latest twist in the saga involves four of the five Quinn children, who recently lost their jobs with the companies.

A press release was sent out on their behalf this week, painting them in terms of extraordinary victimhood and claiming that they are "being targeted in a most unjust and discriminatory manner" by Anglo and the court-appointed administrators Grant Thornton.

It alleges: "Ciara Quinn has been sacked while on maternity leave, then subjected to two wholly inappropriate emails from the administrators (which were) circulated to circa 1,600 of her former work colleagues.

"Colette Quinn was asked to resign last week from various positions within the Quinn Group ... To receive this letter while on maternity leave following the birth of her first child in February of this year has been very upsetting and distressing."

The administrator has declined to comment.

Did the Quinns really not see it coming? The family is involved in a pitched battle with the taxpayer's representatives over the ownership of foreign assets. They have the gall to cry foul tactics, even though Anglo was obliged to secure a temporary injunction in Dublin to restrict the family from removing money from any of the group's accounts. This happened after Peter Quinn, Sean's nephew, transferred €4.5m out of one of the property company's accounts.

Yet some continue to see as Sean Quinn a local hero.

On a personal level, anyone would feel sympathy for this entrepreneurial Fermanagh man who provided employment for decades in the neglected border region. But his actions in recent years certainly do him little credit.

He engaged in a complicated and secretive share-buying adventure in Anglo, which left him with crippling debts. Rather than handing over foreign assets to repay those debts -- an honourable and perhaps inevitable course of action -- he has gone to law.

Furthermore he is costing the taxpayer, who is already burdened by the aftermath of his game of chance, even more money by obliging the State to engage in legal action in various jurisdictions.

A Quinn property portfolio stretching across Russia, Sweden and Cyprus has been valued at €500m. Anglo wants control over it to offset some of the debt. The Quinns are fighting this tooth and nail in court. In this, the family is acting in its own interests and contrary to the State's welfare.

Yet some continue to see Sean Quinn as a local hero.

Anglo is arguing in foreign courts that all cases should be heard in Ireland. The Quinns oppose this and their behaviour could be interpreted as an attempt to shield assets from the taxpayer.

Parallel court actions are running in Russia, Sweden, Cyprus and here in Ireland. We are not on the sidelines watching these battles, however distanced we feel from them. After all, the lawyers' fees are paid by the Exchequer of our near-bankrupt State.

The Quinns were offered a consensual deal by the receiver but they refused it. If they had co-operated with the receivership, they would not be pursued for outstanding debts after the assets were realised. However, their behaviour today is obstructive and serves to delay debt repayment.

These court actions are costing the State money -- potentially millions. Where is the money coming from in the Quinn family to go to law? They are buried in debt. Even if the State wins its cases and costs are awarded against the Quinns, those judgments may end up as another string of noughts on the bill already owed to the taxpayer by the family.

SOME 900 people lost their jobs in Quinn Insurance because Sean Quinn didn't understand a basic rule of business: company money is not personal money. If he had, he wouldn't have taken funds from his insurance arm -- which, by law, must be held in reserve against possible claims -- to part-pay for his adventures in buying bank shares.

Lear-like, he seems to think that lawyers and accountants have fiendishly got their hands on his companies through no fault of his own.

He lobbied for political intervention on both sides of the Border to keep the companies and now feels aggrieved that he wasn't shown what would have amounted to an outstanding and dangerous favour.

In some ways, this is a complex situation. In other ways, it couldn't be simpler. Anglo Irish Bank is trying to claw back money owed to the State by the Quinns, while the family is seeking to block it and keep its foreign assets.

Yet some continue to see Sean Quinn as a local hero.

Irish Independent

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