Display of defiance that underpinned an empire

Sat, Nov 3, 2012, 00:00

BACKGROUND:It was an investment outside his group of companies and area of expertise that led to Seán Quinn’s undoing

BEFORE YESTERDAY the only time Seán Quinn was behind any bars was in the many pubs he owned in his far-reaching business empire.

That empire now lies in ruins and the emperor is in prison, facing Christmas in the training unit of Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.

Quinn’s financial losses, bankruptcy and imprisonment mark the steepest fall from grace for any Irish business figure and for a man once ranked as Ireland’s richest.

Sentencing him to nine weeks, Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne noted how Quinn’s counsel had spoken a day earlier of how his business became one of Ireland’s largest.

His previous good character and charitable donations were considered by the judge along with his age (66) and health as mitigating factors in the sentence she gave; it was shorter than the three months she imposed on his son in July.

Despite the jail term, Quinn showed the same defiance that drove him to create a multibillion- euro business out of Fermanagh that he started in 1973 with a £100 loan digging and selling gravel.

He developed the business over three decades from concrete and building materials into glass- manufacturing, radiators and plastics, insurance, financial services, hotels, golf courses and bars.

But it was an investment outside his Quinn Group of companies and area of expertise that has led to his undoing: his extraordinary gamble on Anglo Irish Bank shares.

The collapse of his businesses and his journey to Mountjoy can be traced back to that investment.

From 2005, Quinn began taking bigger and bigger bets on Anglo’s shares, increasing his interest in the lender to a point where he controlled 28 per cent of its shares at peak.

He continued buying into Anglo even as the international banking crisis was deepening in 2007.

When markets turned against Anglo and its shares plummeted in 2008, Quinn was left with heavy losses that he could not cover.

He used cash at Quinn Insurance set aside for customer claims on accidents to cover some of his losses – but this wasn’t enough. He turned to Anglo for loans. The bank’s nationalisation crystallised his losses at €3 billion; more than €2 billion was covered by Anglo.

Quinn lost control of his insurance company in March 2010 when the regulator discovered another financial hole in the firm.

In April 2011 he lost the Quinn Group when Anglo’s new management moved on its debts along with other lenders to the group, which were owed a further €1.3 billion.

Ms Justice Dunne noted the “serious dispute” between the former Anglo Irish Bank and Quinn’s family over the bank’s entitlement to recover almost €2.4 billion but said there was no dispute over another €455 million.

It was Quinn’s asset-stripping in his family’s international property group to out-manoeuvre the bank on this debt that has led to his prison term.

In an “impassioned plea” to save Quinn from prison, his lawyer told the court on Thursday that his client was “a man who, until these affairs with Anglo, stood tall as a leading light in the Celtic Tiger”. One of Ireland’s leading entrepreneurs was now “bereft of all financial and economic dignity”.

Yesterday Quinn steeled himself for jail with a last pint in front of another bar, The Pit in the Four Courts, before opting for further indignity and Mountjoy.