Seán FitzPatrick was ‘convenient scapegoat’ after crash, top financiers say

Dermot Desmond says ex-Anglo chairman was a ‘decent and honourable Irishman’

As chief executive of Anglo Irish Bank Seán FitzPatrick presided over the group’s transformation from a small niche lender to become the State’s third-largest bank. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

As chief executive of Anglo Irish Bank Seán FitzPatrick presided over the group’s transformation from a small niche lender to become the State’s third-largest bank. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

 

Former chairman of Anglo Irish Bank Seán FitzPatrick, who died on Monday, unfairly became a scapegoat for the virtual implosion of the domestic financial sector over a decade ago in a narrative that let others off the hook, according to two the State’s leading financiers.

Paul Coulson, chairman and chief executive of Ardagh Group, said his company would not have developed from the lowly Irish Glass Bottle Company into a multinational glass and metal packaging giant, with more than €6 billion of annual sales, without Anglo Irish Bank financing some of its early overseas deals from around 2005.

“Without Seán and his team at Anglo supporting our early development, Ardagh would never have got off the ground and become the company that it is today,” Mr Coulson told The Irish Times on Tuesday.

“We’re not the only ones. A lot of businesses were helped by Anglo, which was able to make decisions quicker than other banks. They played a significant role in helping businesses to grow and employ people in Ireland over the years – and fill a gap in the market.”

As chief executive of Anglo Irish Bank from 1986 to 2005, Mr FitzPatrick presided over the group’s transformation from a small niche lender, with an initial gross loan book of €634,880, to become the State’s third-largest bank, with a €34 billion property-focused portfolio. That portfolio would more than double again in the final three years of the Celtic Tiger, when he was group chairman, before the bank almost collapsed in 2008 after US investment bank Lehman Brothers’ implosion rocked global financial markets.

Anglo was nationalised the following year, landing taxpayers with a €29.3 billion bailout bill, as its bad loans soared, before the lender was ultimately put into liquidation. The wider banking sector cost €64 billion to rescue, pushing the State into an international bailout.

‘Oversimplification’

“You can’t deny that he made mistakes – as we all do – but to lay the blame for the collapse of Anglo and the whole financial system at his door is a gross oversimplification,” said Mr Coulson. “The scorecard needs to be more balanced. There was a complete system failure – not least in regulation of the financial industry. He became a convenient scapegoat. And, as a result, the good things got forgotten.”

Fellow billionaire Dermot Desmond, owner of International Investment & Underwriting private equity firm, said that Mr FitzPatrick and “some of his colleagues were unfairly vilified while the reputations of their counterparts in other Irish financial institutions were left untarnished”.

Mr Desmond said the former banker was “a decent and honourable Irishman who played a major part in Ireland’s economic recovery, from the dark days of the pre-Celtic Tiger depression”.

“We are all aware that Anglo was caught up in a global asset bubble, which had huge adverse ramifications for western banks,” he said. “Seán was a beautiful person with a wonderful family.”

Alan Dukes, who became a government-appointed director in Anglo Irish Bank in late 2008, recalled on Tuesday how Mr FitzPatrick told him and fellow public interest director Frank Daly, as part of their induction, of his annual routine of moving millions of euros of personal loans off the bank’s balance sheet to rival Irish Nationwide Building Society, avoiding disclosure to shareholders and auditors.

“It was clear to me that this was a warehousing mechanism to get the loans off the books,” said Mr Dukes. “He would resign as a result that December.” Dukes would ultimately become Anglo’s chairman.

“It’s very sad that he has passed away. My sympathies go to his wife and family,” said Mr Dukes. “But while the bank at one stage provided needed support for the developing property sector, it would go on to fuel a roaring property bubble. It was totally unbalanced in the degree to which it became concentrated in property lending. One of the ironies was that Anglo actually did some good general business lending – and if they had paid more attention to this area, things mightn’t have gone so bad.”