In part two of Quinn Country (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 9.35pm) the empire Seán Quinn raised up out of the stony grey nothingness of the Cavan-Fermanagh borderlands turns to ashes. This is the decline-and-fall chapter of a story that combines the rococo melodrama of Shakespeare with the dark absurdity of Father Ted.
Quinn is in the middle of the tempest once again, looking for all the world like your dad’s pal from the pub. He speaks bluntly in an episode that sets out how a multibillion-euro punt he took on shares in the doomed Anglo Irish Bank, that roulette wheel on rocket boots, led to the collapse of his sprawling web of businesses. “The whole banking world collapsed,” he says. “I’ve made an awful lot of good decisions. That was one fatal one.”
At one point he makes the eye-popping remark that he regarded his €3 billion loss on Anglo Irish as no different from minor setbacks earlier in his career. “Anything I had done for the previous 35, 40 years I suppose turned out to be successful, and any wee hiccups were always ironed out over a six-, 12-month period. I didn’t see it any different from that. I didn’t see this crash of 2007-2009 ... I didn’t see it any different.”
Quinn had gambled millions and then billions on the bank – and when Anglo was revealed to be not a prudent business but essentially a Ponzi scheme with a permatan, the roof came crumbling in. As the bank spiralled, Quinn had to borrow hundreds of millions of euro from Anglo to cover his losses as the share price crashed. This brought in his family, who owned the Quinn Group and signed the paperwork that left the business on the hock for billions.
“They didn’t come down in the last shower of rain,” Alan Dukes, the former minister for finance whom the government appointed to chair Anglo Irish after it was exposed as a basket case that could cause the entire economy to unravel, says of Quinn’s family. “If they were signing documents they knew there was something important. They can’t come back and complain that the bank didn’t hold their hands. It just doesn’t hold up.”
Quinn, the outsider from Fermanagh, is a complex individual. Nobody who has achieved his level of success and failure could be anything else. And it’s a coup to have him on camera. But does the documentary’s director, Trevor Birney, err in giving Quinn the podium? Might the film have benefited from more robust interviewing, particularly about a business strategy that helped to trigger an economic crisis?
The story will conclude tonight. What this second part illustrates is the way Quinn’s sense of manifest destiny, crucial to any successful businessperson, eventually tipped into cataclysmic overconfidence. The episode at moments feels like The Big Short: Cavan Edition. (This is appropriate enough, perhaps, as Adam McKay, who directed The Big Short, the scathing film adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book about the US financial crisis of 2007-10, has a holiday home in the county.) There is lots about contracts for difference and the interlacing nature of Quinn’s many companies. But the point Birney communicates effectively is that the qualities that made Quinn such a success were the ones that doomed him too.
Alan Dukes puts it best: “There was a piece of him that just didn’t understand the ramifications of what he had done.”
Quinn Country continues on RTÉ One at 9.35pm tonight