Tributes have been paid to Irish businessman Ben Dunne who has died aged 74.
Mr Dunne, the former Dunnes Stores chief executive who was ousted from that company and later built up a chain of well-known gyms, died on a trip to Dubai. A Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman said it was aware of the death of an Irish national in the country.
Born on March 11th, 1949, in Co Cork, Mr Dunne was a former director of Dunnes Stores, which was founded by his father, Ben snr. He played a leading role in the growth of the supermarket empire and became one of Ireland’s best-known business figures. Payments made by Mr Dunne to two senior politicians, former taoiseach Charles Haughey and former Fine Gael minister Michael Lowry, led to his departure from Dunnes Stores.
In 1981, on his way to visit a company store in Newry, Mr Dunne was kidnapped by the IRA, and reports at the time suggested IR£1.5 million was paid in a ransom and that it was arranged by Charles Haughey who was said to have asked businessman Patrick Gallagher to contribute money. However, Mr Dunne denied these reports later saying “Charlie Haughey and Patrick Gallagher had nothing to do with the ransom being paid whatsoever, in my opinion, and I think I would have an idea if they did had”.
In 1983, following the death of his father, Mr Dunne took over the running of the family supermarket empire and a period of significant growth followed.
Dunnes Stores was at the centre of controversy in the late 1980s when a group of workers went on strike for refusing to handle South African produce in protest against apartheid. Mr Dunne later apologised publicly to former cashier Mary Manning whose suspension triggered the industrial action. However, in an interview with The Irish Times in 2013, Mr Dunne defended the company’s stance against the strikers on “commercial” grounds.
In 1992, Mr Dunne was arrested for cocaine possession and soliciting while on a golfing holiday in Florida, which was eventually to lead to his departure from the company, with his sister, Margaret Heffernan, taking over.
“It takes a long time to destroy yourself and the unfortunate thing — the road back — it takes just as long to get back,” Mr Dunne told Eamon Dunphy in an interview in 2003.
“I was a sick man using cocaine. It was having a grave effect on me … What I should have done, and saved everybody a lot of pain, was dealt with my personal problems.”
A year after the Florida arrest, Mr Dunne was ousted from the Dunnes retail empire. Mr Dunne threatened to sue his family, eventually settling for a pay-off of IR£100 million. However, as part of the legal manoeuvres, he claimed in legal documents that he had given company money to Haughey.
A report from PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants, commissioned by Ms Heffernan, who took over the running of Dunnes Stores, outlined in detail how Mr Dunne had also given company money to then Fine Gael minister Michael Lowry, largely to pay for an extension to his home. He had a business relationship with Mr Lowry, who provided Dunnes Stores with refrigeration services.
Mr Dunne had paid the money to the two politicians without the knowledge of the other family members.
Following the revelations, the McCracken tribunal was established by the government in 1997 to examine payments to politicians from Dunnes. It found that Mr Dunne had knowingly assisted Mr Lowry in evading his tax obligations and also criticised the payments to Haughey as being completely unacceptable. A second tribunal, the Moriarty inquiry, was subsequently established due to public concern about the findings of the McCracken report.
In a 2014 RTÉ interview with Miriam O’Callaghan, Mr Dunne said he had “no regrets about things that came out that were true and what came out about Haughey was true”.
He said: “I gave him money but why have a regret?”
In more recent years, Mr Dunne founded and ran a chain of fitness centres throughout the country, called Ben Dunne Gyms.
It was reported earlier this year that his gym group swung back into the black in 2022, recording an operating profit of €3 million, following a difficult period for the industry during Covid-19.
The business returned to profit following Mr Dunne shutting down six of his 12 gyms after exiting rent deals for the various premises.
Mr Dunne is survived by his wife, Mary, and their four children.
“I’m going to miss him in a way I can’t even describe in words,” said his son Robert in a tribute quoted on the Extra.ie website. “My dad is dead. He had a massive heart attack and just didn’t make it. Simple as that. Overall, in the final analysis, he was a good and decent man.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar paid tribute to the late businessman, saying: “I was deeply saddened to hear that Ben Dunne has died. A constituent of mine in Castleknock and a local employer, I met Ben many times.
“He really was larger than life. Among other things, he pioneered the fitness industry in Ireland first with Westpoint and then Ben Dunne Gyms. He led a life less ordinary and in turn, he made some mistakes in life. The best people do. He never allowed that to defeat him or hold him back. He touched the lives of tens of thousands who will mourn his loss.”
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald expressed sadness “to hear of the sudden death of Ben Dunne. My thoughts are with his beloved family. He was a good man who cared about people. We will never see his likes again. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.”