Standing room only as highly anticipated Anglo trial gets under way

They barely acknowledged each other as they entered the dock.

The “three accused men”, as Judge Martin Nolan called them, hardly exchanged a word or a glance during the morning session at the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court as the biggest trial in Irish corporate history — the Anglo trial — finally got under way.

Former titan of Irish finance Seán FitzPatrick, was flanked on either side in the dock by co-accused and fellow ex-Anglo directors, William McAteer and Pat Whelan, as the trio stared out at a crowded, at times uncomfortably warm, courtroom, its imposing dark wood panelling, giving way to porridge-coloured walls and oppressive ceiling lighting.

Court 19, where their fates will be decided in a trial slated to last until May 31, sits atop the impressive criminal courts of justice building forged out of steel, glass and marble.

The legal hub’s circular floors spiral upwards from a central atrium, the giant doors of the courtrooms displaying large identifying numbers, giving the place the feel of a giant roulette wheel as you glide skywards in the glass elevator.

But before the most anticipated trial of recent years could get under way, we first had to witness a form of judicial bingo as the vacant place on the jury was filled.

A court official pulled random numbers from a box and the corresponding potential judges of the Anglo trio then appeared from the jury room to present themselves.

Ten of them approached the judge asking to be excused from the trial and were duly discharged, with just two accepting the jury place, and one of those being chosen to serve.

The casual attire of the potential jurors — some sporting hoodies — was in marked contrast to FitzPatrick’s suave navy suit, striped shirt and pink and purple tie as he watched intently from across the courtroom.

The new jury make-up meant the three accused again had to rise and plead “not guilty” to the charges before them.

And if the jurors were anxious about spending some four months deciding a complex, technical case, their mood was probably not lifted when told by Paul O’Higgins, prosecuting, that the 15-member panel was needed because: “Jurors get sick. Jurors occasionally die.”

The case would be the first to be heard by 15 jurors under new laws, but Mr O’Higgins said a “slightly savage system” meant if they all made it through to the trial’s end, a ballot would exclude three of them from passing judgment on innocence or guilt — a twist they would either find frustrating or liberating, he added.

Reassembling in the dock before the afternoon session began, the demeanour of the three accused towards each other was more relaxed, but as the jury was ordered back in, loud laughter could be heard as the door was opened, and the three looked caught off guard by the unexpected sound as it rippled into the courtroom.

The only other moment of levity came during Mr O’Higgins’ opening statement when he said Anglo had sought out potential investors who were holidaying in France and Portugal, as he noted most people would head for “the sand dunes” if they saw their bank managers coming towards them on such an occasion.

But the thrust of his remarks about the “absolutely illegal” plan he said the three accused had to lend money to 16 individuals in order to buy shares in the bank was deadly serious in tone.

Mr O’Higgins cautioned that the men were presumed innocent until proven otherwise, and needed to be judged as individuals, before going on to say some €610m had been lent illegally to members of Seán Quinn’s family and the group of favoured borrowers known as “The Maple Ten” to buy Anglo shares and thus give the bank an air of public stability.

Though this was the prosecution’s day, counsel for Mr Whelan, who also faces charges of being privy to the fraudulent alteration of loan facility letters, said his client believed the loans had been agreed by regulators.

As the drama unfolded, there was standing room only in court 19.

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