In April 2007, at the height of the madness, I felt the wrath of one of the most powerful figures in the country at the time. A story, written by Conor McMorrow and myself, was published in the Sunday Tribune, alleging dodgy practices by Quinn Insurance.
Seán Quinn was apoplectic. A flurry of solicitors’ letters rained down. Legal proceedings were issued. The PR machine cranked into action. Daily rumours were flown, claiming that the paper’s editor Nóirín Hegarty had resigned. Reportedly, angry conversations were had with high-flying individuals in Independent Newspapers, which owned the Tribune.
Mr Quinn took full-page advertisements in national newspapers, lashing out at the story, proclaiming his integrity. “I am a man of my word,” he wrote in the ads.
Nóirín Hegarty took the brunt of the heat, but, as the authors of the story, Conor and myself felt a share of it. We had tangled with a legend, a man who had cultivated the image of a humble genius, who had taken on big business and won, who spurned material comforts, who played cards with friends in a house that was not plumbed for a toilet. This billionaire was perfectly content answering nature’s call in an outhouse.
A little over a year later, it turned out that Mr Quinn was involved in practices a lot dodgier than anything we had written about. The financial regulator fined Quinn Insurance a record €3.25m for loaning out some of its funds to prop up other Quinn businesses. Insurance companies are governed by strict financial regulations in order to protect the injured, the maimed, the bereaved and anybody entitled to insurance claims.
Mr Quinn was fined €200,000 personally and he accepted the sanction. Later, after the extent of how Quinn Insurance was run into the ground emerged, the Government imposed a 2% levy on all premium holders to cover the losses. That is still in existence today.
Mr Quinn was a key player in the collapse of Anglo Irish Bank to which he and his family owed €2.3bn by 2008. Most of the money was lost on gambling using “contracts for difference”, a high-stakes device that has been described as “the crack cocaine of the stock market”.
Last week the five adult Quinn children settled the last of the legal actions between the family and Anglo Irish’s successor, IBRC. The settlement saved all from a lengthy court action. At the outset of the hearing, the High Court was told that the family had used the Quinn Group to fund a lavish lifestyle, including a €1m loan for a wedding which was never repaid. It’s all a long way from visiting the humble outhouse during a game of 25.
The settlement was reached after Judge Garrett Simmons ruled that the Quinn siblings could not avail of a defence that they were under the “undue influence” of their father.
In 2011, Quinn’s wife, Patricia, claimed in court that she was “clueless” when she took out a loan for €3m under the “undue influence” of her husband. Judge Peter Kelly found that defence “startling and astonishing”.
Sean Quinn achieved great things in business. He provided employment in a border region at a time when the Troubles scared away many businesses. He broke up monopolies, which benefited the general public. Quinn Insurance was innovative in tackling spiralling legal costs which in turn benefited premium holders and, arguably, claimants.
He was not alone in finding the walls tumbling in on him in 2008. Others who had bestrode the globe were similarly laid low. He was not the only captain of industry to have let rip with a reckless streak when gambling on the stock market was believed to be a one-way bet.
The measure of Mr Quinn was how he handled failure. He could have faced it with the kind of dignity and stoicism that might be expected of person of substance who measured wealth other than by material or monetary acquisition.
Instead, Mr Quinn adopted the pose of a victim: He had been made to borrow all that money by the cunning suits in the bank. They had taken advantage of him and his family. He beat a tribal drum, pointing the finger at the bankers, the government, the media, Dublin. He gathered around him the assorted tribes, the people of the border, the GAA, ordinary decent country folk, people for whom, like him, their word was their bond.
Many bought into it. In the Dáil, a TD invoked the spirit of 1916 when complaining that the financial regulator, Englishman Matthew Elderfield, had effectively shut down Quinn Insurance. Was it for this?
One of the low points of the saga was a rally to support Quinn in Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, in July 2012. A crowd of 4,000, including a number of prominent GAA figures, turned up to show solidarity with a man portraying himself as being the victim of… forces. Later that year he and his son were imprisoned for contempt of court.
At that very time, plans were afoot to impose a levy on all premium holders to cover Quinn Insurance losses. Anglo Irish, by then owned by the citizens, was chasing around the world attempting to retrieve assets to meet the debts. Austerity was chomping on the most vulnerable. There was no money in the exchequer, yet resources had to be provided to hunt down the Quinn fortune. Last week it was estimated that the bank spent €170m in attempting to corral Quinn assets around the globe. That’s a lot of special needs assistants, a lot of hospital beds.
Not too many buy into the victimhood anymore. The Quinn adult children have accepted their debt of €88m each. The businesses are now in the hands of others. Many jobs have been retained, but Sean Quinn no longer has any involvement in the group. Now he is a victim of other forces — those who took his business and are unwilling to restore him to his rightful place.
His exclusion has enraged some crazed people who have criminally damaged company assets, and, in at least one instance, firebombed an executive’s car. Quinn has condemned the attacks. But there will always be crazy people willing to misguidedly embrace the narrative that their chieftain has been victimised.
The tragedy of the demise of Seán Quinn’s business empire is how he handled it. He didn’t have to show contempt for the court, contempt for the bank seeking to retrieve the citizens’ money, contempt for the concept of accepting responsibility. He didn’t have to fashion an empty narrative in which he, the humble countryman, was being victimised by the forces of power who considered him an outsider. He could have put his
hands up and acted like a man of his word. He would have ended up in the same financial situation in which he now finds himself, but he may well have been a lot wealthier.