For a man who wants to be forgotten, Sean Quinn had a lot of people talking this week. Quinn Country, which aired over three nights on RTÉ television, was a fine piece of work in which one of the country’s greatest industrialists was front and centre. He had plenty to say about his reality and was eager to share it with the world. This is the same man who, along with his family, have availed of ‘right to be forgotten’ European data laws to have coverage of their affairs delisted from search engines.
The law was brought in to respect privacy which is fair enough. But at a time when alternative realities can be created online it also removes primary sources of reporting facts. Yet it was obvious in Quinn Country that far from wanting to be forgotten, the subject is very anxious that he be remembered in a way that is at variance with the facts.
More than anything though, Quinn Country was a study of failure. We all fail. If lucky, we fail small and infrequently. Failure in those who have great achievements is particularly interesting because it gives us a glimpse of what made the person successful in the first place.
Before looking at how he met failure, Sean Quinn’s major achievements deserve recognition. The Fine Point Films production lay out how the impatience that saw him leave school early in search of a buck drove him to great heights. His modus operandi was to take on established industries, innovate and work harder than the competitor and keep eyes front. Whether it was gravel, concrete, glass, or insurance he did the same thing over and over. He had vision and he had drive. And to quote Sean Fitzpatrick, whom Quinn would encounter on the yellow brick road, he had balls.
He transformed the border region from a wasteland to an industrial hub. Instinctive emigration was replaced by a good job in one of the Quinn companies. Quinn became a chieftain who attracted loyalty and demanded exacting standards. His contribution to a region that had long been neglected was immense and despite all that has happened, enduring.
Then he blew it. A bet on Anglo Irish Bank turned sour and he chased his losses all the way to €3bn. Such recklessness was a feature of the times, whether it be the middle earner remortgaging a family home to buy a half-built apartment in Bulgaria or bankers throwing loans around like confetti. We are all by now well versed on the fevered madness that had so many in a grip for those fleeting years of the Tiger’s romp.
And we all know that it was those who had gambled least, if at all, who bore the greatest burden of the cost when it fell back on the citizenry
The fallout was a test of character for many who had lost the run of themselves. Failure in all its guises brings with it big questions of character. This was touched on recently by Alex Ferguson, the most successful football manager that British soccer has known. Speaking at a graduation ceremony in Aberdeen, he told the audience that he was a better manager after his team lost. “When we lost, the next day I was flying, I was a great manager because I could confront failure, I could confront disappointment,” he said.
“This is where you find yourself. This is where you understand who you are and how your education and training (that you got) before it will help you confront it.”
Mr Quinn failed big but he could have confronted it. One contributor to Quinn Country speculated that if he had sat down with Anglo Irish Bank and come clean about assets, and attempted to genuinely address the huge debt he had built, there may well have been a future for him. Instead, he turned inwards in anger, lashed out, and blamed everybody but himself for what had befallen him. He attempted to hide assets that were rightly now the property of the Irish people, who had bailed out Anglo. He defied the courts, opting instead to serve prison time for contempt. He portrayed himself as the victim, this giant of a man who had defied odds all his life, who was teak tough and had habitually used his power as he saw fit.
Most of all, he believed he had the right to turn back the clock. Like a man emerging from a Paddy Power shop with empty pockets into the gathering darkness at the end of an afternoon of bad choices, Quinn wanted it to be lunchtime again, his coffers full, his reputation intact, as if the whole damn crash had yet to occur and he could give it a wide berth this time around. Others, he seemed to think, had hurtled him through time to his current station, bankers, the media, them in Dublin, international markets, a consortium of enemies who were simply out to get Quinn.
Even when some redemption of his legacy was glimpsed he couldn’t bring himself to grasp it. A plan was devised to save the companies with outside money and the inside knowledge of a coterie of those whom Quinn had schooled in the business. Quinn country could continue to defy the odds, keep people at home, build on the chieftain’s genius.
They even offered him a well-renumerated advisory role, a gesture to show gratitude and respect. But none of it turned back the clock so he had to lash out
What ensued culminated with the kidnapping and vicious assault on Kevin Lunney in 2019. Three men are serving sentences of 30, 25 and 18 years for the crime and the “paymaster” who ordered and funded it has not been identified. Sean Quinn is adamant that he had nothing to do with the assault or the other violence and intimidation that preceded it. What is indisputable is that a long-running campaign was conducted by individuals who supported him and considered themselves to be acting on his behalf. In that milieu, over the course of three or four years running up to the assault on Lunney, the chieftain did precious little to stop it or publicly declare any support for those who were under attack.
And what has he to say now about Kevin Lunney, his former protégé, a father of six who has been traumatised as a result of the savage assault? “I’ve nothing good to say about Kevin Lunney,” he told the programme. “Someone should ask Kevin Lunney why he was attacked.”
What kind of a man, under the prevailing circumstances, could talk like that?
The tragedy of Sean Quinn is not that he failed. It could have happened to a bishop. The tragedy is how he failed, what it showed of his character, and how it exposed traits that had never been publicly glimpsed before. Rather than take responsibility, he retreated into self-pity and delusion. Through his reaction to failure, he, and the rest of the world, accessed who he really is.