MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Hard to find sympathy for The Dunner

Sean Dunne

This is the man once reputed to have installed a Bass tap in his home bar to facilitate the favoured tipple of Bertie Ahern, writes Michael Clifford

There was a blast from the past this week in the High Court, with a devastating ruling against former nation-builder Sean Dunne.

It brought to mind the occasion when The Dunner — as he was affectionately known — may have contracted the Swine Flu. Oh what fun we had that day.

Not that anybody wished Mr Dunne ill. But the circumstances around his suspected dose of the Swine Flu were fascinating. The swine was apparently descending on him just two days before the start of a court action that he wanted to disappear.

That was back in 2009, as the walls were beginning to cave in on Mr Dunne’s empire. Over the previous decade, he had been among the most flamboyant developers who borrowed like there was no tomorrow. He was a big cheese in both the social and financial pages, the best and the brashest of a new breed of nation-builders.

In 2012, he declared himself bankrupt in the US. This was viewed as an attempt to avoid bankruptcy in this country, where he owed Nama — that’s you and me — €185m. It didn’t work out for him and he was adjudicated a bankrupt here also.

Thereafter the person assigned to sift through his assets, in order to pay us back a little of what he owed, didn’t get very far.

Last Tuesday, Mr Dunne hit the bottom of the barrel. A judge of the High Court described him as a “deeply dishonest witness” who clearly told lies about a number of matters.

“I find it difficult to conceive a bankrupt who could be more obstructive and less co-operative with the bankruptcy process,” Justice Caroline Costello ruled.

A perusal of the 97-page judgment illustrates why Judge Costello felt compelled to dispense of judicial understatement in branding Dunner a liar and cheat.

Take this example on Page 54. When the assignee tried to find out where Mr Dunne is now resident, he was given an address in Connecticut that had been for sale and unfurnished for the previous two years.

When confronted with this, Mr Dunne said: “I don’t need furniture to live in a house.”

In court, when he was cross-examined on living without the comforts of furniture, he replied: “I have slept in all sorts of conditions. I go to townships in Africa where we sleep in tents. Yes. I can live without furniture.”

The lawyer pressed: “And that is your explanation?” 

Mr Dunne replied:

Not for the rest of my life, but certainly, yes there are occasions and for me to be in Greenwich, Connecticut and have the peace and quiet of a house without furniture, what do you need furniture for?

This is the man once reputed to have installed a Bass tap in his home bar specifically to facilitate the favoured tipple of then taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

Judge Costello extended Sean Dunne’s bankruptcy for another 12 years. This effectively ends any prospects he might have had of reascending to his former status.

Why does any of this matter a decade on from the great fall?

In the first instance, Dunne’s current woes arise from his refusal to come clean. He owed us €185m from debts accumulated through gambling on property. The weakest in society have been hit the hardest as a result of the reckless gambling. Most of society has had to endure financial hardship of a greater or lesser degree to foot the bill for the madness.

The very least expected is that those who were driving the madness would accept their culpability and stump up what they could. According to the High Court, Dunne refused to do that. Whatever about the greed on the way up, there is absolutely no excuse for duplicity on the way down when the citizens were picking up most of his tab.

Judge Costello’s ruling could be read as a narrative in which Mr Dunne does whatever he can, lies at every turn, just to hide assets that are rightfully ours.

The other feature of the judgment is that it showed the law operating as it was designed.

When Mr Dunne was in his pomp, he was notoriously litigious. His aggressive approach to business often ended up in conflict. In such instances, he was wont to use the threat of the law as a weapon of first resort.

If you have much greater financial muscle than your opponent, the law is a terrific weapon, as it carries the threat of ruination through legal costs.

Now the law has come back to take a chunk out of Dunne’s rear end. Once his bluff was called, and he had to deal with the law in its fullness rather than using it as a threat, he got found out.

This week’s judgment is not, however, the first time that he got found out by the law. The previous occasion was when the Swine Flu descended.

The Dunner, on that occasion, was in court because he had allegedly stiffed blueblood auctioneers CBRE of a €1m fee. On the day the action commenced, his lawyer said The Dunner was indisposed through illness and he was applying to have the action put back.

The court heard how over the preceding weekend Dunne’s GP was called to his salubrious home in Dublin’s Shrewsbury Road. Upon arrival, he found a nation builder who was describing Swine Flu-like symptoms. The GP took his temperature which was fine, but you can’t always trust the temperature.

The doc prescribed some anti-flu tablets and took swabs to be dispatched to a lab for testing. Then he spoke by phone to his patient the day before the legal action commenced.

“To listen to him on the phone his larynx is certainly more congested,” the worried doc told Judge Mary Finlay Geoghegan.

The judge wasn’t for turning. The action, she said, must go on. She said The Dunner should stay away from the court and get daily transcripts.

So it went. By the end of the week, Dunne had settled and CBRE released a statement saying they’d been paid in full. Nobody ever got to hear the result of the swabs.

In retrospect, perhaps that was around the time things began to really go pear-shaped for the nation-builder. If he had, even at that point, resolved to play by the rules, tell the truth and accept consequences for his actions, he might have been on the way back by now. There was still time to begin a second act.

He chose not to. It’s not nice to see anybody facing into a bleak future. That applies as much to a young man against whom the odds were stacked from birth facing into a long prison sentence as it does to a former nation-builder banned from building nations. 

But under the prevailing circumstances it would be a job to dredge up some sympathy for the man known as The Dunner.


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