MICHAEL CLIFFORD: The grand delusions of property ‘victims’

LAST week, as the air grew thick with victims, I couldn’t help thinking about a man by the name of John Deegan.

Mr Deegan is 48 years old, endures constant physical pain, and is confined to a wheelchair as a result of a car accident in 2001. He was a passenger in a vehicle which went out of control and ended up overturned in a field in Ballymun, north Dublin.

In the normal manner of these things, he sued the driver, who was insured by Quinn Direct. The insurance company refused to pay out on the claim. Instead, Quinn Direct made a case that Mr Deegan was involved in fraud, that he hadn’t been in a car accident but had sustained his injuries in a fall from a high-rise flat in Ballymun.

This went on for seven years, during which time the paralysed Mr Deegan had to not only readjust to a shattered quality of life but also had to labour under the suspicion of behaving like a criminal and worry whether he was going to be reduced to penury by a long, drawn-out court action.

When the case finally got to court, the judge expressed an opinion that there appeared to be absolutely no evidence that Mr Deegan had engaged in fraud. Thereafter, Quinn Direct moved quickly to settle the case. A figure of €1.75m was agreed upon to cater for the 24-hour medical care Mr Deegan will require for the rest of his life.

The trajectory of the case was not unusual for Quinn Direct. In a whole raft of cases, the company dragged claimants all the way to a court appearance until finally conceding that it didn’t have a case. More often than not, these cases came to an end after presiding judges made disparaging or accusatory comments about the company.

In 2008, when Quinn refused to pay out to a Galway-based company, Murray Timbers, Judge Peter Kelly said he found the behaviour of the insurer “disturbing”. At one stage, he threatened to send papers on the case to the DPP.

A few years earlier, dealing with another arm of the Quinn empire, an English High Court judge said he found that the company acted in a “cynical, calculated, and unscrupulous” manner in a dispute.

Last week, in a case in which Sean Quinn is being investigated for contempt of court, he told the High Court that he had built up his empire in an honest fashion, and his creditor, the bank formerly known as Anglo Irish, took away his empire in an “underhand” manner.

Donning the clothes of the victim, he said that he had never before been in a High Court, never involved in litigation, and that the bank were trying to destroy his family and stop the truth coming out. It’s the kind of line one could well imagine John Deegan having uttered about Quinn Direct.

Sean Quinn is an unlikely victim, and an even more implausible one. For the last three years, since his business began coming apart under the weight of his €2bn-plus gambling debt to the bank, he has railed against all the forces intent on doing him down.

He appears to believe that the bank is out to destroy him for no particular reason; he has repeatedly made the claim that his insurance business was flying until the bank and the financial regulator rushed in and made a hames of all his good work. He repeatedly portrays himself as an honest man who was simply unlucky in gambling on the success of Anglo Irish Bank.

All the evidence that has emerged suggests that his insurance business, which was the cash cow for the rest of his empire, was on extremely dangerous ground by the time the regulator took over in 2009. The risks attached to the underwriting, particularly in the UK, would, in all likelihood, have eventually dragged the company down if the regulator hadn’t stepped in.

Far from coming out and dealing with his losses, the current case demonstrates that he was determined to put as much of his property assets as possible beyond the reach of the bank, which is being funded by you and me. The current hearing is to determine whether or not his actions were done in a manner that renders him in contempt of court.

Yet it appears he really does see himself as a victim. That in itself says plenty about the cocoon in which some of these masters of the universe still inhabit, long after the bubble of their invincibility has burst.

Another victim who has recently trooped through the High Court is solicitor Brian O’Donnell. He and his family live in a palatial home on Vico Rd, the millionaires row. He also has trophy homes around the world and once oversaw a property empire worth around €1bn.

Now, Bank of Ireland wants him to pay back €72m he owes them. In Mar 2011, he signed a legal document outlining all the properties he owes which could be used in sorting things out. A year later, it turns out that a number of those properties are not in play as they are held in trust for his adult children.

The bank is understandably put out at what it sees as deception. Judge Peter Kelly was also put out. He told O’Donnell that his property arrangements were “all very shadowy indeed”. The judge said the solicitor — an officer of the court — had given a “skewed and inaccurate picture” of his wealth.

At another stage, the judge told the witness: “Come on Mr O’Donnell, that is not an answer that does you any credit. Unless we are in Alice in Wonderland, net worth means what net worth is.”

And guess what? O’Donnell is a top-of-the-range victim. He went on the Marian Finucane radio show to tell how he had been victimised. He told the court his finances were “torrid” and “tragic” and that the bank had compounded his family’s distress. He didn’t broach a possible connection between giving the bank a “skewed and inaccurate” picture, and the bank’s current position of chasing after their money.

Last Monday, lawyers attended at the family mansion on behalf of the bank to value contents which might yield a few bob towards the debt. O’Donnell and his wife weren’t there, as they now live in London, from where they have declared themselves bankrupt, much to the chagrin of Bank of Ireland. Ordinarily, you would have sympathy for somebody whose home is subjected to a search by outside forces. This case is far from ordinary.

“The rich are different from you and me,” Scott Fitzgerald once remarked to Ernest Hemingway.

“I know,” Hemingway replied, “they have money.”

Some of the rich whose wealth extrapolated during the property bubble appear to be different in other ways. They take little responsibility for actions that were in many ways reckless. They always blame somebody else for the woes that have befallen them. They have no moral compunction in trying to evade their debts, while the average citizen has no choice but to pick up the tab for all the madness that went on.

Thus they are victims. Some victims.


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