Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

There can be no comeback for gambler who has cost us all

There can be no resurrection of a man who has cost us all. Supporters turned up at the Quinn Group headquarters in Co Fermanagh this week. Sean Quinn is a farmer's son who not only has his fingers in the soil - he has feet of clay.

All the way up to his hips. For although he is paying dearly for his mistakes, he is busy attempting to shift the blame elsewhere.

Quinn is not a villain but he is no hero either, as those 1,000 workers and supporters who rallied at the Quinn Group's headquarters in Co Fermanagh would do well to remember. Standing by a neighbour in distress is worthwhile - calling for his reinstatement is nonsense, as any study of Quinn's behaviour during the ruinous days of the Celtic Tiger shows.

He appears to be a pleasant, hard-working man who loves his family, prefers home life to the social whirl, and has delivered employment to the neglected border region.

But he also gambled with his workers' livelihoods and put their families and homes at risk with that deluded, out-of-control punt on Anglo Irish Bank while other investors were diving for cover.

Back in 2007, when stockbrokers were urging their clients to sell Anglo, Quinn was snapping up shares.

Worse, he was doing it with borrowed money, using complex financial instruments called contracts for difference.

Quinn has a reputation as a simple man whose idea of fun is a weekly hand of cards with old friends, and a few euro a head as stake money.

In fact, his thrills came from far riskier betting.

If someone loses almost €3bn (£2.7bn) on bank shares, something has to give. Even when that someone was once counted as Ireland's wealthiest man, worth €4.7bn (£4.2bn) in the glory days.

And now every other citizen in the country has been dragged into his speculations.

Exactly as with Sean FitzPatrick, we are called on to shoulder a proportion of Quinn's gambling debts.

Yet even as the injustice of being levied for his dubious behaviour sinks in among the public, Quinn is passing the buck to the group's administrators - a sleight-of-hand to which his employees and others within his ambit seem gullible or desperate or ill-informed enough to give some credence.

But Quinn's accusations against the administrators are as unsound as his reputation for being a simple man.

He is not the only one at fault - the financial regulator allowed him away with too much, while previous governments should have ringfenced an earlier insurance levy rather than treat it as a handy extra tax - but reproaching the administrators for mishandling his insurance arm brings to mind stable doors and bolting horses. It also smacks of denial.

It's not the only state of denial here. Take his defenders, who urge putting the Mighty Quinn back in charge. When he was at the helm, a black hole gaped at the centre of Quinn Insurance, a hole that customers of Quinn and other insurers will be obliged to fill with a punitive levy on premiums.

Judging by past experience, levies are like toothpaste: extremely difficult to get back into the tube. So we're stuck with dearer insurance ad infinitum thanks to Quinn's adventures in Anglo Land.

However, the alternative would mean shutting down the insurance company with hundreds of jobs vanishing. Each unemployed person costs €10,000 (£8,900) a year in social welfare, plus the exchequer loses another taxpayer.

If money has to be spent, I'd prefer it to go towards saving jobs, as is happening here.

In fairness, Quinn made it cheaper to do business in Ireland when his insurance company introduced competition into the market in 1996 and forced down exorbitant premiums. But now he has made it more expensive to do business by pushing up rates again.

It is particularly galling Irish taxpayers are expected to pay for his unsuccessful attempt to enter the British market. There, he priced his policies at a low rate to break in. When the administrators took over they raised premiums to stop money flooding out of the company, making Quinn less competitive. In the process, they stopped it from incurring huge losses.

Remarkably, Quinn Insurance didn't even have an actuary. The Quinns claimed they hired actuarial services as needed, but actuaries aren't a discretionary extra. They compute the sums an insurer needs in premiums to stay viable.

The key to Quinn's rise was that he ran a family empire - his wife Patricia, his brother Peter, his four daughters and his son were all involved in the business. But in keeping it in the family he risked surrounding himself with yes-men and women. Dissent was less likely.

That element, in turn, was among the factors unlocking the door to his downfall. Quinn likes to present himself as an unassuming man "with my two dogs, the Wellington boots on, and dodging about the mountain" (he neglects to mention his use of a helicopter).

This is only one aspect to the self-made businessman, however. He is an entrepreneur - and entrepreneurs are risk-takers.

After an extraordinary career, it looks as if he will be left with nothing more than his home.

It is no mean property - a seven-bedroom house located 500m from his Slieve Russell Hotel in Co Cavan.

But at one time, Quinn headed the most important family-owned conglomerate in Ireland, employing 5,500 staff across a range of businesses with 2,500 further employees abroad.

Readers might also like to remember that he stayed in Ireland and paid his taxes here, unlike a rash of high-profile tax exiles.

In so doing, he was loyal to his country, which may explain why he inspires loyalty - and why his supporters are demanding the return of his businesses to their "rightful owner". Even though his failure didn't only involve the Anglo madness, but raised concerns about the way the insurance arm was used as security for that wager.

And even though his gamble - inspired by a dangerous level of ambition and fuelled by recklessness - will contribute to a situation leaving hospitals short of medical staff, schools without classroom assistants and libraries without books.

Ironically, people are cutting back or cutting down on their insurance cover because incomes have been annihilated and jobs lost due to the chaos engulfing this country.

Sean Quinn is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Meanwhile, ordinary people must honour his marker.

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