Belfast Telegraph

Sean Quinn's war with agency he branded 'sectarian' in 1985

Angry accusation of tycoon in the making after grant bid

By Adrian Rutherford

Sean Quinn, the Fermanagh tycoon who became Ireland's richest man, accused a Government economic development agency of waging a sectarian campaign that threatened to smother his business empire in 1985.

Quinn was dismayed after the Industrial Development Board said it would not provide the 40% funding he claimed was needed to set up the plant in Fermanagh in the 1980s.

He wrote an angry letter to the IDB claiming its offer of £3,370,000 – a 20% grant – was an effective rejection of his application for assistance.

Quinn alleged it showed an unwillingness to invest in a largely nationalist area, describing it as "in effect a form of religious discrimination".

The controversy is revealed in previously classified Government files released today under the 30-year rule.

One batch of papers deals with Quinn's bid to open a cement factory in Derrylin, close to the border, in 1985. He pledged to create 142 jobs, rising to 170 when the factory was fully operational.

Quinn said his plans required investment totalling more than £20m, with at least £3.5m coming from the Quinn Group.

He approached the IDB, the forerunner to Invest NI, seeking funding for 40% of the remaining £16.85m.

However, in a letter dated April 11, 1985, IDB official William McKeown wrote back offering 20% funding – half of what Quinn requested.

Mr McKeown stated the offer reflected the constraints on the board to "maintain a reasonable relationship between the amount of assistance to be provided and the employment to be created".

He said the IDB had an "obligation to provide no more than what it judges to be an adequate measure of assistance".

However, Quinn was not satisfied and, in a reply to Mr McKeown a week later, he dismissed the offer as unacceptable.

"It is my strongly held belief... that to proceed with the project with the rate of grant offered would leave the group vulnerable and possibly jeopardise our entire business."

Mr Quinn asked the IDB to reconsider its offer. He also wrote to SDLP leader John Hume and Gerry Burns, the chief executive of Fermanagh District Council, requesting their backing.

In the letter to Mr Hume, Quinn rejected the IDB's reasoning for offering just 20%, saying he believed it had more to do with religious discrimination.

He accused the IDB of "an unwillingness to support investment in an area 'west of the Bann' with an overwhelmingly large nationalist majority – in effect a form of religious discrimination".

Quinn claimed the board had bowed to a "political and commercial lobby" mounted by those who did not want strategic economic development in south Fermanagh if it affected employment in mainly unionist areas.

He added: "At worst, IDB's decision could be construed as a deliberate attempt to force Sean Quinn Group into liquidation were we to embark on the project at the rate of grant aid offered."

The letter reached the desk of Rhodes Boyson, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland. He replied to Mr Hume in a note dated June 14, 1985, dismissing Quinn's allegations.

"I can understand Mr Quinn's disappointment if the amount of assistance which the IDB is prepared to consider is insufficient to enable him to proceed with his project, but I hope you will agree when you have studied the memorandum that Mr Quinn has no grounds for supposing that the IDB has been other than fair, thorough and objective in its handling of the case," he wrote.

Attached to the letter was a seven-page memo dealing in depth with each of Quinn's claims. It rejected allegations of prejudice against projects west of the Bann, urging Quinn to substantiate it or withdraw it.

"The suggestion that the 20% offer can be construed as an attempt to engineer the downfall of Sean Quinn's existing business is patently absurd," it stated.

Profile

Once Ireland's richest man, Sean Quinn started in business in 1975, when he borrowed £100 to dig a gravel quarry on his family's farm in Co Fermanagh. Later he expanded his firm into concrete products and by 2007 had a business empire spanning the globe. However, after borrowing billions to gamble on the shares of Anglo Irish Bank, he lost his fortune and was declared bankrupt.

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