Belfast Telegraph

Public is ready for a share in Fitz of laughter

The trajectory, and ultimate tragedy, of Anglo Irish Bank has proved fertile ground for comedy writers. Margaret Canning finds out who pulls the strings in the biggest show in town

It's the most notorious business in Irish history, nationalised and bailed out by the taxpayer to the tune of over €30bn (£23.5bn) after a policy of lending prodigiously to developers north and south backfired spectacularly in the crash which followed the Celtic Tiger.

Deadly serious stuff - but in the same way that the most irreverent minds can find comedy in the darkest material, satirists in Ireland have developed Anglo the Musical, a production featuring puppets and songs which lampoon Anglo Irish Bank - now known as Irish Bank Resolution Corporation as it is gradually wound up - and the Celtic Tiger period.

Written by Paul Howard, who created rugby-mad Dublin 4 layabout Ross O'Carroll Kelly, its tagline is 'because all it takes is a few muppets to screw an entire country'.

Songs such as Easy Tiger and Put a Nought on the End, He's My Friend, highlight the old banking culture of cronyism and political favours for developers.

Co-creator and producer Darren Smith said the show was "kind of a tragi-comedy" in which the puppet characters are the baddies and the human characters, the goodies.

Set on an island of Innisdull - bordering Innisduller and Innisduller Mor - it opens with the engagement of Dermot and Aisling, so unworldly that they use the ring pull of a can of cider to mark their engagement.

But their happiness is ruined when Dermot's cousin Jimmy comes to open a branch of Anglo on the island. "Seanie Fitzpatrick (Anglo chief executive and later chairman) decides Innisdull is the next place Anglo will develop and the island will become a suburb of Dublin," according to Mr Smith.

And with the arrival of Jimmy, the Celtic Tiger also arrives in Innnisdull. Dermot is prevailed upon to borrow €840m (£659m) to open a hotel and spa on the island "and it all goes horribly wrong".

There is no Sean Quinn in the musical but Mr Smith joked that "Quinnasty" could yet make it to the stage. Even those on the inside of banking confess that Anglo's story - and indeed, other banks - lend themselves well to a comic treatment.

John Wright, a former chief executive of Northern Bank, said that for much of the industry's existence, banking has not been fertile ground for laughs. However, "what's happened in the last decade is just a joke and I say that in the unkindest way possible".

Mr Wright said: "It's been a comedy of errors: poor regulation, really profligate lending on a scale of which was unimaginable. And I suppose the joke's been on the taxpayer and the depositors."

As for Ireland's predicament: "It would be very easy to blame it all on the characters in Anglo but there are several others which would lend themselves to similar treatment.

"Maybe they weren't quite as reckless as Anglo in their business dealings but there was a common strand."

That common strand was loose regulation.

"The recklessness starts with the environment, and who creates the environment but the politicians and regulators?

"Bank boards and management take advantage of that, then commercial customers take advantage of that."

Banks were able to take advantage of a property boom when values mushroomed. Irish developer and Fianna Fail donor Sean Dunne spent €379m (£297m) in 2005 for two hotel sites in Ballsbridge, an unprecedented sum for a site in Ireland.

Mr Wright said that period had been time for a raised eyebrow. "I think by the time we got into the mid-noughties, I think quite a few of us were saying this can't go on forever and at some point there has got to be a reckoning or a day when the market falls off the edge. Nothing goes on forever. It's the old truism.

"Some of the lending being done was beyond ridiculous."

Seanie FitzPatrick, who is now facing charges over Anglo, was the star of the show.

"FitzPatrick took Anglo from nothing to stardom but it was only a house of cards," added Mr Wright.

Yet before its collapse, Anglo's success - shares changing hands for €17 (£13) at their peak in 2007 - made it the envy of other institutions. "Other banks were under a huge amount of pressure and boards wanted management to mimic the success of Anglo .

"It was just a modest banking business which most folk had never heard of until Seanie appeared charing from the horizon, lending like there was no tomorrow."

The rise and fall of Anglo has been documented by Simon Carswell, the author of Anglo Republic: Inside The Bank That Broke Ireland. Two screenwriters have since received a grant to research a possible script for a film adaptation.

Mr Carswell said it was no surprise that the Anglo story was inspiring some artistic works.

"Given what has emerged in Irish banking over the past four years and the cost of the Anglo Irish Bank debacle to the public, I am not surprised that there is an interest to tell the story either in a dramatisation or as a parody in the form of a comedy musical.

"If you didn't laugh at the Anglo mess, you'd cry."

Anglo and the people at the top of the bank personified Ireland's blind faith in property during the years of the Celtic Tiger.

"They felt like they were invincible and the good times would never end and they hadn't prepared themselves for a downturn in the market," said Mr Carswell.

And things were no different in Northern Ireland, according to one observer who did not want to be named.

"Anglo almost became like the hare that everybody wanted to catch. It came in and upset the apple cart. There was reckless lending, lending without proper procedures.

"The hare was upsetting all the other banks and eating into their market share."

That prompted competition between the banks to offer money to developers. Ordinary punters who weren't developers also bought into it as it offered high rates of interest.

"It was a darling of the stock market but its growth was like a Ponzi scheme. As long as you can keep getting more and more people to put money in, it works, but then falls apart when people stop doing that."

In conclusion, Anglo made matters worse in Northern Ireland. "If it hadn't been here, the boom and bust wouldn't have been as bad as it was. It was a 'sod everything, go for the money' mentality."

Going back to the show which pokes fun at the 'go for the money' mindset, how does Anglo the Musical portray Ireland's politicians?

Taoisigh Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen and Enda Kenny are all puppets, explained Mr Smith.

"Bertie plays Seanie FitzPatrick's valet, ironing his shirts and getting him ready in the morning. No-one can make out a word that Brian Cowen says so he doesn't matter, and Enda Kenny is [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel's puppet.

"We're a nation of puppets," he concluded.

With the humans still to be cast, there's plenty to be done before Anglo opens in the Bord Gais Theatre in November.

"It's frantic, but probably less frantic than it ever was in Anglo," Mr Smith said.

Anglo the Musical runs in Dublin's Bord Gais Theatre from November 14 to 25. Tickets are available from the theatre

  • Simon Carswell's Anglo Republic: Inside The Bank That Broke Ireland, is published by Penguin Ireland.

Art imitating life

Anglo the Musical follows other dramatic works inspired by what can go wrong in the financial world.

  • ENRON, written by playwright Lucy Prebble, portrayed the fraud and corruption which led to the collapse of the US energy company of the same name.
  • The Power of Yes by David Hare was written after Hare interviewed many of the major players in the credit crunch.
  • The film Wall Street and its successor Money Never Sleeps, starring Michael Douglas gave us New York stockbrokers in braces and the phrase 'greed is good'.
  • Movie Bonfire of the Vanities, adapted from a novel by Tom Wolfe, referred to a bond trader as a 'master of the universe,' a phrase bandied around with irony during the credit crunch.
  • Rogue Trader - The Ewan MacGregor movie charts the rise and fall of Barings Bank in 1995 when it sent trader Nick Leeson to manage its new Singapore office. By hiding losses in the infamous 88888 account, he managed to rack up a bill of £827m, one which brought down the bank.

Risk of contagion

Northern Ireland was not immune to the Anglo Irish whirlwind.

The bank lent millions to Northern Ireland developers like Michael Taggart, Peter Curistan, Peter Dolan and, most infamously, Sean Quinn.

By 2006, it had a loan book of €1.5bn in Belfast.

For many developers, helicopters and private jets were the order of the days though many saw their helicopters later repossessed by administratators appointed by Anglo and other lenders.

The former head of Anglo in Belfast, Neil Adair, left the bank to form a property company, PBN, with business partners Patrick Kearney and Brendan McConville.

Mr Kearney recently emerged as one of the Maple Ten or 'golden circle' - one of 10 borrowers who bought 10% of Anglo Irish with the bank's own cash.

That action was taken because the share price collapsed after Sean Quinn built up a 25% stake through contracts for difference.

The Quinn family are still locked in a bitter legal battle over an alleged debt of €2bn (£1.58bn) to the bank.

Key players

Former Anglo Irish Bank finance director Willie McAteer, Pat Whelan, the former managing of its business in Ireland, and ex-chief executive and chairman Sean FitzPatrick, currently face criminal proceedings in relation to financial irregularities at the bank. Altogether there are 16 charges which link the men to the alleged attempt to prop up Anglo's share price after Sean Quinn's bet through contracts for difference (CFD) went wrong. Separately, Sean FitzPatrick has admitted he had personal loans of over €87m taken off the bank's books over eight years.

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