May 18, 2012 5:24 pm

Hotels trial finds room for Blair and Bono

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Earlier this year the Rolls Building, a handsome courts complex near London’s Fetter Lane, became the battleground for an extraordinary legal dispute between Russian oligarchs Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky.

Now another lawsuit, in the same court 26, is offering a further glimpse into the world of the super rich, pitting the publicity shy billionaire Barclay brothers against Patrick McKillen, one of the poster boys for the Irish boom and bust.

Mr McKillen, a Belfast-born property developer, is suing Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, the British twins who own the Ritz Hotel and Telegraph newspaper, over the future ownership of Coroin, the company which controls Claridge’s, the Connaught and the Berkeley hotel – three of London’s most prestigious hotels.

Mr McKillen owns 36.2 per cent of Coroin and is fighting a plan by the Barclay brothers to acquire control of the company. He alleges that the Barclays infringed his “pre-emption rights” to have first refusal on stakes in Coroin. His claims are denied by the Barclays and their companies.

Next week, both sides will present their closing arguments to the court, with the judge’s ruling expected to be some weeks away.

The packed court has heard colourful details such as Mr McKillen’s meeting with U2’s Bono and Prince Waleed bin Talal of the Saudi royal family to finalise a sale of the Savoy hotel on board a yacht in the south of France, as well as Mr McKillen’s dealings with former prime minister Tony Blair and the Qatari royal family.

The trial has also shed light on to the opaque world of Tony Blair Associates and the willingness of the former Labour prime minister and his team to exploit connections with the Qatari royal family and a British government minister, although the court has been told by Mr McKillen that remuneration was “never discussed”.

Mr McKillen met Mr Blair at Davos and reconnected with him again in 2010 through Matthew Freud, the publicist and son-in-law of Rupert Murdoch, the court heard.

Although he only met Mr Blair three times, Mr McKillen told the High Court that almost “every week or so” he would have a coffee with someone from Tony Blair Associates.

The High Court heard that Mr Blair personally engineered a meeting between Mr McKillen and Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad to discuss a financing deal relating to the three hotels in February of this year.

Mr Blair was meeting in Doha with Sheikh Hamad, the prime minister of Qatar, and personally intervened to set up the meeting with the prime minister’s son Sheikh Jassim.

Mr McKillen told the High Court that “Mr Blair genuinely wanted a resolution of the hotels ... he had a personal anxiety to get a resolution of the hotels” and suggested the Qataris “should make contact with Paddy”.

The court heard that in 2010 Mr McKillen also asked Mr Blair’s advice on his relationship with the National Asset Management Agency, the Irish state bank for toxic assets, amid concerns Nama would take over Coroin’s debt.

A subsequent email was sent from Varun Chandra of Tony Blair Associates and copied to Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair’s former chief of staff, which played up links to Lord Myners, who was then City minister in the Labour government.

Lord Myners later told the Financial Times he had no contact with Tony Blair or Tony Blair Associates in relation to Coroin while he was a minister.

The High Court has also heard of Mr McKillen’s dealings with a score of parties as he held discussions last year about raising financing. These talks included private equity group Blackstone, hedge fund Och Ziff, John Caudwell, the billionaire founder of Phones4u, and Singaporean tycoon Ong Ben Seng.

The long list of names also included Walter Kwok, the Hong Kong billionaire and former chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties, who was recently arrested and bailed as part of a probe into the company by the City’s anti-corruption agency.

The trial has also focused attention on Nama, the body set up to cleanse the Irish banking sector of impaired assets from the era of cheap bank debt, which took over Coroin’s €660m debts and later sold them to the Barclay brothers, giving Mr McKillen less than a day’s notice

It has also emerged that Mr McKillen owes some €360m – backed by assets – to a number of Irish banks, including nationalised Anglo Irish Bank, which has been renamed Irish Bank Resolution Corporation.

Kenneth MacLean QC, acting for the Barclay interests, put it to Mr McKillen in court that he had a portfolio of properties all over the world, including a stud farm in Kazakhstan, which he wanted to “maintain secrecy” about.

He told Mr McKillen: “You do not want the Irish taxpayer to know you have a portfolio of assets which could be liquidated to pay back hundreds of millions of euros you owe.”

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