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It is no longer possible, it seems, to shock the Irish. When Sean Quinn, once Ireland’s richest man, told the Anglo Irish Bank trial this week that he had lost €3.2bn investing in this “marvellous institution” (his phrase), there was not a murmur in court. No sharp intake of breath, no gasp of disbelief.
For a man to lose so much money in a catastrophic investment decision – isn’t that the definition of Ireland’s collapse?
This unthinking familiarity with very big numbers is one consequence of the Celtic Tiger, those famed few years from about 2002 to 2007 when the Irish found themselves living in a different country. A decade earlier, Ireland had been relatively poor; then it was winning the sort of dubious accolades awarded to suddenly rich countries, shooting up league tables that previously had paid it no mind. In 2005, The Economist magazine named Ireland the best place to live in the world. That one can still raise a laugh.
The Anglo trial is a journey back to those days. The charge against the three former executives from the bank who are on trial – that they illegally loaned money to Mr Quinn, his family and 10 “high net worth” individuals to buy Anglo shares as part of a scheme to unwind Mr Quinn’s stake – is quite specific and related to a particular transaction. (The three accused men deny the accusation.)
But in the airtime and pages of newsprint the trial is generating in Dublin, and among those members of the public who have come along to observe, there is a sense that history of sorts is being written.
Mr Quinn is just one of about 100 witnesses likely to be called (the case is expected to last until the end of May). But as a central player in the Anglo psychodrama, he cut a poignant figure that few others may be able to match. Take the exchange between Mr Quinn and Brendan Grehan, representing one of the accused executives:
Grehan: “Your companies employed 6,000 people.”
Grehan: “You were making half a billion euros in profit in 2006.”
Grehan: “You were the richest man in Ireland.”
Quinn: “I read that.”
Apart from being a reminder of the doomed relationship between Mr Quinn and Anglo Irish, however, anyone expecting a reckoning with Ireland’s wider collapse may be disappointed in this trial. It is not an inquest into the country’s failings; no court case can ever be that.
In any case, the Irish people probably already know more than they want to know about how and why Anglo collapsed.
A more revealing peek inside the character of Ireland during the boomiest years of the Celtic Tiger boom arguably came in an earlier court case that still sends a shiver down the national spine.
Last November a solicitor named Thomas Byrne was sentenced to 16 years in prison for fraud and theft after being convicted of stealing €52m from banks and his own clients.
Some of the evidence against Byrne was so lurid – his fleet of Bentleys, his 50 houses, his ability to convince his lenders without any of them ever apparently asking for evidence of his “wealth” – that it hardly seemed real in a country suffering through its fifth (or is it sixth?) year of austerity.
As The Irish Times wrote after Byrne was convicted, his case was “as if a time capsule had been secreted somewhere in the earth around 2007 and retrieved in the cold, unforgiving light of a time and place that had changed entirely”.
Not every remnant of Ireland’s recent past is negative. Take the criminal courts complex where the Anglo Irish Bank trial is being held. According to legal eagles, this spectacular modern building, opened in 2009, is a rare and much needed bit of investment in Ireland’s legal infrastructure. Bright, spacious, sleek and wired for all kinds of technology, it is a pleasure to visit (though not, perhaps, if you are a defendant).
The complex, which is a kind of smaller version of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, is all the more welcome since Dublin has such a poor record in modern architecture, and has the 1970s excrescences on what passes for its skyline to prove it. In 2010, the complex was named Ireland’s favourite building. Unshockable, indeed.