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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 8 July, 2020
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The strange, unruffled atmosphere of Court 19

With more than three months to go, the trial of three former senior executives at Anglo Irish Bank will be a marathon and not a sprint.

The Criminal Courts of Justice on Parkgate Street in Dublin
The Criminal Courts of Justice on Parkgate Street in Dublin
Image: Niall Carson/PA Wire

“IS THAT IT? I thought there’d be more fireworks”.

The man joining the crowd walking out of Court 19 on Wednesday afternoon had been expecting more drama.

And well he might. It was the first day of one of the biggest white-collar trials in the country’s history as former executives Sean FitzPatrick, Pat Whelan and Willie McAteer went on trial over an alleged deal to prop up the ailing share price of Anglo Irish Bank by lending hundreds of millions of euro to some of its biggest customers to buy shares. The three plead not guilty to all charges.

However any sense of anticipation as the trial began was quickly replaced by one of practicality and calm. This is a marathon, not a sprint: Judge Martin Nolan has said that the trial is likely to run up until 31 May, more than three months away, so many people in the courtroom know that they are there for the long haul.

So instead of fireworks, there were thoughtful, in-depth discussions and extended explanations of complex issues, bookmarked by the occasional brush with the unexpected.

We learned that Sean Quinn greatly admired the business models of Ryanair and Anglo Irish Bank because Ryanair had a “get up and go” attitude and Anglo was “less stuffy” than other banks.

We heard of the sense of urgency as the dramatic events of July 2008 unfolded. One member of the so-called Maple 10 was on holidays in the south of France when David Drumm and Pat Whelan of Anglo came to talk to them about a possible transaction. “I think a lot of people if they were off on holidays and saw their bank manager might head for the nearest sand dune,” Paul O’Higgins SC for the prosecution noted dryly.

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Former Anglo CEO and chairman Sean FitzPatrick outside the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court on Friday. (Pic: Brian Lawless/PA Wire)

Huge numbers were mentioned so frequently that they became everyday and ordinary. One witness mentioned a figure of 150. “150?” asked a barrister. “Yes, 150 million,” the witness responded.

We heard about the St Patrick’s Day Massacre in 2008 as Bear Stearns collapsed in the US, with knock-on repercussions on Anglo’s share price. A graph showing Anglo’s share price was put up on the big-screen televisions several times over the course of the first three days of the trial, with one barrister observing its fluctuations noted that “just like one of those lines in a hospital monitor, it goes flat”.

Some of the witnesses appeared nervous in front of the packed 170-person capacity courtroom and were gently asked to slow down so the stenographer could keep up with their words.

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Pat Whelan outside the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court on Friday. (Pic: Brian Lawless/PA Wire)

Again and again, the issue of Contracts for Difference (CfDs) came up. One Senior Counsel quoted Warren Buffett who described them as “weapons of mass destruction”.

The three little letters were the method by which Sean Quinn indirectly built up his stake in Anglo Irish Bank, leading to a meeting in September in 2007 at which Sean FitzPatrick and CEO David Drumm were finally told by Quinn that he had built up a 24 per cent holding.

“They were concerned at the level of it, and somewhat surprised,” noted former Quinn Group CEO Liam McCaffrey from the witness box.

The jury

The jurors, eight women and seven men, sit shoulder to shoulder in two rows on the right-hand site of court 19, the largest in the Dublin Criminal Courts of Justice on the edge of the Phoenix Park.

They were told on the first day of the trial that they are already making history. For the first time in the State, 15 jurors were sworn in rather than the usual 12. The extra jurors were chosen due to the length and complexity of the trial making it more likely than it usually would be that someone would have to drop out, and to make sure the numbers always stay above the constitutionally-required ten.

If all 15 are still there at the end, a ballot will be held to decide on the 12 who will actually get to decide on the verdict.

Barrister Paul O’Higgins for the prosecution dryly told the court that this could either be frustrating or liberating for the jurors who don’t get to decide.

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Willie McAteer leaving the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court on Friday (Pic: Brian Lawless/PA Wire)

Directly facing the jury on the left-hand side of the courtroom are the three defendants: Pat Whelan of Malahide, Sean FitzPatrick of Greystones, and Willie McAteer of Auburn Villas, Dublin 6. All three sit in a row on their own. They have not taken many notes during the first days of the trial, but have watched speakers intently.

It has been standing-room only in Court 19 since Wednesday morning. There are some spaces for members of the public, while one courtroom, Court 1, has been turned into an overflow room with large television screens showing all the action from the court.

The use of technology has been to the fore. Documents are put up on screen, either through scanned computerised versions or on a slightly more old-fashioned over-head projector. It has been estimated that there are some 24 million documents involved in the case and some 800 witness statements.

Of the 103 witnesses expected to be called, the next one to take the stand will be Sean Quinn, once the richest man in Ireland and now bankrupt and fighting a war on several fronts.

The prosecution had expected to call him as a witness on Friday afternoon, but with just 15 minutes to go until the trial rose for the day, Judge Martin Nolan instead postponed his testimony.

Instead, it all begins again at 10.30am on Monday morning when Sean Quinn will give his side of the story.

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