/Photocall Ireland
Sean FitzPatrick

Anglo's collapse has had an outsized impact on Irish life and so will Seán FitzPatrick's legacy

The former chairman of the collapsed bank never felt he had anything to apologise for.

FORMER ANGLO IRISH Bank chairman Seán FitzPatrick, who has died at the age of 73, never felt had much to apologise for.

He made that clear in the days following the announcement of the €400 billion bank guarantee scheme in September 2008.

Less than a week after that momentous decision had been made and amid the turmoil roiling the global financial system, the former Anglo Irish Bank chairman praised the government of the time and urged it to be “brave” in its calculations for what was bound to be a difficult upcoming budget.

FitzPatrick told a business conference in Wicklow that ministers should have the courage to tackle what he referred to as the “sacred cows” of Irish life.

Naturally, he wasn’t talking about reckless lenders, the stewards of the banking system or the watchdogs who never barked.

Instead, FitzPatrick was referring to universal child benefit, state pensions and medical cards for the over 70s, all of which he said should be assessed on a “wealth basis” from now on. Corporation tax, meanwhile he said, should be cut to 10% to stimulate growth. 

In the very same week, he told Marian Finucane that Ireland’s problems were “global” in nature, “so I can’t say sorry with any degree of sincerity and decency,” he said.  “But I can say thank you.” 

Just a few months later, he resigned the chair of Anglo.

Blunt, brazen and perhaps even galling though his remarks continue to be given the human and economic misery that flowed from decisions made at that time, the truth is Fitzpatrick didn’t have to say another word to cement his legacy. The numbers would do that for him.

During his time at the helm — first as chief executive from the mid-1980s, then as chairman from 2005 — FitzPatrick took the lion’s share of the credit for growing Anglo Irish Bank from a minnow valued at just €1 million to a multi-billion euro contender.

For this, FitzPatrick was garlanded as a captain of Irish industry. 

An avatar, for some, of Ireland’s economic underdog success story, he golfed with taoisigh and held positions on the boards of Aer Lingus, Smurfit Kappa and the Dublin Docklands Development Authority.

At a time when the Irish construction industry was beginning to blossom, close relationships with customers, in particular, with a handful of high-flying property tycoons were FitzPatrick’s and Anglo’s secret sauce. 

They were also the rocks on which the bank would founder.

When he stood aside as chief executive in 2005, Anglo’s loan book was valued at around €34 billion, all of it tied up in commercial property investments rather than, for example, residential mortgages or business loans.

This aggressive strategy made Anglo unique within the Irish banking landscape of the time. It was also meant the bank was uniquely exposed when the property bubble began to deflate in 2007.

With FitzPatrick having moved away from day-to-day operations, his successor, David Drumm, ramped up lending to developers in the three years while his former boss was in the chair, further inflating an already engorged bubble.

By the time of the bank guarantee, Anglo’s loan book had more than doubled in size over the previous three years to €73 billion despite the state of the property market.

When the sector froze up entirely, Anglo almost went with it and the government of Taoiseach Brian Cowen issued the guarantee covering the loans and deposits of the six main banks including Anglo.

A few months later in December 2008, FitzPatrick was forced to resign from his role with the bank amid intense regulatory scrutiny of his own dealings with the lender and revelations that he owed Anglo almost €130 million by the end of 2007.

In January 2009, Anglo was nationalised. 

Arising from investigations into his dealings, FitzPatrick was put on trial twice, accused of a range of offences under the Companies Act. 

The first trial collapsed in 2015 following revelations that a legal adviser to the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) — the State’s white-collar crime agency — shredded documents related to the case.

In 2017, the second trial suffered a similar fate after 127 days in the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court.

Ultimately, Judge John Aylmer directed the jury to acquit FitzPatrick — who had pleaded not guilty to 27 charges, including making false or misleading representations to Anglo’s auditors — due to flaws in the prosecution.

All said, the State pumped over €30 billion of taxpayer money into the bank, which was renamed Irish Bank Resolution Corporation after being merged with Irish Nationwide.

Bailouts of the other main lenders — AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB — totalling another €31 billion would follow. 

To stabilise the public finances, the government would eventually be forced to seek an international bailout in 2010. Austerity and a lost decade for public investment would follow, the consequences of which Ireland’s public services are still wading through during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking to Finucane in 2008, FitzPatrick argued that Ireland’s woes were global and were not caused “by any one bank”. 

Although Anglo had an outsized role in the catastrophe, there is a kernel of truth in his argument given the reckless risk-taking that was endemic within the Irish and global financial system coupled with the systemic, regulatory failures. All of this has been subsequently laid bare by the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry, the Anglo tapes and various court cases.

But if Anglo had an outsized role, so too did FitzPatrick. For many Irish people, it won’t be difficult to draw a direct line from his leadership of the bank and its collapse to the hardships of the following years.  

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.