The Rise and Fall of the Great Dunner

CGI image of the 37 storey centre-piece tower for Seán Dunne’s Jurys / Berkeley Court development that was rejected by An Bord Pleanála in January 2009.

By Alexander Kearney

Christmas is a time when we are naturally drawn to thinking about the past. Another year gone or perhaps a whole decade to look back upon; the totting up of accounts both financial and spiritual.

Almost exactly ten years ago, at 3am on a weekday evening, a somewhat plump rosy-faced man reached down for a penny in the fug of Doheny and Nesbitt’s. “I am never, never too proud to pick a penny up from the floor,” he told the American journalist who had followed him through a night of champagne cocktails, a “wine-soaked dinner”, and maybe “five pints of Guinness”. “I grew up with nothing and I know the value of money,” the man mused, before adding, “The Celtic Tiger may be dead and if the banking crisis continues I could be considered insolvent. But the one thing that I have is my wife and children – that they can’t take away from me.”

An account of this evening appeared in the The New York Times on the 3rd January 2009 and sounded another chime in the passage of the national economy from gilded carriage to hollowed-out pumpkin.

The subject of that piece, property developer extraordinaire Seán Dunne, cavilled that his ‘insolvent’ remark had been taken out of context. He had, at any rate, considered the conversation off the record. Yet the wider truth of those reported words merely crystallised what many had suspected: the collapse of Dublin’s property boom would seal the fate of its most outspoken figurehead.

Mr Dunne was full of fighting words, “If anyone wants to bet I can’t do this, I will take that bet,” but a fall of sorts seemed certain. What was perhaps harder to predict was the role Dunne himself would play in prolonging that fall. His rivals, the Joe O’Reillys, Seán Mulryans, and the Johnny Ronans have since come up for air, but Dunne still languishes in a sea of legal troubles.

If anything, he is now further from solvency than when he first entered formal bankruptcy proceedings on both sides of the Atlantic in 2013 – a feat of sorts.

Justice Caroline Costello offered a stark view of just why this was so in a reserved judgement at the High Court last October. In 2016, Chris Lehane the Official Assignee for Dunne’s approximately €164 million loan debt to Ulster Bank applied for an extension to his Irish bankruptcy. The grounds were alleged non-co-operation from Dunne.

A temporary extension was granted, while the developer’s barrister countered that it was of, “paramount importance” to his client, “to get free of the shackles of bankruptcy.” He added that Mr Dunne considered himself the, “most co-operative bankrupt under scrutiny.” Two years on and it’s fair to say that Justice Costello does not share this view. Not a bit of it, in fact.

In her 97-page judgment, she said that Dunne was a, “deeply dishonest” witness, who had demonstrated an, “incredible” attitude. She went on, it was, “difficult to conceive of a more thorough determination not to cooperate with the bankruptcy process and to seek to conceal and hide assets legitimately being investigated by the Official Assignee…” The breaches of his statutory duties under the Bankruptcy Act were, “extremely grave, serious, persistent and deliberate”. She determined that his bankruptcy would be extended until April 29th 2028: a reduction of three months in light of Dunne’s age (64).

Dunne, who was in court for the judgment, must have felt those words like turn-screws; he would be in his mid-70s before the shackles were loosened. His lawyers issued a statement describing the ruling as, “extraordinary”, and that their client was, “deeply disappointed and shocked.” Yet it is hard to think of another developer whose words and actions have been so comprehensively demolished by a sitting judge. His appeal, which is promised, will make interesting reading. But time ticks on.

Since becoming a public figure, Dunne has always had something of a constructed edifice about him, though he has never concealed his humble beginnings. Rather those beginnings are essential to his image as a self-made man, the builder who built himself. According to that New York Times profile, Dunne was, “Born into a house without electricity or running water” in Tullow, County Carlow, and went on to study, “construction economics at a technical college in the 1970s.”

He travelled, and apparently even worked on an oil rig in Canada, before starting his property career in London. By 1990, he was back in Ireland as managing director of Berland Homes. Despite some disappointments (his company missed out on developing a national conference centre at Grand Canal Dock, ultimately built by Treasury Holdings at Spencer Dock), his fortunes swiftly rose with those of the property market. To his friends, including then-leader of Fianna Fáil, Bertie Ahern, he was simply the “Dunner.’’ ‘Seánie’, of course, was reserved for Seán Fitzpatrick, the leading light of Anglo-Irish bank.

What set Dunne apart in a generation of ambitious and driven men (and at the very top of the property market, they were all men), was an unshakeable, almost romantic sense of self-belief. He conspicuously revelled in his wealth, dressing in bold ties and three-piece suits, and in 1999 acquired a site on Shrewsbury road for £3 million from Niall O’Farrell, founder of the Black Tie chain. There, on a rather cramped piece of land, he built for himself a pseudo-Edwardian mansion called Ouragh, named after his birthplace.

Dunne had now officially arrived in a postcode he was determined to make his very own. That was the other quality that would mark him out: a fixation on buying up the most prominent commercial sites in Dublin 4, as though they possessed some talismanic quality beyond mere development potential.

Perhaps no resident or developer has ever believed quite so strongly in the ‘idea’ of Dublin 4 as Dunne did. The columnist John Waters often spoke of D4 as a state of mind, but for Dunne it was a physical centre of wealth and power, and one he intended to transform out of all recognition. He pursued his dream as though a man possessed, but then when it came to individual properties he was far from being alone.

The most spectacular instance of Dunne’s ambition was his purchase of Jurys hotel for €275 million in 2005. It was said that he had asked his second wife, the former gossip-columnist and journalist Gayle Killilea, to pick a number between 54 and 75 for the last two digits of his winning bid (Killilea chose 75, the year she was born). It was a ‘blow’ of luck upon a roll of the dice – his nearest competitors were within €2 million of matching Dunne’s offer. And it was only the beginning.

He soon acquired the adjoining Berkeley Court hotel for upwards of €100 million, and in 2006 picked up the front four blocks of AIB’s Bankcentre in Ballsbridge in an elaborate division of the site for around €200 million. That year he crowned his new mantle as the ‘Baron of Ballsbridge’ with the purchase of the 1960s built office block, Hume House. Again he paid a price north of €100 million.

Others such as Ray Grehan and Bernard McNamara forked out astronomical prices for the old UCD Veterinary site (€171.5m) and Burlington Hotel (€288m) respectively, but as far as D4 was concerned, Dunne was in a league of his own.

It would require developments of exceptional boldness to make good on his myriad investments and loans, and Dunne did not think small. He held an architectural competition for the Jurys / Berkeley Court hotel site, which was won by the distinguished Danish architecture firm, Henning Larsen.

When a formal application was finally lodged in 2007, its ambition, though some would say hubris, was literally soaring. The architects proposed a mixed commercial, residential, and office development with a 37 storey (136 metre) diamond-shaped tower as its centre-piece, Other parts of the development ranged from nine to 18 storeys and included a massive underground shopping centre.

In an attempt to be all things to all men, Dunne even called upon his friend Michael Colgan, then director of the Gate Theatre, to be a cultural advisor for the project.

The stakes were extraordinarily high. A contemporary piece in The Irish Times totted up the numbers, and observed, “Very roughly, some €400 million of the €800 million that Dunne hopes to make from the residential aspect of his development is housed in two buildings that, frankly, will amaze, and appal, most people if he gets planning permission for them.” Nonetheless, it concluded, “Ireland’s big property developers are too big to be allowed fail. As UCD economist Morgan Kelly pointed out in this paper last Friday, the Irish banking sector has a €100 billion exposure to developers and builders. The sort of bloodbath that would ensue if a big developer got into trouble would cost the taxpayer billions to fix.”

The summation turned out to be both prophetic and wrong. It was correct about the damage a developer-led crash would inflict, but wrong to assume that it would, or even now could, be averted.

Over a year later, as Dunne picked up that penny from the floor of Doheny & Nesbitt’s, he must have known his future now largely rested upon An Bord Plenála granting permission to his boldest project, and its 37 storey centre-piece: a diamond far taller, if not bigger, than the Ritz.

In January 2009, An Bord Pleanála rejected the development, and though Dunne subsequently gained permission for a reduced scheme, his property empire was now visibly tottering. In 2011 his companies were put into receivership, and in 2012, Ulster Bank sought the repayment of €259 million loans from his Ballsbridge properties (it later obtained a judgement of €164 million against Dunne). Nama too obtained a judgment of €185 million against him.

In early 2013, Ulster Bank applied to the High Court to declare Dunne a bankrupt. Dunne’s next move was an audacious one, but ultimately only multiplied his woes. In March 2013, he voluntarily filed for bankruptcy in Connecticut in the United States, listing his debts at $942 million (€690 million) and assets at $55 million (€40 million). A successful bankruptcy in the US could see Dunne returning to business far quicker than in the jurisdiction where he had incurred those debts: Ireland.

Unfortunately for Dunne, Ulster Bank successfully petitioned the Irish High Court to have him declared bankrupt here as well. He was now a bankrupt in both jurisdictions and in neither could he run a business under his own name.

Yet Dunne still looked every inch a man set on bold new ventures. In a photograph from an Irish Independent feature from 2013, a trimmer, leaner Dunne bestrides New York’s Park Avenue with an air of bright-eyed ambition. His son from his first marriage, Sean Jnr, and Gayle Killilea, were prospecting for luxury property developments in Connecticut and New York, and questions were soon raised about just whose wealth might be involved in those transactions, and who was really the brains behind them.

Dunne insisted that his wife’s assets were entirely her own but the Ulster Bank Assignee, Chris Lehane repeatedly challenged Dunne’s accounts, both written and financial.

For Dunne, Lehane took on the shape of a tormentor and possible nemesis. He even described him as acting like a “bounty hunter.” A particular focus of Lehane has been the acquisition and subsequent transfer of another property on Shrewsbury road, ‘Walford’, (featured in the last edition of NewsFour), bought for the then-record sum of €58 million in 2005. Its precise ownership and legal status had long attracted speculation, and over the past few years, a labyrinthine set of legal proceedings.

Both Dunne and Killilea still maintain that Dunne was the temporary non-beneficial owner of ‘Walford’ and that he transferred the property to Killilea long before being declared bankrupt in 2013. Lehane has sought to chip away at that testimony, and in Justice Costello’s recent judgment she found that Dunne had, “actively and intentionally” misled the Official Assignee about matters related to the ownership and control of ‘Walford’. The cracks in Seán Dunne’s edifice show every sign of spreading, but just where they might end is anyone’s guess.

Ten years ago, the Baron of Ballsbridge (and one wonders precisely who came up with that soubriquet) mused on his impending troubles, “This is the way God made me, with heavy shoulders and an ability to carry a great load.” But he surely could not have imagined that that load would be further increased by his own defensive actions.

The sites for which he’d had such grand plans, the former Jurys / Berkeley Court Hotel, Hume House, and the AIB Bankcentre are now being developed by others, one-time rivals who have since bounced back from the doldrums. He is a spectre at their feast. How things might have been different with another roll of the dice.