Sean Quinn reacted furiously when a Government development agency offered him a grant of 20 per cent — not 40 per cent — of the costs of a new cement works in 1985.
The Derrylin plant, which promised to create between 120 and 180 jobs, led to furious lobbying on both sides, including a letter of support for the Fermanagh businessman from SDLP leader John Hume.
The Industrial Development Board (IDB) was concerned about the “exceptionally high level of expenditure involved in the project”, given that it was expected to cost in the region of £20 million — the equivalent of about £44 million in today’s money.
Internal IDB documents in a file released at the Public Record Office show that the development body was deeply concerned at the viability of the scheme.
The two existing cement works on the island of Ireland — Blue Circle and Irish Cement — were fiercely hostile to the project and the IDB believed that they were “prepared to fight Quinn to the death in the marketplace. Although this could be very costly for both Blue Circle and Irish Cement, they undoubtedly have the capacity to bear the injury — unlike Quinn”.
Its second major concern was that Mr Quinn had underestimated the costs of setting up the plant. If that was the case, it feared that he would “eventually find himself acutely short of funds and this could bring down his existing businesses as well as leaving the IDB as the only possible source of additional finance”.
But, in a letter which was sent to Mr Hume, and ultimately to the Department of Economic Development, Mr Quinn claimed that his application had been treated in a “discriminatory” manner and claimed that an offer from the IDB to grant-aid his project at 20 per cent “amounted to sabotage of our project, and this was planned and deliberate”.
He claimed that this was partly due to a reluctance to support investment in an area ‘west of the Bann’ and a “concession” to vested interests.
He also said: “We have evidence that a very senior officer of the IDB stated publicly...that he would ensure that we would not get special assistance from IDB.” An internal IDB memo drawn up in response to the allegations state of that claim: “This is a very serious charge which should be substantiated or withdrawn.”
Mr Quinn went on to allege: “At worst, IDB’s decision could be construed as a deliberate attempt to force the Sean Quinn Group into liquidation, with the consequent loss of 110 existing jobs, were we to embark on the project at the rate of grant offered.”
The IDB memo said that claim was “patently absurd”.
Mr Quinn was able to enlist powerful allies in his push for millions of pounds in grants. As well as the SDLP leader contacting the Government on Mr Quinn’s behalf, the file reveals that the chief executive of Fermanagh District Council, Gerry Burns, wrote to the department.
Mr Burns said that he was writing because of “a situation that I believe is very unfair”. He said: “Sean Quinn is a man of integrity and a capable businessman...his industry is indigenous. He is a local man.
He said: “The perception of the council and others was that opposition had been expressed by other interests, some of these from the Republic and, for all the wrong reasons, the project was to be rejected.”
He added: “It does seem to be unfair that, given all the facts of the case, a new viable industrial operation should fall by the wayside. Sean Quinn is the sort of individual we need in Northern Ireland.”
The file also contains a letter from Blue Circle, which was lobbying against Mr Quinn, to the head of the IDB, which adds at the bottom “an enclosure which may be of interest”.
The enclosure is an Irish Government list of those found to have underpaid tax, a list in which Mr Quinn featured. Mr Quinn or his businesses were found to have underpaid £38,474 in tax in the Republic — the equivalent of £85,850 in today’s money. With the addition of fines, Mr Quinn had paid the Irish Revenue £48,000 - the equivalent of more than £107,000 today.
The file also contains letters of opposition to Mr Quinn’s proposal from North Down unionist MP Jim Kilfedder and from UUP leader Jim Molyneaux who argued that there was over capacity in the Province’s existing cement works.
It is unclear from the file whether Mr Quinn accepted the lower grant. But he did go on to set up a cement works and from it derived a considerable portion of his fortune.