Trial opens over bank 'which nearly broke Ireland'

DUBLIN (AFP) - The trial of senior executives at the bank that almost broke Ireland opened in Dublin on Wednesday, beginning what is expected to be one of the longest trials in Irish legal history.

The former chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, Sean FitzPatrick, 65, and two former executives, Patrick Whelan, 51, and William McAteer, 63, are charged with 16 counts each of providing unlawful financial assistance to individuals to buy shares in the bank.

They have all pleaded not guilty.

Each charge relates to a specific person who allegedly received financial assistance from the bank in July 2008 and includes the now-bankrupt former billionaire businessman, Mr Sean Quinn, as well as his wife and children.

Mr Quinn, once Ireland's richest man, lost control of his empire after investing heavily in Anglo Irish Bank shares and later spent nine weeks in prison for contempt of court as Anglo Irish Bank attempted to get control of his assets.

Fifteen jurors have been sworn in after a process began on Friday to select them for a trial that they have been told could last until the end of May.

This is the first time 15 jurors have been used in a trial in Ireland after a law change last year to allow for lengthy trials such as this.

Only 12 of the jurors will retire to consider the charges, with the extra jurors allowing for any fall-off if a juror gets sick or dies, without compromising the trial.

Anglo, mostly a commercial and business lender, lent aggressively to property developers during Ireland's booming Celtic Tiger years but was left terribly exposed when the Irish property market collapsed.

In 2008, nearly 30 billion euros (S$51 billion) of taxpayers' money had to be pumped into the bank to prevent it from going under.

The following year, Dublin nationalised the bank when further cash was needed to prop up the failed lender.

Last February, the bank, which was rebranded the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, was liquidated, closing what Prime Minister Enda Kenny called "a sad and tragic chapter" in Irish economic history.

Over 100 witnesses are expected to testify while around 24 million pages of evidence have been gathered, making it one of the most complex trials in Irish history.

Whelan has also pleaded not guilty to seven additional charges of being privy to fraudulently altered loan facility letters sent to seven of the borrowers relating to the purchase of shares of Anglo.