In August 2012 the late Tony Spollen published a book called 50 Great Lessons from Life. In fifty short chapters, Spollen sought to capture the wisdom he had picked up in a career in banking, consultancy and at the boardroom table. 

The book is heartfelt and born of experience. It is without any explicit mention of his tumultuous time in banking, during which Spollen produced an explosive report. When it finally emerged, it created what was – pre-Anglo – the biggest corporate scandal in modern Irish history.

The book does, however, give an insight into Spollen’s sense of values and his kind personality, which stood to him during difficult times. 

Friends with Peter Sutherland

A chartered accountant, Spollen went to school in Gonzaga College in Dublin where he became friends with Peter Sutherland. 

Sutherland went on to become an international powerbroker and chairman of many large companies including AIB from 1989 until 1993. 

Spollen, meanwhile, joined AIB at a young age. At 23, he was the first financial controller of the bank’s merchant bank division called AIIB. In 1986 he became head of internal audit for the entire AIB Group. 

A well-paid career until retirement beckoned. All Spollen needed to do was keep his head down. 

Instead in 1991, Spollen wrote a memo to the bank’s then chief executive Gerry Scanlan, warning the bank of a potential Deposit Interest Retention Tax (DIRT) liability of £100m (€127 million). This was a very big exposure for the bank at the time, although it would later be dwarfed by the 2008 financial crash.

“The scoop of the year, triggering a chain of events that would shape the country’s political landscape for some years”

John Walsh in The Globalist

After Spollen’s report emerged in the pages of The Sunday Independent in 1998, the state tasked the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to investigative what was going on not just in AIB, but in Irish banking.

In his recently published book The Globalist: Peter Sutherland, his life and legacy, journalist John Walsh describes the story as “the scoop of the year, triggering a chain of events that would shape the country’s political landscape for some years”.

The Globalist
Spollen spoke with journalist John Walsh for the book The Globalist.

The PAC report into the affair was damning. When it was finally published, AIB was forced to pay €90 million in fines and back taxes.

The Revenue Commissioners collected almost €860 million in taxes in the wake of the scandal, with €225 million coming from the banks and €634 million from depositors. 

The fraud was at the time the largest ever committed on the state. Nobody in AIB ever admitted any liability for it. After the scandal, for a time at least, tax evasion dried up, putting the Irish state on a better course to fund itself. Getting more taxes in, positioned Ireland for growth.

“Peter was not the chairman of the audit committee when I was there, and I suspect it was because of me.”

Tony Spollen in The Globalist

As for Spollen, he felt compelled to leave AIB following the publication of his DIRT memo. He became a respected internal audit consultant as well as a regular non-executive director on various bodies including the Dublin Airport Authority, Enterprise Ireland and the EBS Building Society. 

Decades later, Spollen recalled to Walsh the fallout of his report on DIRT on his relationship with Sutherland. “In the middle of the PAC hearings we went out for dinner. Peter was not the chairman of the audit committee when I was there, and I suspect it was because of me. He told the PAC exactly as he saw it.” 

“Even during the hearings we would have gone for dinner quite a bit. He made it clear that he was representing the bank. Only once did we discuss the hearings and that was when Peter told me he knew that I didn’t leak. He was completely fair to me and he was very nice.”

In 2013, when I tried to ask Spollen about his time at AIB, he was not forthcoming.

“I did not leak the report,” Spollen said. “I don’t want to talk about something that is long ago in the past.” Spollen was however open about the lessons he had learned from getting to know various influential Irish business people. He told me he admired people like Tony O’Reilly as well as two former managing partners of KPMG, Alex Spain (later DCC chair) and Niall Crowley (an ex-AIB chairman). 

His warmest words were however were for the late Brian Lenihan, Minister for Finance when Ireland’s economy crashed. Like Spollen, Lenihan acted honourably in trying circumstances. In the background the two were in touch in relation to the banking crisis. 

“Brian cared hugely about Ireland,” Spollen told me. “People argue whether he was right to guarantee the banks,” he said. “But what would have happened if he hadn’t done it?” He adds that Lenihan had no choice that late in the game. 

A kind man

Spollen was a kind man, who stayed in regular contact with a vast number of people. After our interview he would text me periodically to wish me well. He was thoughtful and helpful to me, as he was with so many others. 

Spollen stayed in touch, too, with Lenihan after the minister’s cancer diagnosis. “Brian would not have been human if he had not felt under huge pressure,” Spollen said. He added that the biggest single lesson from life was that people needed to mind their health. “As long as you have it and can get up in the morning, no matter how bad things are, they can change. I feel this is a lesson that is really important for Irish people at the moment. With good health, you have almost everything. With poor health, life is tough.”

Anthony (Tony) Spollen died on October 13th 2019 peacefully at home after a long illness. He was surrounded by his beloved family. He is survived by his wife Gina and children Tonia, Garfield, Virginia and Davin as well as his grandchildren.