He sat there like a king, giving a rare audience to his subjects. There were less than 100 present. No problem to this operator. One or two of the subjects – members in theory, subjects in practice – were getting uppity, forgetting all that he had bestowed on them. A thorny issue was raised. Fingleton swatted it away.
"Things ain't what they seem," he told the member. "Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers."
So it went at the annual general meeting of the Irish Nationwide Building Society in April 2000. Michael 'Fingers' Fingleton was immersed in a few controversies that would have shaken a lesser huckster. The planning tribunal was on his back, accusing him of being "cavalier" with the law. This would be the stuff of nightmares for any other self-regarding banker.
There was also the threat of a judge to have him jailed for contempt, over the disgraceful manner he was treating an employee. Fingers took it to the limit and backed off before the Joy beckoned. He had oodles of what his kindred spirit Seanie Fitz would call balls. He also possessed a neck like a jockey's nether regions. In terms of the staid world of banking, Fingers was a maverick, but one who was plugged into all the centres of power. When it came to hustling for a buck, he made FitzPatrick look like a two-bit loser.
Over the past 18 months, as the country focused its ire on FitzPatrick, Fingleton skipped free from the stocks. Then last Tuesday, the carnage of his reign was laid bare.
"Things ain't what they seem" no longer cuts ice with the great unwashed. The society he built up from scratch recorded losses of €2.5bn last year, more than the cumulative profits yielded during his 37-year tenure at the helm. The taxpayer will now foot the bill. His successor Gerry McGinn described what had happened as an outrage. He also revealed that Fingleton has been repeatedly written to in an effort to retrieve a €1m payment he pledged to return. The reply has been "short". Fingers is giving the finger.
He was never going to come quietly. Everything about the man suggests he would rage against the dying light of his reputation. But while he now joins Seanie in the stocks, there was a time when he was feted far and wide, and that is a story in itself.
Fingleton was born in Tubbercurry in 1938, the son of a garda. After school, God rather than mammon held his attention. He studied to be a priest, but left before taking his vows. Throughout his life he has remained close to the church. He is long believed to have close ties to the Knights of Columbanus, something he has repeatedly denied. Two years ago, he was among a group of Irish bankers and builders who donated €9m to the Vatican. He has been to Rome to meet the pope, but it is not clear whether he pushed a loan on the pontiff.
After leaving the seminary, he joined Allied Irish Finance, a small outfit where he learned the ropes of finance while studying for a commerce degree by night. He also qualified as a chartered accountant, and later as a barrister. From there, he did a stint with a semi-state body which oversaw Irish creameries. There followed a two-year stint with Concern during which he worked in a number of African countries.
Few bankers of note could boast such a varied background. But in 1971, he answered an advert looking for a secretary for a "commercial organisation". He got the job with Irish Independent Building Society and quickly changed its name to Irish Nationwide. The society had five employees. In his first year in charge it made a profit of £12,000. At the height of the property boom in 2005, its profit was €135m.
Early on, Fingleton was recognised as being cut from a different cloth than most bankers. He marketed the society aggressively and used his gregarious personality to effect. He became popular with politicians and journalists, both of which had their uses.
One journalist remembers that early on he initiated an annual golf tournament for Oireachtas members, journalists, gardaí and the army. Apart from getting onside with the media and politicians, it also offered scope to gain influence in sectors bulging with young men and women eager to buy houses.
It was well known among journalists that Fingleton would offer a friendly ear at a time when it was next to impossible to acquire a mortgage through normal channels.
"He didn't look for the reams of documents and back-up the others wanted," one recalls.
"He gave a mortgage no problem. The price was an extra half a percent or even more, but you were just glad to get one. You only noticed later on that you were being fleeced"
Another journalist from the time offers a different perspective. "It was a time when you couldn't get a phone not to mind a mortage. He put a lot of people on the property ladder and they did well out of it.
"Sure they weren't the cheapest mortgages in town, but this clamour of bitchiness by journalists is unseemly. They would have been more honourable if they just moved their business once they were in a position to do so."
He was also a great friend to politicians. Last year, it was revealed that among the society's clients was Charlie McCreevy, who in 2006 got a loan of €1.6m for a property that cost €1.5m. Fianna Fail senator Don Lydon had loans of €5m with the society. And in 2008, he fast-tracked a loan of €40,000 to Celia Larkin, related to Bertie Ahern's financial woes.
Both politicians and the media were handy allies. During his tenure at the helm, he sailed through many controversies unscathed. Even when his recklessness became apparent in recent years, some rallied to his standard.
The writer Colm Tóibín said on the Late Late Show in 2008 that Fingleton had become a scapegoat. Tóibín got his first mortgage from Fingleton, "when I wasn't the most solvent person in Ireland", he said. Maybe he wasn't, but he was the influential editor of a national magazine at the time.
The Sunday Independent's Brendan O'Connor defended Fingleton last year, declaring that he was a "whipping boy" from whom "the baying mob are getting their pound of flesh".
Other allies concurred. A piece in the Jesuits' quarterly magazine Studies, asked: "Are we being unfair to Michael Fingleton? Has he been singled out amongst Irish bank bosses because of his uncommon family name and his distinctive appearance?"
Clearly, Fingers left an impression on the centres of power, although a business source does suggest that loyalty was not a one-way street with him. "He is very loyal to friends," according to this source. Among his close friends are developers Gerry Gannon and Sean Mulryan and gaelic football supremo, Mick O'Dwyer.
Friends are one thing, but those who defaulted on repayments another. Nationwide quickly achieved a reputation for being extremely harsh on defaulters.
By the early 1990s, he was showing the hubris that would contribute to his downfall. He broke the rules with abandon. In 1993, he was at the heart of the 'Mespil Flats' controversy in which he financed a number of investors to buy apartments in what was regarded at the time as a 'golden circle' arrangement. Among the investors were the then attorney general Harry Whelehan, Marian Finucane, AIB executive and subsequent whistleblower Tony Spollen, and then C & AG, Patrick McDonnell.
Fingleton borrowed £110,000 to buy four of the units and he financed purchases for, among others, Albert Reynolds' two daughters. His own loan was against the rules as was the fact that he was giving 100% mortgages – unheard of at the time – to a number of borrowers. Around the same time, he got the society involved in a joint-venture development with Mulryan. It was a crazy departure for a society whose raison d'être was to provide its members with home loans.
By then, he had a great welcome for himself in the remuneration department. In 1994, he was on a salary of £293,000, enormous by the standards of the time, more befitting the chief executive of a multinational public company.
A number of executives came and went within the company, often leaving on acrimonious terms. It was obvious from early on that Fingers was Nationwide, and Nationwide Fingers.
"He set out to be a totally controlling influence and he achieved that which was ultimately his downfall," one business source says.
Working for the man was no cakewalk. He cut management to the bone, which translated in the financial pages as an admirable low-cost income ratio. After the house of cards tumbled it emerged that just seven employees dealt with €10bn worth of loans.
A number of cases were brought against the society by sacked employees, including one Fiona Couse, who was provided with a £200,000 settlement after she took her case to the Employment Appeals Tribunal. Fingleton settled before the details became public, including the fact that he had had an affair with her.
She wrote to the Central Bank in 2002 to reveal some of the dodgy practices within the society, but nothing was done. It was just one example of the many flashing red lights that glared out from a number of controversies around Fingleton over the years. Once again, nothing was done to rein him in.
By the early noughties, some dissident members in the society like Brendan Burgess were questioning Fingleton's stewardship, but got nowhere. Profits were flying, and Fingers held out the carrot of demutualisation, which was enough to keep nearly everybody onside. Eyes were easily averted from the obvious while windfalls north of €10,000 a skull were being dangled.
In 2006, the government finally passed legislation that would allow a quick sell-off. The suitors, including fated Icelandic bank Landesbank, lined up. They went in and looked at the books. Most didn't like what they saw and backed off. Still, no alarm bells sounded.
Game was up
The game was more or less up when Seanie Fitz fell on his sword in December 2008. It emerged that Fingers had parked Seanie's loans annually at auditing time. He resigned last year. In 2008, when most bankers displayed at least a smidgen of gumption in taking a paycut, Fingers retained his annual package of €2.3m, including a €1m bonus.
Following public pressure he offered to return the bonus, but has failed to do so. His pension pot of €27m has most likely been severely depleted, but he won't be facing the breadline anytime soon.
Fingleton's last tie with the society will be cut next month when his son Michael, one of three grown-up children, leaves in a management clear-out.
As he heads off into the sunset of retirement, the rear-view mirror displays a full career informed by arrogance and success, controversy, recklessness and ultimately failure. He can comfort himself with the knowledge that the taxpayer will now pick up the bill.