Friday 23 March 2018

This is still Quinn Country - a year after local hero got the boot

Fear and loathing stalk border counties as Anglo's team find themselves at loggerheads with a community that has lost its spirit

Laura Noonan

Laura Noonan

WE'RE on the top of a mountain on the Cavan/ Fermanagh border, miles of private road into the industrial empire created by entrepreneur Sean Quinn and now under the control of Anglo Irish Bank.

Alongside us, a handful of majestic wind turbines stretch up to the sky, each one of them eerily still. Three weeks ago, a fire started at their substation causing about €300,000 worth of damage -- locals say they don't know if the blaze rendered the turbines immobile, or if they're motionless for 'normal' energy supply reasons.

These are tumultuous times in Quinn country and it takes a lot to raise eyebrows.

On Monday the courts gave the nod for a legal showdown between Anglo and the Quinns in January that will decide the future of the Quinn Group.

But for now the battle is being fought on hilltops and street corners across Quinn's border stronghold as the tycoon's supporters square off against the group's new owners.

At its most dramatic, it's a battle where factory power lines are severed in the dead of night, where threats against individuals are spoken openly, where private security firms trail the land triggering memories of military patrols locals recall only too well.

At its most human, it's a battle where ordinary folk say they're fighting because, if they don't, their children will be forced to join the exodus to Australia when Anglo's Quinn play ends in massive job losses.

And at its most practical, it's a daily battle to win the hearts and minds of Quinn customers and staffers, so the orders keep rolling in and there's still a thriving business at the centre of it all when the dust settles.

As the newly installed chief executive of the Quinn manufacturing empire, Paul O'Brien is at the coalface of what could well be the most bitterly contested takeover in Irish corporate history.

"For the first couple of weeks you were living and breathing it, but I had to say to myself, 'hang on a minute, I can't be concerning myself with things that are outside of my control'," he says.

"The best thing I can do is to look after the business."

Looking after the business is easier said than done when many customers and staff look at O'Brien and see one thing -- the man who's not Sean Quinn. Or worse still, the man who helped oust Sean Quinn.

Locals say customers are walking away from the Quinn Group because it would "kill them to be supporting Anglo", but O'Brien insists the group hasn't lost any significant business since the takeover.

"We've a couple of customers who have suspended their activity until they see how Sean is dealt with but we'll be fighting very hard to get them to come back to us," O'Brien says.

"I can't say we won't lose any customers -- we've got to fight like hell so we don't."

Central to winning that fight is O'Brien's other major task -- getting Quinn Group staff onside.

Taking over from the iconic figure of Sean Quinn would have been a big ask under any circumstances, never mind circumstances as hostile as these.

O'Brien is mindful of the sensitivities. He didn't move into Quinn's office, instead taking the space formally occupied by departed Quinn group chief executive Liam McCaffrey.

He insists the Quinn Group bosses who left -- and there were six of them as well as the founder -- were all treated with "dignity" and allowed back in to get their personal effects as recently as this weekend.

But treading carefully only gets you so far. "Management themselves were hugely suspicious," O'Brien admits. "When you see your colleagues who've been in business with you for a long time move on, it makes you fearful."

New group

O'Brien has responded by trying to convince the remaining management that he wants them to stay involved and become an integral part of the 'new' group. "We're getting there slowly but surely," he says.

"I'd like to think the management will stay -- we need all the people we have to grow the business."

The new boss has been spreading the same message to staff, but it doesn't seem to be getting through to many locals, who still speak of an impending jobs wipeout if Anglo remains at the helm of the Quinn Group.

One of the most vocal critics is the Concerned Irish Business (CIB) lobby, which represents about 1,500 businesses that trade with Quinn Group and who want the family reinstated at the helm.

The CIB believes Anglo will destroy the Quinn Group and local jobs. Signs on the way into Cavan and Derrylin proclaim the CIB's absolute support for Sean Quinn, his family and the Quinn Group staff.

A lone unattributed sign outside the Quinns' Slieve Russell Hotel in Ballyconnell proclaims: "Anglo my arse."

"In Dublin, Sean Quinn is a bad name -- around here Anglo is a bad name and Sean Quinn is a messiah," says Sean Doonan, a local businessman and one of the key figures in the lobby group.

CIB says its fears about the Quinn Group have been substantiated by events at Quinn Insurance Limited (QIL), which went into administration last March and has seen staff numbers fall from 2,400 to 1,550.

"We've seen it happen with the insurance company, it'll happen again with the group," says Adrian McCaffrey, another active CIB member, dismissing Anglo's and O'Brien's promises of keeping jobs.

Locals in Derrylin say they're genuinely fearful for their own jobs and those of their families -- so fearful they want to be only known as "locals" so they won't face any backlash for their comments.

"There's a whole generation that's just going to go to Australia," says one staffer, who fears his own sons will emigrate because they no longer have the likelihood of a job with the Quinn Group.

"Our football team will be gone, our community will be gone."

Coursing beneath CIB's argument, and much of the local talk, is a deep-seated sense of unfairness about the way Sean Quinn has been treated by the faceless "establishment" in Dublin.

Some locals liken it to "piracy", others speak of the "traitors" that helped bring down the man who brought thousands of jobs to a border area that benefited little from the Celtic Tiger.

The €160,000-a-month costs of the Quinn Insurance administration continue to generate outrage and the €600m call on the Insurance Compensation Fund is the subject of fury and disbelief (see panel).

The general view is that the Central Bank should have given Quinn time to work through the issues at Quinn Insurance rather than triggering the administration that put the entire group in jeopardy.

The day that Anglo moved on Quinn Group, a petition with 90,000 signatures was delivered to government calling on it to consider a proposal that would see Anglo and the Quinns develop a joint business plan to safeguard the businesses and repay the €2.8bn of debts. The lack of response is a sore point.

"About a year ago, Sean Quinn was in the pub giving a talk to the under-14s football team," says one local.

"He was telling them to play fair, never to lie down, always to be honest and always to shake the other guy's hand at the end of the game. I wish people would give him the same treatment."

Gaffes from Quinn Group have furthered local theories that there's a maliciousness to the way Quinn and his lieutenants are being treated.

A document with photos depicting Quinn management that were no longer allowed unescorted into head office was drawn up for security staff around Takeover Day so they could spot them if they came in.

The file has since found its way into local circles, where it's feeding into the ill-feeling around the takeover.

O'Brien confirms the contents of the security document and says its "unfortunate" that it had found its way into the public domain.

"It was intended to facilitate security people so they could recognise the individuals concerned and ask them to make an appointment where they would be more than welcome to collect they're belongings," he said.

He stressed that the instructions "wouldn't be unusual" in a change-of-ownership situation, but admitted that the situation "could have been handled more sensitively".

Meanwhile the sense of unfairness around the way Quinn and his lieutenants have been treated, coupled with fear of job losses, forms the backdrop for regular acts of defiance against the new Quinn Group set-up.

Protests include cutting the power cables to manufacturing sites a couple of times a week, ramming a massive digger into a structure at one of the Quinn sites and the fire at the Quinn wind farm.

Threats have been openly made against O'Brien personally and senior executives from Anglo, and both the gardai and the PSNI are being kept abreast of the situation.


"The sabotage and intimidation is just downright intolerable, it's a disgrace and it has to stop," O'Brien says. "People protesting in that way aren't helping the business, they're not helping the jobs and they're not helping Sean Quinn."

O'Brien and his team have drafted in private security in a bid to deter further acts of "sabotage", but this in itself has fuelled local anger. "The Quinn Group never needed security for the last 40 years," one local says. "We had enough of security prowling around over the troubles."

In any case, even O'Brien admits that the Quinn Group borders are almost impossible to police.

The mainstay of the manufacturing empire runs across the hills from Ballyconnell in the South to Derrylin in the North. Much of the facility isn't gated and the plants are accessible by a network of private roads that can also be used by locals who have turf cutting rights north of the border.

The threats to the security of O'Brien and Anglo executives are being taken seriously enough to draft in some form of protection, though O'Brien doesn't want to go into detail.

No one condones the acts, but condemnation isn't forthcoming from every quarter. "These things happen," says one local. "It's going to get very bitter before the thing is out."

Unfortunately, the thing isn't going to be out for quite some time. The High Court showdown is scheduled for January, but may be delayed if there are any hold-ups in processing the masses of discovery the case demands.

If the Quinns lose, they're widely expected to appeal to the Supreme Court which could drag everything out until this time next year.

"I'm not going to say it doesn't cast a shadow over the place, of course it does," says O'Brien, "but it's not affecting my ability to run business day-to-day."

O'Brien's priorities are to bed down staff and customer relations, and then turn his focus to growth. A few small investments have already been committed to since he took over, in a "couple of months" more significant investment may be announced.

The new boss is adamant that the business can be grown and will be grown -- "I wouldn't be here if I didn't think there was a job of work to be done" -- but he's coy on which areas he'll be focusing on or the outlook for 2011.

Local tensions will fade, he hopes. "Over time I think that people will see I'm well intentioned and very straight," he says. "Don't judge us on today or tomorrow, judge us on the passage of time."

Back on the Derrlyin mountains of the Quinn empire, judgment has come earlier, as locals point to the empty spots over gaping quarries and towering cement plants where Sean Quinn would have stood daily.

"Am I walking around cement factories in the same way Sean walked around cement plants? Maybe I'm not," says O'Brien. "But am I getting out and communicating effectively with my team? I think I am.

"I'm not Sean and I'm not trying to be Sean."

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