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Breege Quinn: 'I asked Mary Lou McDonald it was your son, would you fight? She said she would fight tooth and nail, just like me'

Echoes of a brutal murder have returned to haunt Sinn Fein, writes Maeve Sheehan

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VIGIL: Stephen and Breege Quinn at the graveside of their murdered son Paul Quinn at St Patrick’s Church in Cullyhanna, Co Armagh. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA

VIGIL: Stephen and Breege Quinn at the graveside of their murdered son Paul Quinn at St Patrick’s Church in Cullyhanna, Co Armagh. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA

PA

VIGIL: Stephen and Breege Quinn at the graveside of their murdered son Paul Quinn at St Patrick’s Church in Cullyhanna, Co Armagh. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA

It was "common knowledge" around Cullyhanna that Paul Quinn was waiting for a hiding, according to sources familiar with the investigation. He was 21, had a sister, a brother, a girlfriend, Emma, and lived with his parents, Stephen and Breege. He earned money from driving lorries like his father and working on building sites.

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His parents have often said he was "no angel" but that he was no criminal either. He had an altercation with the son of a man reputed to be the local commander of the IRA. Numerous witnesses have told gardai that Paul had been told he would be found on the side of the road in a black bag. He was told to leave the area.

Gardai believe that Paul's movements were being closely monitored in the weeks before he died, probably by a number of local people. One of the locals whom they later arrested was questioned about tipping off the waiting mob about Paul's movements that Saturday afternoon. He had been watching a friend play football when another friend phoned to ask him to come and help him clean out a shed in Tullyhoora, near Oram village in Monaghan. It was October 20, 2007.

Paul and his friend drove to Tullyhoora. His friend later described to gardai how once they got out of the van, they were surrounded by men in balaclavas and boiler suits and gloves. The men laid into them. They took Paul's friend to a shed where two other young men were tied up, on their knees and facing the wall. One had his leg broken for refusing to phone Paul, the other had made the phone call.

Paul had been taken to a different shed. He screamed as the mob of a dozen men methodically struck his body with iron bars and nail-studded cudgels. His friends later told Paul's parents that the screaming stopped but not the thud of the bars on his body. When they finished, the mob piled into the back of a van and escaped. "We're the only law around here," one of them said. The comment was later reported back to gardai.

Sinn Fein minister Conor Murphy has apologised for claiming an IRA murder victim was a criminal. Paul Quinn's murder has become a major issue in the General Election campaign, with rivals highlighting Sinn Fein's IRA links and accusing it of being soft on crime.

Quinn's friends alerted the emergency services. His body was broken but he was conscious and tried to speak. He was taken to Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Drogheda. His three friends drove themselves to Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry. "The ambulance men tried to keep him talking. They would say, what's your name. Paul Quinn, he'd say. That's all he'd say," Paul's dad, Stephen, told the Sunday Independent.

Breege remembers her son's broken body, the ventilator attached to his swollen, battered face with half an ear ripped away. "His hands were smashed. The doctor said every bone in his body was broken. There was nothing left to fix," his mother said. He was pronounced dead at 8pm.

Breege and Stephen Quinn were in no doubt what happened to their son. The day after his death they issued a statement to BBC Northern Ireland blaming his death on a dispute with the local IRA. "Following this he received a threat by a third party ordering him to leave the country. Our son courageously and correctly refused to leave. We believe that he was abducted by the Provisional movement and brutally beaten to death."

The counter claims began immediately. That Sunday night, Conor Murphy, Sinn Fein's most senior politician in south Armagh and a former IRA member, dismissed the "wild and baseless" allegations and insisted republicans were not involved. How did he know? By his own account, he had gone straight to the local IRA and asked. "I have spoken to the IRA in his area and I am satisfied with the assurances they gave me, very solid assurances, that they weren't involved in his death," he said later. Instead he claimed Paul Quinn was "involved in smuggling and criminality".

His comments were echoed by Gerry Adams and the late Martin McGuinness. Soon the body politic weighed in behind them. Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach, told the Dail there was "no information" to suggest that "paramilitary interests" sanctioned the attack. The then minister for justice, the late Brian Lenihan, repeated the murder wasn't ordered by the IRA. Across the Border, the PSNI gave similar briefings to unionist politicians.

The peace process was precarious. A fledging power-sharing government led by the DUP and Sinn Fein was finding its way. It was 10 years since the ceasefire and two since the IRA ended its "armed campaign". Sinn Fein had just the previous year signed up to policing in Northern Ireland. No one with a vested interest in the peace process wanted to hear the IRA had been involved with a mob ranged against an unarmed 21-year-old.

Days after the murder, gardai working with the PSNI called to the home of one of the IRA's most influential figures during routine door-to-door inquiries. Brian Keenan was a former member of the IRA's army council, who lived in Cullyhanna. Police were not expecting to see Martin Ferris there, then Sinn Fein TD for Kerry North and before that an IRA activist who had served time for gun running.

Gardai wondered if Ferris was there to assess the fall-out. Ferris later told gardai he was visiting a sick friend, according to sources, and knew nothing about Quinn. Keenan was terminally ill and died months later.

Martin Ferris and Sinn Fein did not respond to queries from the Sunday Independent.

Breege and Stephen Quinn buried their son to the din of politicians arguing about whether republicans or smugglers were responsible for his death. Despite such heavyweight political denials, they are not alone in believing the local IRA killed their son. Within days of the murder, hundreds of people from the community attended two public meetings in Cullyhanna and in Crossmaglen. At the second, the chairman, Seamus Bellew, asked people to accept there was an organisation in south Armagh "that signs and executes death warrants... We can tell them to stop if we can speak with a single voice".

Gardai also support the Quinns' version of events.

In 13 years, 23 people have been arrested on both sides of the Border. According to security sources, they include some of the most influential republicans in South Armagh: a former IRA gunman who served time in prison; members of a republican family in South Armagh; a local IRA figure prominent in Sinn Fein and his son; a farmer from South Armagh whose land was searched for the missing getaway van; and a secondary school teacher.

Last year, Fergus Traynor, the garda superintendent leading the cold-case investigation, said he had "no doubt" those involved in the murder were controlling others to remain silent. "We have some people who told us the truth, some people who gave us limited versions of what they knew, some people who told us blatant lies and there were people who remained silent."

It is likely that there will be fresh DNA testing of Paul's blood-soaked clothing.

Gardai also plan to revisit many witnesses.

Those likely to be interviewed again include Conor Murphy, who said last week that he spoke to the police at the time of Paul's murder. It is understood that he met gardai some time after the crime.

Echoes of this savage unsolved crime have followed Sinn Fein. Almost every year for 13 years, Breege and Stephen Quinn have asked Conor Murphy to withdraw the "slur" that their son was a criminal and that he tell the police who in the IRA assured him republicans were not involved.

Finally, last week, reverberations threw Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald off stride during the leaders' debate, tempering Sinn Fein's surge in the opinion polls. When challenged on the live TV debate, she broke with 13 years of obfuscation to demand that Conor Murphy retract and apologise to the Quinn family.

Murphy issued a statement of apology and has also written to the family, while Mary Lou followed up with a phone call. This is good but not good enough for Breege and Stephen Quinn. Breege said this weekend she asked Ms McDonald would she ask Conor Murphy to say that Paul was not a criminal.

"She said she would be talking to him. I said, 'But will you ask him to come out publicly and say those words?'

"She said she thought it would be better if we sat around the table and talked about these things, that she knew his apology was sincere. I said, 'Yes, that would probably be true, but I still need to hear those words'.

"She seemed to have some sort of problem in asking him to do this but she will be talking to him - so we will just wait and see what comes out then."

At end of the call, Mrs Quinn asked Ms McDonald a question mother to mother. "I said 'you are the leader of the party, you are a mother just like me. If it was your son, would you fight for justice and want his name cleared?'

"She said she sure would. She would fight tooth and nail, just like me.

"I said, 'Well then, Mary Lou, all I'm asking is for you to ask Conor Murphy to say these couple of words'."

Sunday Independent