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Tuesday 24 September 2019

The eviction at Falsk hangs heavy over Strokestown

The family at the centre of a recent eviction that led to a violent backlash say they tried to talk to their bank, writes Maeve Sheehan

Burnt-out vehicles at the property in Strokestown, Co Roscommon. Photo: Frank McGrath
Burnt-out vehicles at the property in Strokestown, Co Roscommon. Photo: Frank McGrath
The McGann family home at Falsk, near Strokestown
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The fallout from the forced eviction of a family from their Roscommon home continued this weekend with a second arson attack in as many days on the bank that repossessed the property.

KBC Ireland's branch in Swords in North County Dublin was set alight at 5.20am yesterday. A front window was shattered and an accelerant used to start the blaze that investigators said caused "extensive damage" to the building.

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Yesterday afternoon, the Belgian bank's headquarters in Dublin 2 - the same premises that two days earlier had been vandalised - was occupied by protesters demanding an end to "economic evictions".

The attacks came in a week of heightened tensions, fuelled by social media images of the three McGann siblings from Falsk in Strokestown being forcibly removed from the property, and the storming of the repossessed property by a mob of vigilantes that gardai suspect included dissident republicans and locals.

The McGanns have no connection to the vigilante group and the family have made it clear they condemn "all forms of violence".

Yesterday, gardai opened their fifth criminal investigation into incidents related to the eviction. These include two investigations into arson, two investigations into complaints of assaults arising from the eviction - including one from a private security guard - and a major probe of the storming of Falsk.

KBC Bank has been forced to review security at its branches.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar denounced some of the social media postings surrounding the events as "incitements" to hatred and violence.

Yesterday, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan condemned the latest attacks as "sinister and menacing".

"Reports linking suspected attacks with disturbances in Roscommon earlier in the week, if true, are deeply worrying," he told the Sunday Independent. "Everybody is accountable under law, and vigilantes with private criminal support units have no place in our democracy. Possession orders are never obtained lightly and are only granted after the most careful and detailed examination by an independent judge in a court of law."

The eviction of the McGann siblings on Tuesday, December 11, has struck an undeniable chord. The family has not courted publicity and would prefer to have their privacy, friends say, but instead have become a lightning rod for campaigners and social activists of all hues.

Such is the jostling for position, that this weekend they issued a statement making clear that they do not want "yellow vest", "alt right" protesters (who organised yesterday's protest in Dublin) "hijacking" their case for their own ulterior motives.

As for Sinn Fein's involvement, the McGanns chose the Sinn Fein MEP Matt Carty to speak on their behalf because their families are longstanding friends.

Anthony, Geraldine and David McGann, who are in their fifties and sixties, are a well-known local family. But local people say few, if anyone, knew that one of them was in financial trouble. Anthony McGann's financial difficulties stretch back more than a decade. Public records record a string of judgments registered against his land for unpaid debts, according to reports last week. They include a local business that was owed €18,000 in 2008 and a more recent unspecified amount owed to Land Rover Financial Services. He reached a settlement with the Revenue Commissioners for more than €400,000 for an under-declaration of VAT in 2015 - €177,000 of which was for tax owed and the rest interest and penalties.

The family's current travails, however, were caused by a loan owed to KBC Ireland, which was granted a possession order in the courts in 2013 but moved to enforce the order this year.

In the statement issued by Matt Carty on their behalf last Friday, the family sought to correct "untrue" reports suggesting they have not engaged with KBC bank. They said that on several occasions they had made offers of repayment schedules to the bank "which were always refused".

On the appointed date - Tuesday, December 11, a Northern Ireland security firm was on standby to secure the property. Friends turned out in large numbers to support the family.

Although ugly and distressing as the social media footage was, the McGanns were not the first family to have a humiliating eviction captured so publicly. Some believe what has so inflamed this particular case was a comment apparently uttered by one of the security guards. Taunted by the family's supporters as to how he could do this to a fellow Irishman, the security guard's reply was to the effect that he wasn't Irish, he was British.

According to informed sources, gardai suspect that the group that plotted to lay siege to the repossessed property in Falsk included locals and county men, reinforced by dissident republicans summoned from Dublin and Meath. They suspect at least 30 people were involved, certainly far in excess of the 20 that was initially reported. Last Sunday morning, at 5am, a convoy of cattle trucks and four-wheel-drive vehicles pulled up at the gates of the modest bungalow. Gardai were told later that the doors of the cattle truck swung open and men swarmed across the property.

Several of the eight security guards were beaten with baseball bats and three were hospitalised with serious injuries. One of the raiders wielded a gun but according to sources, it was not discharged. One of the two guard dogs was struck over the head, possibly with a baseball bat, causing what one source described as horrific injuries. Four vans and two cars parked in the yard were torched, and a third car was badly damaged.

The legal owner of the property, KBC, has been forced to rethink the family's situation.

Last Monday night, David and Geraldine McGann were back in the house. A crowd of 150 people kept watch that night but there was little to celebrate.

According to one friend, Geraldine McGann had been hand-rearing a calf that she had housed in one of the property's sheds. The friend claimed the calf was now missing.

One man who called to the family home last Wednesday later posted on Facebook about the conditions they were living in. He posted that the family had received no assurances from KBC that they would be safe over Christmas and were very much in fear.

Two of the cars that were burnt out belonged to the family but the home was not "vandalised" in any way by the "Take Over Team", bar "a few panes of glass and the front door".

Local Fianna Fail TD Eugene Murphy noticed blood spattered on the ground when he called to the house offering to mediate with KBC for the McGanns. One of the people there told him it was probably the unfortunate guard dog's. Mr Murphy got as far as setting up a meeting with KBC but it did not go ahead because new advisers had stepped in to help the family.

"There are mixed feelings on what happened," said Mr Murphy. "But one thing is for sure, that the people want to be reassured that the family are in their own house for Christmas and that they don't feel threatened.

"Whatever the circumstances of the case, the way it was handled was appalling. What happened on the Tuesday lit a fuse. You have to condemn what followed out of that on Sunday, but there was a lot of anger around. We have to get a better way."

The Central Bank's figures suggest that repossessions are falling - at least for now. In the three months of the summer 161 properties were repossessed by lenders, down from 242 in the previous quarter; 93 of those 161 properties were surrendered by the householder, and 68 repossessed by court order.

But the statistics don't tell us in how many cases people had to be forcibly removed from the properties.

The events in Falsk, first highlighted by Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice, have drawn attention to evictions and have raised numerous issues such as the humiliating and undignified process involved; the role of private security firms in evicting families from homes; and the role of gardai who routinely monitor evictions but only to maintain public order.
The Taoiseach acknowledged that the system could be better. In heated exchanges in the Dail with Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty, Mr Varadkar accepted that there needed to be more regulation of private security companies.

It appears security guards are not subject to regulation when conducting evictions, which are not considered security work. Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan is now examining ways of changing this.

The events of the past fortnight hang heavily over the town. The garda investigation into Sunday's attack has generated unease. A number of suspects have been identified - not all of the raiders were masked and the security guards provided bodycam footage. Two Roscommon men who were arrested last week were released without charge.

There were also unexpected consequences for the editor of the Strokestown Democrat, Emmet Corcoran. He was first on the scene in the aftermath of Sunday's attack, having received a confidential tip-off. He ended up spending three hours at Roscommon garda station, during which time he says gardai told him to surrender his mobile phone or they would seize it, presumably hoping to identify his confidential source. "I have sources. I am protecting them, simple as that," he said.

Last night, Strokestown was bracing itself for another protest march today. It was planned to take place after 11.30am Mass - on the last shopping day before Christmas. Given the heightened tensions in the area, some retailers are alarmed.

"People of the town are concerned. This is a small rural town, on the eve of Christmas," said one local. "It looks like the town is being hijacked by political elements."

The McGanns, who are likely to attend, have asked that it be a peaceful protest, "community led" and mindful of the local retailers.

"The Irish people have a proud history of resisting forced evictions, a history that has been marked by community-led and people-centred protests" they said. "The McGanns feel strongly that it is in line with this tradition that government policy and the oppressive actions of banks and vulture funds will be addressed."

A spokesperson for KBC said the bank "works with customers in financial difficulties to seek sustainable solutions while being clear and fair in our communications and dealings". It said the bank was "mindful and respectful of individual circumstances".

Sunday Independent

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