Thursday 21 November 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Let this be a wake-up call for us to say 'never again''

For too long, rampant criminality and alternative systems of justice were regarded as normal in border country, says Brendan O'Connor

A masked man was photographed with a statement threatening directors of Quinn Industrial Holdings (QIH)
A masked man was photographed with a statement threatening directors of Quinn Industrial Holdings (QIH)
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

'Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you'd be boiled to death before you knew it." The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood.

"While we are all shocked by this, I don't think people are surprised. We have become somewhat hardened to the criticism. I couldn't say we have always lived in fear, because we have just gotten used to it as we go." John McCartin, director, QIH.

Like the totalitarianism which Atwood writes about in The Handmaid's Tale, lawlessness can creep up slowly. What is normal gets stretched a little bit more every day. And you don't really notice it. Until one day, you're boiled alive, or one day, a businessman is abducted, tortured and has letters carved on his chest.

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So while John McCartin is, like all of us, shocked, he's not surprised at the turn which events have taken in Quinn country, because, as he says himself, "I think the authorities need to take note of the fact that untempered discourse, hate speech, incitement to hatred and to violence, has gone unchecked in public meetings, on Facebook, and in letters handed around the pubs. There are laws there to deal with that, and I think they should be used."

So things didn't just suddenly boil over around the border in Cavan. That particular bathtub has been gradually heating up for quite a while. Indeed, border lawlessness didn't begin with this saga.

It has its roots in decades of ambivalence in that part of the world and on this island about using violence and threats to further your aims, about terrorising communities into silence, about using alleged causes as cover for common criminality.

The morality of these things was never clearly enough defined in this country, because our compass was blurred somewhat by a sneaking regard among many for the armed struggle. A culture was too often normalised whereby communities were run by alternative systems of law and order, by local strongmen and godfathers.

And in the border regions, there has always been somewhat of a culture of turning a blind eye to certain things in the name of keeping the peace. The spectre of the Troubles is all over this.

On Prime Time last Thursday, justice minister Charlie Flanagan alluded to it several times. On the same programme, John McCartin referred to a power vacuum in the border areas since the Good Friday Agreement that was filled, instead, with criminality. That power vacuum clearly became a new normal, even for those in positions of power in politics and security. Until this wake-up call.

QIH chief executive Liam McCaffrey has got used to a lot too - abuse and harassment and threats and attacks. But he says that things changed with the abduction of Kevin Lunney. When, unbelievably, another warning was issued against QIH directors last Monday, threatening a final solution, if the directors did not heed the last warning and resign, McCaffrey says he had had six weeks to acclimatise to this kind of thing.

Now, his new normal is this: if he sees a parked car on the road, he takes a second glance. His antennae are heightened all the time. His new normal is to keep an eye out for someone who might try to kill him as he goes about his business.

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris rejects the idea that this area has become lawless: "We are there to enforce the law, to ensure people can go about their daily business free from the fear of crime".

So does Harris believe that the rule of law is functioning in a place where, for the directors of QIH, going about their daily business involves keeping an eye on parked cars on the road in case it's someone who is going to kidnap, torture or murder them?

Does Drew Harris believe the rule of law is functioning in a place where a good day at the office is when your colleague, who was left near dead merely for working in QIH, is able to come into the office on his crutches for a few hours?

Does Drew Harris believe the rule of law is functioning in a place where businessmen have to have an armed support unit patrolling around their houses, where panic buttons, security alarms that initiate Tiger kidnapping protocols, and other protection has to be installed in these ordinary businessmen's houses and offices?

Is the rule of law functioning where a man in a mask is photographed reading out death threats to businessmen?

Is the rule of law functioning where posters denigrating these businessmen are not removed by anyone, even council staff, because they fear for their safety if they do?

Is the rule of law functioning in a place where people, who want to show solidarity for their bosses, are afraid to be seen at a supportive gathering?

Many point-blank didn't attend a recent demonstration out of fear; others hid behind trees and turned their backs on any cameras present.

And was the rule of law functioning in the long run-up to this, when factories and homes were subject to arson attacks, where QIH directors were attacked in broad daylight while out having lunch, a nose broken, scalding water thrown in someone's face? Is this how someone "goes about their daily business"?

Clearly, this is a community living in fear of the criminal gangs running this campaign. These criminal gangs, who have been characterised time and again as psychopaths, are presumably another hangover from the Troubles. And while ordinary people live in fear, these gangs appear to fear nothing. They certainly don't fear the policing authorities on either side of the Border, according to John McCartin.

So is the rule of law winning there? That lack of fear was seen in the fact of last Monday's warning. Despite all the outrage about the attack on Kevin Lunney, despite the revulsion of the local community and the country, despite the huge anger and the Garda investigation which we are told is at a very advanced stage, these guys have the neck to come out and issue more threats.

While posters have been removed for the time being, the brazenness of them keeping these posters up, like dogs pissing to mark their territory, daring anyone to take them down, showed clearly who was in charge in this area.

And all this is against a background of huge international people smuggling rings possibly operating out of the border area, involving a mass killing in one incident that was up there with the worst days of the Troubles.

It is against a background of arson attacks on the home of an elected representative of this State, and a police station.

Of course, there was a time when this kind of thing was our normality, when the bounds of normal had been stretched so much that we woke up regularly to news of horrific atrocities on this island. They were part of life.

It wasn't normal, and this isn't normal either.

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