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Brutal attack sends shockwaves through Irish borders

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Via Financial Times

Even in an Irish border region that over the decades has seen its share of violence and brutality, the attack on businessman Kevin Lunney shocked many — not least because of the shadow cast by republican paramilitaries.

In September, masked men seized Mr Lunney from his car near his home in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. He was beaten in a horsebox and left by a road in County Cavan, across the border in the Irish Republic. A father of six children, his injuries included razor slashes on his face. 

During the kidnapping, attackers called on Mr Lunney and other directors to resign from a network of companies, once owned by Seán Quinn, formerly Ireland’s richest man, who went bankrupt after the 2008 global financial crash. 

The attack has rocked the local community, shone a light on the continued influence of paramilitaries in the border area and shown how the aftershocks of the crash still reverberate in one of the countries it hit hardest.

“I honestly believe that Kevin Lunney was left to die,” Fr Ollie O’Reilly said in his house in Ballyconnell, the Cavan town from which Mr Quinn built his empire. “He was found naked, practically naked, with his boxer shorts on. His leg was broken in two places. His nails were pulled out. There was a disfigurement carved on his chest. To me it was in reality a form of crucifixion.”

The kidnapping is the most serious incident in a wave of violence and intimidation against Quinn Industrial Holdings, a building materials and packaging group that employs 830 people in Fermanagh and Cavan. These include the dumping of a pig’s head at Mr Lunney’s home, the delivery of bullets and a funeral wreath to a contractor, and an arson attack at the home of a senior manager. Online posts have likened management to the Shankill butchers, a notorious group of loyalist paramilitaries. 

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Locator map showing Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland border. Fermanagh and Cavan counties are highlighted along with Ballyconnell town

QIH has blamed the most recent attack on a shadowy “paymaster” who it alleges to have paid up to 15 gangsters to target Mr Lunney, QIH chief operating officer. The Irish Garda force is now working on a joint investigation with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and has deployed a new armed unit in Cavan. Action should have been taken earlier, said Liam McCaffrey, QIH chief executive. 

“Had this been happening in Dublin with Google or Facebook or Intel, the reaction would have been very different,” he said. “The sad part is . . . it almost becomes part of the job and you almost become hardened to it.”

The QIH companies were established in the pre-crash years by Mr Quinn, a farmer’s son who opened a quarry in 1973 with £100 and became Ireland’s richest man. His interests spanned property, insurance, stockbroking and the Belfry golf course in the UK. In 2007, before the global economic shock, Forbes said he was worth $4.5bn. But his empire imploded when his investment in Anglo Irish Bank cost him €3.2bn. The defunct lender was central to the national crisis that forced Dublin into a 2010 international bailout.

Liam McCaffrey pictured at the Quinn headquarters in Derrylyn. Photograph Charles McQuillan
© Charles McQuillan/FT

QIH was acquired from an insolvency process in 2014 by private equity funds Contrarian Capital, Brigade Capital and Silver Point and local managers — including Mr Lunney, who worked closely with Mr Quinn before his fall. The next year Mr Quinn became a QIH adviser on a €500,000 salary. But the arrangement quickly soured and Mr Quinn said he was sacked when he left the business in May 2016. Later he spoke publicly of his desire to go back into the business. 

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In the past QIH blamed people “who had sought the return of Seán Quinn to the company” for threats and intimidation. Mr Quinn has condemned such actions and denied any involvement. After Mr Lunney’s abduction Mr Quinn went on local radio: “Anybody with any sense of any morals would of course condemn that” and voiced concern that his family was “going to take flak for this”. Citing the attack on Mr Lunney, Mr Quinn later told Channel 4 that he no longer wishes to return to the business. Seán Quinn Jr, his son, told the FT in an email that his father has nothing to add.

The abduction was not the first assault on Mr Lunney. His nose was broken last February by an alleged assailant who was accused of throwing a cup of boiling water at a colleague’s face. In May, Mr Lunney was among five directors named in a note that warned of a “permanent solution” against one of them.

Sean Quinn overlooking his quarry at Derrylin County Fermanagha. Photographer Tony Reddy circa July 1986 (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection). (Photo by Independent News And Media/Getty Images)
© Getty

This week a letter containing a new death threat was delivered to a Belfast newspaper: “This is your last warning to resign to the directors of QIH, obviously you haven’t learned your lesson after what happened to Kevin.” It also said the attackers could “very easily” have killed Mr Lunney.

Of the abduction, Mr McCaffrey said: “It’s abhorrent to think that somebody sat in their living room, or in a pub or in the back of a car and handed over a bag of cash and said do X, Y, and Z. And that person needs to be brought to book.”

While the case is being investigated as a criminal matter, a senior Irish security official said two men with past links to the Provisional IRA and the INLA, another Irish republican paramilitary group, were under suspicion. “Their recent activities have been more in crime. [Such people] don’t operate in the border in organised crime without having those [paramilitary] connections,” the official said.

Fr. Oliver O’Reilly pictured at his residence. Photograph Charles McQuillan
© Charles McQuillan/FT

Many in Ballyconnell are reluctant to speak openly, but from his pulpit, in September Fr O’Reilly blamed “hired savage thugs” for a “depraved act”, words widely understood to refer to a person in his own flock.

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The priest said some of those people have since responded to him, declined to say how, but noted it was a “challenging” experience. The community was “90 per cent supportive”. Some were ambivalent, others “nasty”. “Old loyalties die hard,” he said.

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