OPINION:Seán Quinn has made clear that his family's interests come before those of the State or the GAA's reputation
THE LINE-UP of GAA greats was certainly impressive – Joe Kernan, Mickey Harte, Seán Boylan, Colm O’Rourke, all decent men. All ex-players or managers with All-Ireland winning teams, all on the one platform and all, apparently, with a single, shared message: Seán Quinn and his family had been treated abominably by the former Anglo-Irish Bank and the institutions of the State.
They were victims, deserving of both the support of their fellow GAA members and a break from the authorities.
Among an estimated attendance of up to 4,000 Quinn family supporters in Ballyconnell on Sunday night, the GAA community was being summoned in defence of one of its own. As for Seán Quinn, the resolute and complete backing of GAA people is something he clearly takes for granted.
Addressing the large crowd, his voice quivering with emotion, Ireland’s former richest man expressed his gratitude to the Fermanagh and Cavan GAA and, no less, the “whole GAA country”.
The repeated invocation of the GAA in support of the Quinn family interest will surely be shocking to many of its members. There will be amazement that the very act of GAA membership should be construed as implying approval of actions that a High Court judge deemed “as far removed from the concept of honour and respectability as can be”.
One might have thought that such a damning finding might have given some Quinn supporters, including those within the GAA, pause for deeper reflection. Not so, it seems. Subsequent to this judgment, and the order jailing Seán Quinn jnr and his cousin Peter – still at large – for contempt of court, the Teemore Shamrocks Gaelic Football Club in Fermanagh published a statement on its website decrying the “injustice inflicted on the Quinn Family” and urging their “fellow Gaels” to unite in opposition to the outrages being perpetrated against them.
The Teemore Shamrocks club is, of course, situated in that belt of Border counties where allegiance to the Quinn family appears, at times, to be almost religious in nature. It is an allegiance built on hard work and a business acumen that gave rise to a group of successful companies and which delivered much-needed employment to a region that might otherwise have succumbed to decay.
It is allegiance also derived from a generosity to local units of the GAA, arguably the dominant social organisation in many of the communities where he based his businesses.
Through the provision of employment and patronage, Quinn built a phenomenally powerful network of friends and allies and has, without question, contributed much to the economic and social development of the Border territory. Quinn’s past achievements are therefore not in doubt, nor is his passion for, or commitment to, the GAA. But that does not excuse the recent actions of the Quinn family or the efforts of his supporters to align his interests with the ethos of the GAA.
The Quinn business empire took four decades to build and less than four years to collapse. There is patently nothing to rejoice in its demise – this is a familial, local and national tragedy. However, there is equally nothing to defend in the manner in which Quinn and his family have handled their unravelling fortunes.
Evidence of the secreting of assets, by means remarkable for their “dishonesty and deviousness”, according to High Court judge Peter Kelly, is not contested. And the figures are staggering: the international property portfolio to which the Quinns are clinging is worth some €500 million.
It is difficult to envisage how such a squirrelling of private assets and wealth – in defiance of court orders – is compatible with the values of an association whose unique place in Irish life has been built on ideas of service, community and the redistribution of resources from top to bottom, from the centre to the periphery.
Yet, according to former Meath footballer and RTÉ pundit Colm O’Rourke, the GAA tradition of “solidarity” is one that should be readily and unquestionably extended to the Quinns. Fine Gael MEP and former GAA president Seán Kelly clearly agrees.
Interviewed on Radio Kerry, he remarked on how it was “part of the ethos” of the GAA to get behind a “decent family”. The GAA, he added, “stand by our own”.
Loyalty to friends in difficulty is, of course, an admirable trait. But the argument that the Quinns are GAA people, have made an enormous contribution to the GAA and are therefore deserving of the GAA community’s uncritical and unqualified support is hardly tenable.
Can you imagine the reaction were the rugby fraternity to take to the streets or issue statements in support of the disgraced banker Seánie FitzPatrick, a former player and keen supporter of the game? Or if the soccer community were to publicly rally in defence of TD and well-known champion of the game Mick Wallace, in the wake of his admission that he deliberately withheld VAT from the Revenue Commissioners?
Individuals are entitled, of course, to support any cause they wish. But what is striking about the reported contributions of both those GAA personalities at the Ballyconnell rally and the former GAA president is the impression created that support for the Quinns is consistent with carefully nurtured GAA values – that it was, in fact, an “expression” of the GAA’s great strength.
The GAA does indeed have a proud tradition of looking after its own, of showing solidarity with those in need. It is everywhere evident among GAA communities at home and abroad – in the comfort blanket it throws around members and their families at times of bereavement and tragedy and in the helping hand it has extended, for more than a century, to emigrants arriving isolated in far-flung countries.
Do the current circumstances of the Quinns, as outlined in the courts, really merit the same type of consideration? Ultimately, the problem with Quinn is not that he took a risk and lost. Many ordinary homeowners and small business people did likewise. No, the problem with Quinn is the calculated and complex efforts to put assets beyond the reach of his creditors – in this case, the State – to feather the nests of none but his family.
In the end, it will be up to the courts to decide the merits of the Quinn case against the former Anglo Irish Bank.
But in the manner in which he has conducted his campaign of public protest, as much as his dealings with the Irish courts, Quinn has demonstrated that there is nothing that is not subordinate to the interests of his own family. Not the citizens of this State – and not the reputation of the GAA.
Mark Duncan and Paul Rouse are co-authors (with Mike Cronin) of The GAA: A People’s History (2009). Their most recent book, Handling Change: A History of the Irish Bank Officials Association, was published this year.