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Column: Why are people supporting Seán Quinn? Well, it’s an Irish tradition

We might find the rallies in support of Seán Quinn shocking – but there are simple reasons for it, writes Eoin O’Malley.

Eoin O'Malley

AT A TIME when many in Ireland are baying for the blood of Seán FitzPatrick, the sight of thousands of people demonstrating their desire for ‘justice’ for the bankrupt former billionaire businessman Seán Quinn might cause a casual observer of Ireland to think that they want to see him imprisoned for the contempt he has shown the Irish state, the Irish courts and perhaps most importantly the Irish people.

That he mismanaged his insurance business to such an extent that it led directly to all Irish insurance consumers paying an insurance levy of two per cent (but this will probably increase to four per cent); that he was the central figure in the illegal loans designed to prop up Anglo Irish Bank when it was becoming obvious that the bank was little more than a pyramid scheme; that he was a property speculator with half a billion euros worth of loans would all add to the expectation that the demonstration was hostile to Quinn.

This impression that by ‘justice’ for Seán Quinn, the crowd was hoping to string him up from the nearest lamppost would have been supported by the fact that a phalanx of those who represent ‘real’ Ireland – the Catholic Church, the GAA and Sinn Féin – endorsed the calls for ‘justice’.

When that casual observer of Irish society discovers that in fact the crowd was there to support Seán Quinn and his family, she might wonder what is wrong with Ireland and the Irish. The support shown to Quinn by thousands of people in Cavan last Sunday, I think rightly, offends many people. The reaction to an excellent article by Fintan O’Toole highlights how deeply shocked at least some parts of Irish society are at the support Quinn got in Cavan.

Local chief

It seems to show a disrespect for the law, for the position of ordinary Irish people, a lack of solidarity and a lack of understanding of the mess we’re in and how we got here.
Many will think it typical of an Irish culture of loyalty to the local chief. We will think of how many people in Tipperary still vote for Michael Lowry in such numbers regardless of controversy over his actions in office or we’ll think of how Beverley Flynn also managed a comfortable re-election after an outcry in some areas over her dealings with the Revenue.

We assume it’s something to do with Irish political culture, where we tend to treat any offence to a local as an offence to the locality. The wagons are circled – we protect our own. He may be a fool/thug/crook (delete as appropriate) but he’s our fool/thug/crook.
This is the ‘amoral localism’ that the late political scientist, Peter Mair referred to. We can explicitly see this in the reaction of some senior GAA figures, where they say that Quinn is a GAA man and that the GAA stands by its own.

Many in urban Ireland assume this is a trait peculiar to traditional Ireland. I wonder if Seán Quinn were being prosecuted by the British, and had he brought down a British bank, how we would have reacted.

Then maybe we think this blind loyalty as a peculiarly Irish trait. I’m not sure that it is. But even that famous Irish loyalty to the tribe is not as strong as we sometimes think. It is not an unconditional loyalty. Consider of how quickly the famously loyal Fianna Fáil dumped Bertie Ahern as soon as he no longer fulfilled the party’s needs.

‘Witch hunt’

The observation that the support for Quinn in Cavan is a pathology of our culture is too simplistic.

Most people in Cavan if asked about the Quinn situation in abstract terms, I suspect, would agree that what this businessman did was a disgrace and that he should be pursued for all his assets. But we, all of us, are suckers for a story. Add the personal story and it’s different. And Seán Quinn has a good story.

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He’s one of us, a man of the soil, (he was even described as a True Gael – whatever that means) who, through hard work built a vast business empire. And unlike others who did it, he never left his roots. He gave the impression of being a simple man, who was being persecuted, and worse whose family – including ‘a simple housewife’ – was being pursued in a state-sponsored ‘witch hunt’. He can argue, however implausibly, that he was willing to work to build up his empire again, but he wasn’t even allowed to try.

I wonder if Quinn had been exposed as a paedophile, what would the reaction have been? I suspect there would have been little sympathy for him, because we now ‘understand’ that crime. It’s less easy to fathom contracts for difference.

We also forget that Seán Quinn has a huge impact on Cavan. Pass through Cavan town and it is obvious. He owned everything, and that which he didn’t own he sponsored. When most people either worked for Quinn or lived with someone who worked for Quinn he is going to be popular. When his businesses collapsed as a result of what I would see as Quinn’s stupid business decisions and greed, it wasn’t Seán Quinn who let the staff go, it was a receiver. What Quinn gave to the town is tangible, and has his name all over it – literally.

What he has taken away is of course much greater, but it’s less clearly associated with Quinn, and the pain is also spread out among Irish people as a whole. The same is true of Michael Lowry and the Flynn family. They delivered for their constituency and are rewarded for that. So Cavan isn’t that peculiar – not in that way, at least!

Eoin O’Malley teaches Irish politics at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. He is the author of Contemporary Ireland (Palgrave 2011).

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Eoin O'Malley

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