The Quinn empire benefited from goodwill in Cavan County Council and among -at least most – locals
By Anton McCabe
The epic fall of Seán Quinn and his Quinn Group is the end of an empire – one which has left a legacy of environmental degradation along the Cavan-Fermanagh border. There is a network of quarries in the area around Ballyconnell (Co. Cavan) and Derrylin (Co. Fermanagh). No figure for the area of quarries in Fermanagh is available; however, the area in Cavan was 257.7 acres in 2006 – around 130 football pitches. In the same small rural area, the Quinn Group also operated a cement factory; a factory producing rigid-polyurethane insulation; a block-making plant; a ready-mix plant in Co Cavan; and, on the Fermanagh side of the Border, a glass factory; another block-making facility; a factory making concrete floors; a tar-making plant and a tile making factory.
Five years ago, An Taisce described what has happened on the Ballyconnell-Derrylin road as “a massive combination of large-scale industrial development (which) has occurred without the land in question ever being zoned for such development or subject to the integrated provision of services and road infrastructure required. The developments approved by Cavan County Council and An Bord Pleanála both individually and cumulatively have taken place without the required individual or cumulative service provisions, traffic management or environmental mitigation measures being in place. Each development granted in succession is going to exacerbate the problems caused by previous planning permissions for other developments”.
The Group and other Quinn companies have been fortunate in their dealings with the planning authorities. On three major projects, the board of An Bord Pleanála has over-ruled the reports of its inspectors, who recommended refusal.
In 2004, An Bord Pleanála over-rode the recommendation of its inspector to refuse permission for a 110- acre quarry south-east of Swanlinbar, and a linked 10.9 kilometre access road across Slieve Rushen to the Quinn cement factory at Ballyconnell. The planning application covered 24 townlands.
The inspector wrote, in his recommendation of refusal: “it is considered that the proposed development would result in the pollution of ground and surface waters in the vicinity of the site, would be prejudicial to public health and would be seriously injurious to the amenities of the River Blackwater“.
He questioned proposals to close the quarry after it became exhausted: “A large hole filled with water in continuity with the groundwater system will, in perpetuity, be a site at which the groundwater system is vulnerable to contamination”.
Seven years earlier, applying for the cement factory at Ballyconnell, the Quinn Group had informed the North’s Environment and Heritage Service that further quarry development would not be necessary: “It notes the new plant would require an increased supply of raw materials but the supply will be available in existing quarries”.
The site of the quarry was of archaeological importance. Archaeologist Robert M Chappell has described it as “outstanding” because it had been occupied from the Early Neolithic to the Medieval period. Chappell wrote: “few (if any) sites demonstrate such continuity and variety of activities at a single location”. Quinn acted totally within the law on this matter; however, it does not fit well with his self-definition as a man who respects the heritage of his home area.
Despite the recommendation of its own inspectors, An Bord Pleanála decided to give permission. It cited a number of reasons, including “the strategic role of mineral extraction in the regional construction and cement industry”.
In 2004, An Bord Pleanála’s inspector again recommended refusing planning permission to a ready-mix plant at Gortawee, Ballyconnell. The inspector wrote: “The site for the most part is reserved as ‘High Landscape Area/Leisure Reserved Industry Zone’ in the Ballyconnell Development Plan adopted in 2002. … The development is, thus, in material contravention of this”.
Again, An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission, this time with “regard to the pattern of industrial development in the vicinity, (and) to the nature and scale of the proposed development”.
In 2008 An Bord Pleanála’s inspector recommended rejection of a combined cycle gas turbine station near Louth Village, Co Louth. The inspector wrote: “The proposed development would in my view therefore materially contravene the Development Plan for the area”. He described it as “visually obtrusive development and a discordant feature in the rural landscape”.
An Bord Pleanála’s Board again voted to grant permission, having “particular regard to the location of the site in close proximity to the Monavallet 220kV substation and the nearby gas interconnector, to the topography and nature of the surrounding countryside and to the pattern of development in the area including existing electricity infrastructure, to the function of the proposed power plant as a public utility and to the need for additional electricity generation capacity”.
However, the most generous planning body has been Cavan County Council. According to its files, it has granted the Quinn Group and subsidiaries nine applications for retention. This means the developments were developed without planning permission. They included: a 12.2hectare limestone and shale quarry: two office blocks at separate locations: a three hectare shale quarry: and an 0.83 hectare car park: and a third storey on a two-storey office block. The last was in an application from Quinn Hotels to retain additions/alterations to a two-storey office development “additions include extra storey”.
One of most spectacular events involving the Quinn Group was the disappearance of a tractor in February 1996 in Co Fermanagh. There is nothing to indicate Seán Quinn had any personal involvement in the disappearance.
The Quinn Group was building a road to serve a quarry on the northern side of the Border, and its windfarm on the Molly Mountain, near Derrylin. There was a dispute regarding ownership of one stretch of land. The family claiming ownership went to the North’s High Court, and lost. They were, however, concerned the Quinn Group was not complying with conditions imposed. Family members thus blocked the line of the road with a tractor.
The tractor disappeared. The RUC were sufficiently concerned to request Quinn workers to dig up parts of the road. They also searched the Molly Mountain with a helicopter.
A few weeks later a lorry driver was filling his lorry at a Quinn quarry a few hundred yards away on the Cavan side of the Border. He uncovered the tractor, buried under rocks. The Gardaí asked the owner to collect the tractor. The owner’s brother told Village they felt the authorities on both sides of the Border seemed loath to investigate.
The Quinn Group is now facing legal difficulty in the North regarding this road. In an affidavit to the North’s High Court in 1995, then Quinn Group General Manager David Mackey stated: “With the permission of the said Mr Michael McBarron and other land owners, as hereinbefore set out, the Plantiff has constructed a roadway over part of the Slieve Rushen and Doon mountains”. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in the North has now begun legal proceedings against McBarron, alleging he was a trustee of common lands, not the owner. “When undertaking a review of the Trusts the Department noted that the persons who were entitled to be beneficiaries of the Edenmore (lands) Trust were no longer enjoying such benefits and that a Mr Michael McBarron was claiming ownership of the Trust land”, a spokesperson said. “Any inquiry … whether any land or property so received or vested as aforesaid was transferred or paid to or into the name of any other person, and if so whom, at what time or times and under what circumstances and what change was made and what has become of the property”.
The case is moving slowly through the Northern courts.
Interestingly, despite its own planning history, the Quinn Group has tried to use the planning system against potential competitors in the cement industry. In 2000 Mr Justice Quirke in the High Court found against the Quinn Group. This had been objecting to plans by the Lagan Group to build a cement plant near Kinnegad, Co Westmeath. The Judge found the Quinn Group was making covert payments to a group called Ballinabrackey Residents Action Group, totalling £30,000 (€38,100), to fund legal proceedings which had been commenced by a Ms Marie Goonery. The Residents Action Group was campaigning against the Lagans’ cement plant.
The Quinn Group’s power did not always go down entirely well in Seán Quinn’s home territory. Media reports have presented him as having the total dedication of that community. The reality is more complex. There is a significant number of locals who strongly dislike him, and query the way he has used his power. Others fear that power. Village knows one family who are tradesmen and came into conflict with the Quinn Group. A significant number of locals will not use members of the family to do work around their houses, for fear this would upset Seán Quinn. Village is also aware of a man in the area who has objected to a number of Quinn developments. Sometimes, when visiting houses, he is asked to park out of sight round the back. This is in case he is seen visiting that particular house. There is no evidence Seán Quinn has made any threats against anybody regarding whom they employ or who they socialise with.
Quinn has carefully constructed an image of himself as an ‘umble countryman still close to his Fermanagh roots, who plays cards for 50 cents a hand on Friday nights. This was never the full story. Five years ago, Cavan County Council granted him permission for a “a new seven bedroom part two storey, part four storey dwelling with pitched roofs, a swimming pool and leisure area, habitable rooms at second floor attic level, partial lower ground floor accommodating, new proprietary waste water treatment system, external domestic garage with roofed link to house, outhouse, new entrance gates, piers, new driveway and