Feargal Quinn’s dangerous days

Entrepreneur, retailer, senator: Quinn was all these things and more

15th May, 2016
Feargal Quinn in his garden in Howth, Co Dublin Picture: Fergal Phillips

In this extract from his new memoir, Quinntessential Feargal, the founder of Superquinn reveals how he and his family were targeted by terrorists, and how he spent time with the journalist Veronica Guerin just prior to her murder

In 1981, the prospect of violence being perpetrated against my family reared its ugly head. My national profile was quite high at the time, as a result of the success of Superquinn, so I would have featured on shows like The Late Late Show and would have been in the newspapers quite regularly.

One day, out of the blue, I got a phone call from a senior garda to ask if he could meet me. I was going to the Berkeley Court Hotel in Ballsbridge for an event, and we agreed to meet there.

He told me they had intercepted information – in fact, I think they had tapped a phone – and there was a plot to kidnap me or one of my family. As a husband and a father, the idea that they would target Denise or one of my children was very worrying.

The garda pointed out that I would be an attractive target for ransom, as I had large amounts of cash under my control. What’s more, it was easily accessible.

There was a spate of kidnappings of supermarket bosses and others in the early 1980s, including Ben Dunne jr, who was kidnapped and ransomed in 1981.

Two years later, Quinnsworth boss Don Tidey was kidnapped, only to be rescued after a bloody gun battle with his captors in which a garda and a member of the Defence Forces were killed. There was a similar effort to kidnap Quinnsworth’s owner Galen Weston from his Co Wicklow home the same year. So I was neither the first nor the last supermarket boss to be targeted in this way.

“We have reason to believe that you, or one of your family, are next in line,” was how the garda put it. Obviously, the authorities had reason to take these threats very seriously. They put a detective sergeant in the Special Branch, Pat Byrne – who would go on to become Garda Commissioner – in charge of my security and that of my family.

I always understood that the people behind the plot had links with the republican movement, although it was never made explicitly clear to me if they were the IRA, the INLA or a splinter group.

After our meeting, I went home and told Denise. My attitude would have been “Thank God they discovered this”. I learned later that it had come up for discussion at a cabinet subcommittee meeting on crime. I was told that Charlie Haughey – taoiseach at the time – had said “Make sure nothing happens to that man.”

In truth, the fact that the Gardaí were already on top of the plot to kidnap me was a big source of relief. It meant I was not in shock at the news, and was able to handle it. The next day, Pat Byrne came out to the house and introduced himself to the family. He asked us all to keep our eyes peeled for anything unusual.

Not long afterwards, Eamonn and Stephen were coming back to the house when the phone rang. Pat was enquiring if we had noticed anything unusual.

Eamonn said: “No, but there was a car parked out on our road earlier.” Normally we wouldn’t see a car parked like that in our cul-de-sac at that time of the year.

Pat asked: “I suppose you didn’t notice the number?” Eamonn said: “Stephen, did you notice the number of that car?” Stephen said: “Oh, it was . . .”, and he listed the registration details. Obviously he had taken Pat’s advice to heart!

Pat fed the number into the Garda system and said: “Oh gosh, that’s the car belonging to the guys we know are planning to kidnap you.”

Immediately he ordered it to be checked out, but the car wasn’t there any more. It was spotted a short while later in the Marine Hotel car park in Sutton; the kidnappers were evidently staking out our offices across the road at Superquinn too.

Soon, Denise and I found ourselves playing host to about 12 gardaí who came to live with us in our home, working on a rotation basis. They were there every night and every day, and stayed overnight. There were three or four of them in the house at any time, armed with Uzi submachine guns.

Donal was three or four at the time, and they would keep the guns away from him in case he would crawl over to them or try to touch them.

Denise got into the habit of giving our visitors a big breakfast every morning. Now, we are not big breakfast people – we wouldn’t normally have a fry – but, of course, Denise ended up cooking one for them every day.

She found she couldn’t go to town and couldn’t go shopping without an armed garda with her. I assumed it was me that would be kidnapped, because Ben Dunne had been targeted previously.

While it was a worrying time, it was not without its lighter moments. A cousin of mine, Sean McCusker, dropped by the house unexpectedly one evening, as he does on occasion. He was more than a little taken aback to find himself surrounded by armed gardaí wanting to know who he was and why he was there.

Denise handled the whole situation very well, to the extent that when we went out to play golf, Pat Byrne started to join us. If we went walking, Denise would say “I think we are fitter than those gardaí.”

We had a set walking route near our house, a 45 or 50-minute walk, and we would put on a pace because there was always a garda or two behind us. We would walk faster and the guys were breathless trying to keep up with us.

Eventually, things came to a head. The Gardaí got information that the kidnap attempt was going to happen on a particular night.

Pat suggested that we move out of the house and the Gardaí would put two decoys in place, pretending to be Denise and me. The plan was that our house would be surrounded should the kidnappers make their move.

At that stage Pat said, “There’s access from the sea – we hadn’t noticed that – so we better make sure we cover that as well . . . could you make sure the gate down below is locked because somebody could come in by boat?”

I said: “Gosh, I really would prefer to be here. It is our home, after all.” Denise felt similarly.

Pat told us: “We’ve a much better chance if you are here and they arrive, because then we can charge them with attempted kidnapping, whereas if you are not here it is attempted robbery.”

So, instead of the decoys, we stayed in our house that night, waiting for the kidnappers to make their move.

There were about 12 gardaí with Uzis in the bushes all around the house. It was coming up to Christmas 1981.

Actually, we slept well that night, as we knew we were very well protected. The children were all in the house too, asleep upstairs. When we came down the following morning, nothing had happened. To be honest, we were both a bit disappointed, as we wanted the kidnappers to make their move and let us get on with our lives.

It didn’t happen the next night either, and it ended up that the gang were made aware in no uncertain terms that any attempt on our family would not go undetected.

All in all, the episode must have lasted around three months. Throughout the time, the threats against myself and my family were very real, and very much part of our day-to-day life.

The three eldest children, Eamonn, Gilliane and Stephen, were fully aware of what was going on. Of course, we were concerned not to worry them unnecessarily, but at the same time they needed to be vigilant, and the younger ones needed to know why these strange men were in their home. Pat Byrne certainly gave us a lot of confidence that the Gardaí were on top of it.

By this stage Gilliane was studying in Trinity College. She had the use of a car because the Gardaí said that if she walked to college she could be at risk. So we got permission for her to park in the grounds of Trinity.

Because I spent my Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays visiting all of our stores, I was advised by the Gardaí to have someone with me at all times, lest an attempt be made to kidnap me while I was alone.

There was another reason why 1981 will be etched in my memory forever. I remember well waking up on February 15, a Saturday morning. It was shaping up to be another typical busy weekend shopping day.

The previous day had been Valentine’s Day, and some of our staff in our Northside store had gone to the Stardust nightclub in Artane that night to celebrate. Four of them – David Morton, Liam Dunne, George O’Connor and Martina Keegan (whose sister Mary also lost her life) – never came home after a fire broke out in the former jam factory, just as a disco-dancing competition came to an end.

Later, it would emerge that some of the emergency exit doors had been locked and impeded on the night of the fire, trapping those who were trying to escape.

Our four Superquinn colleagues were among 48 people who died as a result of the fire. Other staff members were badly burned.

I headed to our Northside store that Saturday morning to see what we could do. It was devastating.

As the northside communities of Coolock, Artane and Donnycarney struggled to come to terms with their overwhelming grief, Fergus O’Brien, Lord Mayor of Dublin, set up an official Stardust Committee to fundraise on behalf of the bereaved families. He asked me to serve on the committee, and I was only too happy to oblige.

I served alongside the famous socialist Noel Browne. We would be on opposite ends of the spectrum politically, but got on well. We did our best to ensure that any money raised went directly to the families affected by this most awful, avoidable tragedy.

The Keegan girls are buried in Balgriffin, as are my parents, and when I am out there I visit their grave too. Another young man who was very seriously injured was working in our bacon department at the time. We were delighted to welcome him back to work in Superquinn afterwards.

It was a very upsetting time, which sent shockwaves throughout the whole city and the wider Superquinn family.

I came face to face with death in a very different way some years later. I received a message around May 1996 asking me to phone the crime reporter Veronica Guerin. She was a very well-known journalist at the Sunday Independent, with a reputation for doggedly charting the activities of Ireland’s crime bosses.

I phoned Veronica, and she said: “I was talking to my editor and I said I’m just so busy that I can’t fit everything into my life.” His reply was: “Well, find somebody who is even busier than you, but who seems to be able to fit everything into their life. Why not be their shadow for a week?”

So she asked me: “Could I shadow you for a while?” To which I replied: “Veronica, I would love to have you along.”

Now, I didn’t know Veronica, so she came to the office to talk through her idea. She explained that she wanted to write a feature piece about her time with me for the paper.

We talked about it and I said: “Actually, to be honest, there’s an awful lot of what I do that’s dull and boring. So to have you follow me every day for a week or so is not going to make for a very good piece. What you should do is dip in and out of my life for three weeks.” And she said “That would be a better solution.”

I had described to her what a typical week would be like running Superquinn, and in my various other engagements as a Senator. So for three weeks, I had Veronica look at my diary and cherry-pick the best bits to shadow me.

On the very first day she came along, we were holding a Superquinn dinner that we held every year in the Berkeley Court Hotel, where those who were ten years in the company were invited with their spouse to a formal meal and night of dancing to celebrate.

Veronica joined us and watched as Denise and I welcomed each couple and had our photograph taken with them. At the end of the night, the photographer came back with the photo duly developed and framed. Veronica was great company that night – and throughout the weeks I spent with her.

She also came to Finglas, where I went through the figures with the staff one Thursday morning, and she attended a customer panel in Swords (she lived nearby in Baskin).

We had great chats over the course of our time together. During that time, my respect for the passion and enthusiasm with which she went about her work soared.

On the final day together, I was particularly busy. I had to attend a board meeting of the Irish Grocers Benevolent Fund; also, I was judging the food of the year awards alongside chef Darina Allen for An Bord Bia, and I had another engagement: three different things in three different parts of the city.

When we were finished for the day, Veronica hitched a lift with me to Jury’s Hotel in Ballsbridge, where her car was parked.

We said our goodbyes and both got into our cars. We drove through the East Link toll bridge at the same time, and she passed me at speed.

I phoned her and said: “Veronica, were you in an awful hurry to get away?” and she said: “Oh, I’m always driving too fast. In fact, I have to go down to Naas court soon because I was charged with speeding.” And I remember saying to her: “Would you not be able to do something about that?” because every garda in the country knew her. Quite typically, she said “Oh no, I wouldn’t dare use influence to get off.”

On June 23, the Sunday Independent carried her story of what it was like to shadow me. The original intention was that I was also to shadow her, for a week. But instead, we agreed that I would do an article, to appear on the same day as hers, in which I talked about what it was like to have her as my shadow for three weeks.

On June 26, 1996, Veronica went to Naas for the court appointment she had mentioned to me. On her way back, she phoned a garda friend. She was on the phone to him at Newland’s Cross when he heard the gunshots.

Pat Byrne rang me to tell me the awful news. I was in the car, coming through Sutton at the time. I just couldn’t believe it.

Denise and I went to her funeral at Our Lady Queen of Heaven Church beside Dublin Airport. One of Veronica’s family insisted on putting us sitting up near the altar, not far from President Mary Robinson and Taoiseach John Bruton. It was a desperately sad funeral, with her young son Cathal and husband Graham struggling to control their grief.

Little did I know it at the time, but the last few weeks of Veronica’s life were, to a very large extent, spent with me. After her untimely death, I spoke in the Seanad as we discussed the horrors of her work and those with whom she came into touch, and said: “I realised I could not do her work.”

I meant every word.

Extract from Quinntessential Feargal, A Memoir by Feargal Quinn, published by the O’Brien Press. Available from all good bookshops priced €24.99/£19.99

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