By Denzil McDaniel

I was privileged recently to attend an event which considered the role of the media in deeply divided societies; more of that perhaps in a future column.

But I refer to it because my close friend and colleague Trevor Birney was on one of the discussion panels and he spoke movingly about starting his career in journalism at the Impartial Reporter.

He recalled our mutual friend, mentor and former editor, Mervyn Dane who once quipped: “Fermanagh is normal, it’s the rest of the world that’s crazy!”

Mervyn said it with his customary good-humoured giggle, but with the serious point behind it that, in the vernacular “Fermanagh folk could buy and sell those who thought they were more sophisticated than us.”

The people of this county, of whatever hue, have a deep sense of place and community which binds us together; and even though we can have deep divisions at times, woe betide any outsider who belittles us.

I recall within my earshot a visiting journalist from, er, cosmopolitan Belfast describing Fermanagh pejoratively as “sleepy.” Not too sleepy apparently to provide him copy for a great story, like many before him and since.

Still worse, when the protests over the closure of Sean Quinn’s business were at their height, another commentator tweeted calling the local yokels “peasants.”

Sigh.

For some years now, I often despair at the way media throughout Ireland, north and south, parachute in to do the latest episode of the Quinn saga and either scratch the surface of the story or, indeed, take up a predetermined position on one or other angle.

I do feel some sympathy for the people of Derrylin and Ballyconnell and also beyond. My father was based in a wee office in Derrylin when he first became a Department of Agriculture inspector and always spoke highly of the people there.

A couple of months ago, I found myself at a gaelic football match at O’Connell Park in Derrylin watching the local seniors (don’t ask how, it’s a long story) but there some families around and I was approached by a woman to sign a petition protecting the local environment.

So, the community spirit is alive and well. I’ve always found the people are archetypal Fermanagh folk; good, decent, honest, respectful and hardworking.

The story of Sean Quinn and his rise and fall is so amazing that the phrase “you couldn’t make it up” could have been invented for it and it’s had a major impact on the area.

Quinn himself is an interesting, charismatic character, and everybody loved charting the journey from humble beginning to becoming the richest man in Ireland. To local people , he was one of their own and brought valuable jobs to a neglected, sparsely populated region.

It wasn’t quite the industrial Ruhr Valley, but it was a hive of activity which the area could never have hoped to see the like of.

Fermanagh and across in Cavan people often resented the lack of investment in infrastructure and jobs from London, Dublin and Belfast, so a local enigmatic entrepreneur who brought them the good times was always going to be held in high esteem.

This analysis, and the nature of Fermanagh’s clanish coming together in the face of outside criticism was the explanation for a circling of wagons when things went wrong; as they did in a major way.

The Dublin establishment and its media never understood this, because to them Quinn was quite simply the villain of the piece, and it suited the banks and authorities in the south generally that he took the full force of being portrayed as the only bad guy.

Quinn himself wouldn’t claim to be a saint, and there’s no denying he made mistakes.

But his fall and the disastrous effect that the affair had on the southern economy seemed to have a simple narrative.

It’s all Quinn’s fault.

Indeed, any attempt to suggest that there was much more to the story than this left anyone suggesting the above analysis meant there should be more nuanced coverage open to accusations of being naively pro Quinn. Which is nonsense.

Throughout the machinations of the last decade, things have gone from bad to worse.

The fall from grace of the Quinn empire has been spectacular and to be honest it looks as though the atmosphere in the region has become toxic. Loyalties are being tested and many people just keep their head down, such is the bad feeling and even reluctance of expressing an opinion.

It seems incredibly unfair on the good people of the area.

A number of incidents of violence and intimidation on people and property over the years have proved controversial and, indeed, led to much speculation and media coverage.

Nobody has been brought to justice, but one feels there is much more to come out.

Earlier this year, the ongoing story took on an even more sinister twist with the horrendous physical attack on QIH director, Kevin Lunney.

This week, four men were charged in connection with this alleged incident, so we are limited legally as to what we can say about it.

However, already in the public domain was a television interview given to BBC Spotlight by Kevin Lunney. It was dramatic to say the least and has had the effect of bringing the deteriorating situation into the public domain at the highest level.

Any reporter getting such an exclusive interview would consider it sensational television and Spotlight were right to make the most of it. But, the overall programme did little to unearth context or circumstances of the ongoing situation for years. Apart from the optics of focusing on Sean Quinn, despite the fact that many other people are players in the drama.

Again, we must be careful in commenting or reporting on the incident itself as it is sub judice.

But outside of that, the media or at least some of them are starting to delve.

In the Sunday Times over the last two weeks, detailed reporting has made fascinating reading. One man who admitted to the paper that he’d been involved in previous sabotage attacks said that “the Dublin media do not understand what is going on.”

And he suggested: “There’s a lot more to this story than meets the eye, and the dogs in the street know what’s going on.”

I think he’s probably right, and I think as time goes on we will find out a lot more. Balanced and brave reporting is needed.

But in the meantime, the toxicity in the area continues and there’s genuine concern as to where this all leads.

Responsible local leaders have a duty to help the situation rather than add to the controversy.

Whoever is involved, one can only hope that calm heads prevail before any more damage is done to individuals or the good community of the area. It is a chilling thought to think that this whole saga could get even worse.

Please God, there are better times ahead for the area.