Fear has kept people from gossip about the scandal, finds Sarah Stack.
AS disgraced financial adviser Ted Cunningham settled in to Cork Prison, news of his downfall is barely mentioned in his rural home town.
Deals struck by the unassuming businessman had gone under the radar for years, with few people knowing or caring what he did. No one even noticed as a panic-stricken Cunningham frantically tried to shift dirty cash from the Northern Bank robbery in the weeks before his bungalow was raided on February 2005.
It was not until gardaí swooped on his rural home and found €2.3 million stuffed into bags locked in a cupboard in his basement that he, and his small home town of Farran, Co Cork, were thrust into the spotlight. Peers said Cunningham’s fall from small-time financial adviser to prisoner number 57178 is no longer the talk of the town. “No one knew who he was until it all actually happened, and then people just said ‘Jesus, you’re not serious’,” said one businessman. “And there’s no talk about it down here any more, not a murmur about it.
“People aren’t even interested in Mr Cunningham and his money.
“They would have been more shocked if he was found not guilty. It was so blatant.”
Cunningham was convicted of 10 counts of laundering money from the Northern Bank robbery and remanded in custody four weeks ago.
Fear over speaking out against republicans, blamed for running a dirty money racket that moved the stolen cash from Belfast to the south of Ireland, is also keeping the usual gossip hounds at bay.
“Cork isn’t that big. This is a close-knit community and you have to know who you are talking to or who you’re engaged with because everyone is so small and tight,” said the businessman. “Anything involved in Northern Ireland, where did it come from or who did it come from? They’re all keeping their heads down.”
Neighbours revealed they knew little about how Cunningham provided for his family until he opened his finance company in the town of Ballincollig, just outside Cork city, in 1999. He once sang in the local church choir and worked alongside his 34-year-old son, Timothy, who pleaded guilty to one count of knowing the £3m was from the heist. Senior gardaí who raided Cunningham’s home were stunned at the wads of cash, packed so tightly into six holdalls that the zips would not close. His partner Cathy Armstrong was also arrested but never charged. The couple have since left the rural bungalow opposite a church in Farran, a small village 15km west of Cork city, and built a new home across the road.
They also married in a lavish ceremony in the luxury Dromoland Castle in Co Clare.
“The night his house got searched, nobody could believe it,” one neighbour said. “People woke up the next morning to armed gardaí with Uzis outside the house. They were totally surprised,” said one neighbour. “Ted was very well liked... They were just an ordinary family, there was nothing extraordinary about them.”
Gardaí suspected Cunningham was part of an IRA cell, but it was his business links with former republican Phil Flynn that gardaí delved into.
The financial adviser had met Mr Flynn, the then-chairman of the Bank of Scotland (Ireland), in 2003 and the following year the government aide was offered a 10% stake in the firm (Chesterton Finance) to raise its profile. Cunningham said he then met Catherine Nelson, a freelance consultant, who had contact with Bulgarians who wanted to do business with Chesterton Finance and who snapped up a gravel pit in Tullamore for £3m. Detectives revealed Cunningham alleged Mr Flynn, a trade union leader and former Sinn Féin vice-president, “was the boss of everything” and Ms Nelson the contact. He also claimed SF councillor Tom O’Hanlon, from Passage West, had helped him count the money in his basement.
Neither man has been charged in connection with the money. The prisoner claimed he was intimidated and his time in custody in Cork’s Bridewell Garda Station was as bad as being in Guantanamo Bay said he would have preferred the US detention camp.
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