Lowry lobbied minister to save tycoon's empire
Published 01/11/2011 | 05:00
INDEPENDENT TD Michael Lowry was involved in a bizarre bid to save Jim Mansfield's Citywest business empire, the Irish Independent has learned.
The Tipperary North deputy lobbied a government minister as part of Mr Mansfield's desperate plan to raise €250m to stop his Citywest hotel going into receivership.
The project to turn a disused shopping centre into a school for students from Saudi Arabia was spearheaded by former Mansfield Group chief executive Sean Whelan. It is thought that Mr Lowry's involvement with the project stems from his network of contacts in Saudi Arabia, which he has developed from travelling to the kingdom in connection with his refrigeration business.
Mr Lowry's involvement will raise questions about the TD's role in the matter.
The Citywest Institute of Education project was announced in February last year by Unicorn PR, the same company hired to promote a planned casino development in Tipperary, also backed by Mr Lowry.
The Saudi Ministry of Higher Education immediately denied it was sending students to the school.
Records obtained from the Department of Education have revealed Mr Lowry's intervention on behalf of the Mansfields in the Saudi school plan, the ultimate collapse of which led to the family's companies being placed under receivership.
Then-minister Batt O'Keeffe's diary shows how he met Mr Lowry at Citywest in October 2009 to discuss the ambitious scheme that would have created almost 300 jobs and seen 750 Saudi students learning English at the proposed school.
Mr O'Keeffe has told the Irish Independent how he "explained quite clearly" to Mr Lowry, the "serious issues" he had with the project.
The former minister said he didn't know why Mr Lowry was involved, adding: ". . . nor did I ask".
On the meeting at Citywest, Mr O'Keeffe said: "I made it quite clear at the time my dissatisfaction in relation to what was being proposed."
He said he didn't feel that the proposal offered diversity or integration for the students or "quality in terms of international education".
Previously released departmental records show how, months after this meeting, Mr O'Keeffe wrote to Mr Whelan at the Mansfield Group in March 2010 saying that his department's position on the Citywest school was being "misrepresented".
He warned: "The proposed model, as constituted . . . has the potential to damage Ireland's reputation as a provider of international education."
Mr Lowry's involvement in the scheme is reminiscent of his lobbying on behalf of businessman Richard Quirke who planned to build a casino, to be known as the Tipperary Venue, near Two-Mile-Borris in his constituency.
Valerie O'Reilly of Unicorn PR, who handled public relations for Mr Lowry's 2007 general election campaign as well as media queries for him in the wake of the publishing of the Moriarty Report, was hired to launch the Tipperary Venue and the school at Citywest.
However, both projects have since stalled.
Mr Lowry's involvement in the Saudi school planned by the Mansfield family will raise questions about the TD's role in the matter. Mr Lowry claimed that he was to have received no personal benefit from his involvement in the casino project, arguing that it would bring jobs to his constituency.
It is unclear why he took on his role in the promotion of the Citywest Institute of Education.
Despite attempts since Thursday to contact Mr Lowry, he did not respond to phone calls or questions sent to him by email. Staff at his office said he was away.
The news comes after Jim Mansfield was ordered last month to pay €74m to the National Asset Management Agency on foot of personal guarantees he gave for loans to two companies.
Mr Mansfield, who is in poor health, did not respond to requests for comment by the Irish Independent.
Former Mansfield Group CEO Sean Whelan could not be contacted.