Mystery behind how IRA hunger striker built his property empire
Published 20/10/2011 | 05:00
THE Priory Hall controversy, which has put 300 people out of their homes, has thrust reclusive property developer and former Provisional IRA gunman Tom McFeely reluctantly into the spotlight.
Until this week's High Court case, when Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns ordered that the 300 residents of the Priory Hall apartment development in the north Dublin suburb of Donaghmede be evacuated, property developer Mr McFeely was virtually unknown to the general public.
Which is exactly how the former IRA hunger striker liked it.
Ever since being released from the Maze Prison in 1989 after serving 12 years of a 26-year sentence for terrorist offences, including the non-fatal shooting of an RUC officer, Mr McFeely has generally shunned personal publicity.
By any standards, his life story has been a remarkable one.
He and 18 other republican prisoners escaped from the maximum security Portlaoise jail in 1974 using gelignite to blow a hole in the perimeter wall.
Later, during his time in the Maze, he joined the 1980 hunger strikes in protest against the British government's refusal to grant republican prisoners political status.
After 53 days without food, the strike was called off by the IRA's prison leadership, who believed a deal had been reached with the British, only for the talks to collapse later.
With his first marriage having broken up while he was imprisoned, Mr McFeely, originally from Dungiven, Co Derry, headed south after his release.
He had only £240 in his pocket and slept in his car while looking for work on Dublin building sites.
Over the next dozen years Mr McFeely worked hard and gradually made the transition from construction worker to property developer.
He was involved in several small schemes in Co Donegal and in the greater Dublin area.
However, it was not until around the turn of the century that he began to be noticed even in specialist property circles, when he and his longstanding business partner Larry O'Mahony put together two successful deals in the Dublin satellite town of Tallaght.
The first of these was the Plaza Hotel project, which cost an estimated €40m.
The pair then followed this up with one of the shrewdest property deals of the Celtic Tiger era when they purchased a long-term lease on a car park adjacent to the Square shopping centre.
With several of the country's leading property investors, including Noel Smyth, Liam Carroll and Derek Quinlan, competing to extend the Square, the car park site, without which the extension could not go ahead, suddenly became extremely valuable.
Mr McFeely and Mr O'Mahony were able to parlay their car park lease into a one-third stake in the Square redevelopment, a shareholding worth well in excess of €100m at the peak of the market.
A luxury lifestyle, including an Ailesbury Road home worth an estimated €15m, a Portuguese holiday villa worth €6m and a €280,000 Bentley limousine, quickly followed.
His transformation from penniless construction worker to multimillionaire property developer in a little over a decade has inevitably led to speculation about the source of McFeely's wealth.
A €8.5m tax settlement with the CAB in 2006 also set tongues wagging. The settlement was reached following an investigation of his tax affairs.
In the Dail yesterday Taoiseach Enda Kenny described Mr McFeely as an "acquaintance" of Gerry Adams, much to the Sinn Fein leader's annoyance.
The truth would appear to be that, despite his IRA past, Mr McFeely's relationship with the current Sinn Fein leadership is, at best, a semi-detached one.
In 2009, in the one media interview he has ever given, he was quoted as saying that: "Sinn Fein, not the SDLP, would destroy the IRA."
The truth about the source of McFeely's wealth is almost certainly more prosaic.
He was just one of many property developers who exploited rapidly rising property values and the willingness of the banks to abandon prudent lending standards to rapidly accumulate enormous wealth in the 1990s and 2000s. A rising tide lifts all boats, even one with Mr McFeely's colourful pedigree.
Among Mr McFeely's lenders were Anglo Irish, ACC and Irish Nationwide, three banks, which even by the lax standards of the Celtic Tiger bubble, took irresponsible and reckless lending to new heights. As long as property values kept rising, Irish banking's terrible triplets kept shovelling out the money.
Now, with the property boom having turned to bust, Mr McFeely's apparent wealth is disappearing as rapidly as it first appeared.
ACC registered a judgment of €6.28m against Mr McFeely in November 2009 while the Revenue Commissioners registered a judgment against both him and Mr O'Mahony in August of this year.
With most of his properties pledged as security against loans and health and safety legislation making him personally liable for any remedial work carried out at Priory Hall, Mr McFeely's fall could be just as dramatic as his rise.