Longboat Quay saga threatens to derail unlikely comeback of McNamara
Published 10/10/2015 | 02:30
Until a few weeks ago things appeared to be going full circle for Bernard McNamara.
The veteran property developer appeared to be staging a miraculous comeback a little over a year after emerging from bankruptcy.
The McNamara sign, in the distinctive saffron and blue colours of his native Clare, and a huge McNamara crane were up on St Stephen's Green in Dublin.
It was a sight few would have predicted a few years ago when his business crumbled under the weight of €2.7bn in debts.
But the 65-year-old was thrown a lifeline by billionaire Denis O'Brien, who wanted him involved in the redevelopment of Canada House.
The 0.15 hectare site on the corner of Earlsfort Terrace will soon be home to an aircraft leasing company.
The €25m project is just across the green from what was once one of the jewels in Mr McNamara's empire, the Shelbourne Hotel, which he co-owned.
He had also picked up work as a consultant at the K Club, where Michael Smurfit is expanding the accommodation offered by the five-star golf resort.
However, while Mr McNamara's fortunes appeared to be on the up, a controversy was bubbling away in the background which is now threatening to tarnish his comeback.
For well over a year, Dublin Fire Brigade has been expressing serious concerns about the safety of Longboat Quay, a 298-apartment development one of Mr McNamara's companies, Gendsong, built in Dublin's docklands in 2006.
Things came to a head last week when the fire brigade issued a fire safety notice which means the complex's 900 residents face being evacuated next month unless work, expected to cost €4m, begins to make the building safe.
As wrangling continues over who should foot the bill, much of the residents' ire has been directed at Mr McNamara, who has yet to make any public comment on the issue.
Many of them believe he should dip into his own pocket to fix the fire safety issues.
However, the developer has gone to ground, refusing to speak to journalists who call him on his mobile phone or respond to questions sent to his personal email address.
How aware Mr McNamara was of the defects at the time of construction is unclear.
The fireproofing engineer who signed off on Longboat Quay, John Greaney, disputes claims the development is a firetrap. He also says that although Mr McNamara was the developer, he may not have had an intimate knowledge of the construction techniques and systems used.
Architect Eugen van Jaarsveld, who worked on the project for Mr McNamara, has also disputed the fire safety concerns, saying he believed it was built in line with regulations.
But it is now clear that Longboat Quay was not an isolated case.
Earlier this week, Nama confirmed to the Irish Independent that substantial work had to be done to fix safety issues at another McNamara development, the Elm Park office and apartment complex on Dublin's Merrion Road.
Before going bust Mr McNamara had owned 30 apartments in the development himself.
Nama chief executive Brendan McDonagh alluded to the costs involved when he told a Dáil committee last week that the agency had spent millions of euro fixing an unnamed development to the satisfaction of the Dublin City Council fire department.
Mr McNamara grew up in comfortable circumstances in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare, where his father Michael operated a small building company.
He was educated at St Flannan's College in Ennis and the College of Commerce in Rathmines.
While working with the family business he had two stints as a Fianna Fáil county councillor in the 1970s and made a failed bid to be elected to the Dáil.
But in the early 1980s he turned his focus fully to property development and based himself in Dublin.
He would become one of the top developers in the country and by 2006 it was estimated his personal fortune stood at €150m.
However, the scale of his borrowings meant he was very badly exposed to the financial shocks which followed in 2007 and 2008.
When €1.5bn of his debts were taken into Nama, these included loans secured against at least 40 properties in Clare, Cork, Dublin, Galway, Longford, Meath and Tipperary.
The extent to which the loans were impaired was demonstrated by how swiftly the agency moved against him.
By Mr McNamara's own admission, in a recent submission to the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry, he had "no dealings with Nama" as it appointed receivers to all of his business interests "at the very outset".
The property play which backfired most spectacularly was his involvement in Becbay, a consortium which bought the Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend for €412m in 2006.
Within four years the value of the site had collapsed to just €50m and Mr McNamara found himself embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute with the Dublin Docklands Development Authority.
As Mr McNamara's empire crumbled he was forced into selling off many of his prized assets, including the family home on Ailesbury Road, Ballsbridge.
The palatial residence, which featured an indoor swimming pool that could be covered with transparent glass and transformed into a dance floor, was sold for €10m to JP McManus' wife Noreen.
By 2012 he was living in London where he filed for bankruptcy.
In doing so he was travelling a well-trodden path which several other Irish developers had followed due to the UK's less onerous bankruptcy regime.
With his empire gone, Mr McNamara stated in bankruptcy filings he had been working as a consultant in London, earning Stg£120,000 (€161,000) a year.
This involved working on projects in the Middle East, Libya and Venezuela.
In the months before he filed for bankruptcy, Mr McNamara also acted as a consultant on a €40m university construction project in Nigeria, involving a former executive in his company, Jack Butler.
Although he was photographed at the signing ceremony, he denied owning the company involved, McNamara Nigeria.
He emerged from bankruptcy debt free in March of last year.
Industry sources say that since then he had been moving mainly between Dublin and London, where the family's new construction business, MB McNamara, is based.
When he is in Ireland, he has been seen staying at a five-bedroom house in south Dublin, where his wife Moira (58) and some of his children also live.
The couple had previously owned the property, but they sold it for €1.3m in 2011.
The house is registered as a rental property with the Private Residential Tenancies Board.
Family members and a housekeeper were seen coming and going this week, but not Mr McNamara.
He has recently been seen driving a 2006 Audi A6, a much more modest vehicle than the S-Series Mercedes he drove a decade ago.
The developer has also been a frequent visitor to west Clare, with locals in Lahinch saying he was last seen there around a month ago.
Mr McNamara has a flat in Chiswick, west London, a short distance from the family's new building firm MB McNamara Construction (UK) Limited, which was set up in July 2014.
An Irish man who answered the flat's intercom this week refused to identify himself or say where Mr McNamara was.
However, the developer has been seen recently coming and going from MB McNamara's offices.
A receptionist told the Irish Independent he visited the building "every now and then" and had been around "in the last few weeks". Efforts to speak to anyone at the company proved unsuccessful.
Despite his foray back into the building business, Mr McNamara has yet to re-join the Construction Industry Federation and it has not been in contact with him about the situation at Longboat Quay.
Another interesting aspect of Mr McNamara's return to business has been that, on paper at least, he has taken a back seat in relation to the control of those operations.
Instead, his wife Moira has emerged as the central figure in the web of companies the family is currently involved in.
She is the sole shareholder in MB McNamara. Her husband transferred his 50pc stake in the company to her during the summer, having resigned as a director in May.
Mr McNamara's brother Edward is also listed as a director of the company.
Although he has established a base in London, Irish property market sources there said it did not appear he was involved in any big deals in the UK at present and speculated he was using the city as a base to launch projects further afield.
Moira McNamara is also the sole director of another company, Simcoe Industries Ltd, set up at the same Chiswick address in 2012.
Accounts show Mr McNamara kept an office there, for which he paid the company Stg£10,445 last year. He was a director of the firm in the past, but resigned during 2012.
One company which pre-dates Mr McNamara's bankruptcy, but is still trading, is McNamara EMS, a subsidiary of Simcoe, and this was used for a joint venture project in Qatar in recent years.
Company records show Mr McNamara resigned as a director in 2010 and the firm is now entirely owned by his wife.