Monday 24 April 2017

So, what will mr Gilmore be saying About property speculation now?

Kim Bielenberg on the land deal that made his wife more than €500,000

He has been the most piercing thorn in the side of Fianna Fail and their acolytes in the 'Galway Tent'. He has railed against the builders who drove us into an economic black hole with their wheeler-dealing.

For much of the past decade, Eamon Gilmore has exposed the greedy property developers and the feckless Fianna Fail establishment that was beholden to them.

He has eviscerated his opponents with forensic precision.

Anybody who has followed closely the career of the former Sinn Fein the Workers Party student activist knows that, in recent years, he has had a singular obsession with land prices.

As Labour's environment spokesman he was particularly scathing in his criticism of a decision by Louth County Council to rezone land belonging to a prominent Fianna Fail figure in 2003.

The re-zoning of the land pushed up the price of each acre of land from €10,000 to €200,000.

Gilmore, the brave scourge of the FF/builder class, called at the time for an end to "ongoing speculation in building land, which has been one of the major factors contributing to the continuing increase in house prices".

He complained that working families could no longer afford homes.

"There is no incentive to develop rezoned land at present," he said at the peak of the boom. "It's in the interests of owners to hoard it and release it slowly for development in order to maintain higher land and house prices." In some ways these words, uttered with the zeal of a bible preacher, were remarkably close to home.

Eamon Gilmore neglected to tell us that his own family were becoming beneficiaries of Ireland's land-price frenzy.

The Labour leader's wife, Carol Hanney, just happened to own a parcel of rural land that was earmarked for a primary school in Killimor, Co Galway. The site had been inherited by his wife Carol Hanney after the death of her mother.

When she first negotiated the sale in 2000, it was valued at €140,000, but a few years later its price had risen to €525,000.

As a result of planning delays, by the time it finally sold the value of the land had soared by €385,000.

She sold at the peak of the market in 2007.

Ms Hanney, herself a high flier as chief executive of Dun Laoghaire VEC, of course did nothing wrong.

As the Labour party backbencher Joanna Tuffy put it to me this week: "It was all above board."

Eamon Gilmore's wife cannot be blamed for turning a hefty profit. Perhaps she deserves a certain admiration for selling at the right time, unlike so many of the capitalist builders.

But Eamon Gilmore's critics can claim with some justification that he is in a more difficult position when it comes to preaching about the evils of land speculation.

Given his own outspoken views on the matter, he might have declared his wife's interest at the time.

"She has not broken any rules," says Fianna Fail TD Michael Kennedy. "But Labour have been very quick to throw muck at other parties.

"There is a lot of hypocrisy involved. Labour would be jumping up and down if the wife or spouse of a Fianna Fail politician was involved in a deal like this.

"They have been very keen to portray us in a certain way, but when your wife is making €525,000 on two-and-a-half acres of land, your party's claim to represent small men and women lacks credibility. It smacks of smoked-salmon socialism."

The sale of a school site to the taxpayer at a bubble price by a Labour politician's wife has not only struck a chord in Fianna Fail. Prominent figures among Labour's possible coalition partners, Fine Gael, are likely to take a certain pleasure in Gilmore' s discomfort.

One Fine Gael frontbencher and possible future cabinet colleague of Gilmore's, said caustically: "Labour is talking about introducing a new tax rate on high earners. Well, when you are a couple earning over €200,000 a year and you make €500,000 on a land deal, you can probably well afford to pay it."

Another TD, Niall Collins of Fianna Fail, was quick to point out that it was ironic that the wife of one of the most vocal critics of the 'Galway tent' was herself a beneficiary of a highly profitable land deal in Co Galway.

Eamon Gilmore's wife is perhaps typical of a group in middle Ireland that has not received much attention as we have plummeted towards the abyss.

While there were tens of thousands who bought at the top of the market, and exposed themselves to financial ruin, there were many other shrewder, or more fortunate, players in the property market who sold at precisely the right time, and pocketed sums that were equivalent of Lottery jackpots.

Between the sale of the school site, and their generous salaries as highly paid public office holders, Eamon Gilmore and his wife together would have made more than €1.2m since 2007.

As a TD, Eamon Gilmore earns a basic salary of around €98,000.

Carol Hanney, a former principal of St Thomas's Community College in Bray, also has an important job as chief executive of the education mini-quango Dun Laoghaire VEC, an organisation with a staff of 500.

According to the Department of Education, she has a salary of between €92,000 and €115,000. Parents of two sons and a daughter, the couple live in the middle-of-the road Corbawn area of Shankill, close to the sea in South Dublin.

Both are well liked in their area. With his priestly and occasionally indignant manner, the Labour leader could hardly be described as flash, while a former colleague of his wife said: "She's patient, kind, compassionate and open."

The chair-man of Dun Laoghaire VEC, councillor Donal Marren said: "I have worked with Carol closely over the past few years and she is a woman of the highest integrity."

While there was nothing underhand about the property transaction, the fact that the site was earmarked for a new school gives the story added resonance.

The present school is primitive and over-crowded, and the principal has to work in a former toilet. In order to secure an extra piece of land for the proposed new school, Carol Hanney was paid an extra €10,000 earlier this year. It was reported that the money was raised through local fundraising initiatives such as cake sales and raffles.

One former political colleague from Gilmore's days in Sinn Fein The Workers Party said: "I think that this second transaction may be more damaging to him. When the local people were raising money through cake sales in order to accommodate a playground for the new school, it is not great for his image."

The Gilmores cannot be blamed for the inefficiencies and delays in the Department of Education that led to the price being inflated.

But one wonders whether the Labour leader should have toned down the lacerating attacks by his party on the grossly inflated prices paid by the Government for school sites.

Gilmore's own deputy, Joan Burton, was nothing short of disgusted at the price paid for school land when she spoke out on the issue in 2009.

She complained last year that, in some cases, "Mini sites were sold for maximum prices". She said she was "bowled over at the mountain of money that property tycoons have been able to extract from the Government for school sites (in Dublin 15) in recent years.

"A succession of Fianna Fail ministers seemed to have had no problem with this," she stormed. "These deals soaked up massive amounts of money that should have been spent on better buildings and better facilities."

Joan Burton was understandably reticent about talking about the sums paid to the wife of her leader when I contacted her this week.

"I don't want to comment on it," said the Labour deputy leader. "I have no involvement in this."

She may have been uncharacteristically shy about the land deal that is in the news this week, but she stood by her comments about the "inflated prices" paid for re-zoned school sites in her area.

It remains to be seen whether the story of the plot damages the Labour leader politically and the couple's depiction as the 'gilded Gilmores' sticks. There is no doubt, however, that the halo has slipped.

On a positive note, the Labour leader may have to spend less time moralising about how we got into this mess, and more time coming up with positive proposals on how we get out of it.

Irish Independent

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