Monday 16 September 2019

'Billy was definitely threatened and was forced to get out of Ireland quick', says neighbour of €1.6m Sinn Fein donor

Neighbours of the Englishman, who left €1.6m to Sinn Fein, were shocked to learn of his link to the party, writes Philip Ryan and Cormac McQuinn

William Hampton
William Hampton
Hampton Farm
Fenstanton

Philip Ryan and Cormac McQuinn

Fenstanton is one of those picture-perfect Middle England villages where you would expect an Agatha Christie mystery novel to be set. Whitewashed cottages line the small country roads, which twist and turn through the village to the local church.

It was beside this church that the vast Hampton Farm stood for decades. It was the home of local businessman Ted Hampton, who owned a potato wholesale company and a car dealership among other financial interests.

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The estate consisted of around five or six large corrugated-roofed farm sheds which were used for the potato business. Sitting opposite was the family home - known locally as the "big house". The striking Tudor-style farm house towered over other properties in the village and symbolised the wealth of the Hampton family.

It is unclear when exactly Ted Hampton passed away, but even before he did, locals say the farm house and yard had fallen into disrepair. The land was eventually sold on to developers and a mixed development of modern brick-fronted houses now sit where Hampton Farm was once situated.

Ted's son, William Edward Hampton, who is thought to have sold the family land, made headlines across Ireland and Britain two weeks ago when it emerged he left €1.6m in his will to Sinn Fein.

Little was known about the mysterious political donor, who was known in his home town as Billy, before his generosity emerged following the introduction of strict new political funding rules in Northern Ireland.

When the record-breaking domination was disclosed, Sinn Fein insisted it was not unusual for an Englishman to bequeath the party his family's wealth.

Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill said: "I understand it's a juicy story but there's nothing to see here."

They also said it was not strange that two senior party figures Joe Cahill, since deceased, and Dessie Mackin, one-time Sinn Fein's head of finance, to be named as executors to Billy Hampton's will when it was signed on June 27, 1997. Both men were charged with Provisional IRA membership during The Troubles.

The will stated that the money was intended to "cover election expenses, to fund Sinn Fein offices and advice centres and to aid Republican prisoners and their families in both Ireland and Britain".

It added that if Sinn Fein was no longer in existence at the time of his death, then the money should go to "the political party to which Mr Gerry Adams, MP, then belongs".

And if Adams had passed on before him, or was no longer a member of a political party, then the money was to go to "the Republican or Nationalist party in the six counties other than the SDLP, which has the largest number of elected local councillors".

Billy also left £1,000 to various other people, including British Labour MP Dennis Skinner and Private Eye investigative journalist Paul Halloran. But the vast majority of his €2.87m wealth was left to Sinn Fein. Solicitors are still going through the estate and Mary Lou McDonald's party is in line for a future windfall, thanks to the enigmatic former mechanic.

In Fenstanton last week, Billy's neighbours were bemused by his decision to pass on his family's wealth to the one-time political wing of a terrorist organisation.

Chrissie Bowles, who grew up near the Hampton Farm and still lives in the village, said she was taken aback when she heard what Billy did with his family's fortune.

"I was quite shocked when I read it," Ms Bowles said. "Totally out of character, I would have said, but you don't know what type of life other people lead," she added.

Ms Bowles and her brother John were good friends with Billy and used to often enjoy a drink with him in the since closed King Bill's pub in the rural village. She said Billy did not get on well with his father at times and also fell out with his sister Jackie.

Ms Bowles said she believed Billy left Fenstanton for Ireland some time in the 1970s but would often return home in a camper van to visit his father. Even after Ted Hampton died, Billy would park outside the old farm house in his mobile rather than stay inside his former home. "No one knew what he did over there (in Ireland). He used to come over in his old battered motor home thing. It was a motor home and it always looked a bit bedraggled. You wouldn't think he was a man with that sort of money," she said.

In his will, Billy stated that he was living in a "mobile home in Ireland" but also listed Fenstanton as a previous address along with another address in Durrus, Co Cork.

Don Joyce still lives a stone's throw from where the old farm house once stood and said he was good friends with both Ted and Billy Hampton.

Mr Joyce also remembers Billy coming and going in his camper van. Mr Joyce said he would often call over to the farm house to chat to Ted, whose health was deteriorating as he got older.

"I was friendly with his dad for years. I used to sit in the kitchen with him. He had all that money but he used to sit in the kitchen with an electric fire. That was the only room he used to use virtually," Mr Joyce said. Mr Joyce said there was a falling out between the two Hampton men after an attempt to set his son up in business did not work out.

"He never got on with the old man, the old man threw him out," he said.

"The old man set him up with a little transport business and he just made a right mess of it. He was grown up, I would think he was in his 20s or early 30s," he added.

After his father died, Billy returned to Fenstanton for an extended period, according to Mr Joyce, who would regularly talk to his neighbour.

During one of these conversations, Mr Joyce said Billy told him one evening that he was forced to leave Ireland over an incident which he believed involved criminal activity. Billy was vague on details, when he spoke to his neighbour, but gave the clear impression he was "under threat" and had no choice but to leave Ireland.

"He was definitely threatened, he had to get out of Ireland quick," Mr Joyce said.

"He didn't tell me all the things but I knew he had to get out of Ireland quickly and then he went back to Ireland which was a bit strange."

Even more intriguingly, Mr Joyce claimed Billy was assaulted outside his family home not long after he returned from Ireland on this particular occasion.

"He got beat up and put in hospital but I don't know who beat him up," he said.

"Someone came on purpose. He must have been here six months to a year," Mr Joyce said. He did not know if "somebody followed him or mentioned it to somebody else" but said the attack "worried" him and Billy.

Little is known about Billy's movements in Ireland, but it seems he moved around the country in his mobile home.

He turned up in West Cork - an area well known as a bolt-hole for British ex-pats - in the late 1980s and his will lists a former address at "The Granary, Geerhaneen [sic], Durrus, Bantry, Co Cork."

Locals remember him in the area as a small, "dapper" man who wore a hat with a feather in it who "kept to himself a lot".

He gave no impression of being a man with money, or means, and was described as "quiet and unassuming".

Billy is said to have given no indications to those who remember him that he was a Republican sympathiser.

And Sinn Fein did not have any major presence in the West Cork political scene at the time.

It is believed he may have lived outside the village of Durrus for as little as a year and he is said to have "vanished as quick as he came".

Land registry papers show Billy bought a modest seaside house in the Gearhameen townland in April 1988.

The firm of solicitors handling the transaction is listed as Denis A O'Donovan & Co which was established by Fianna Fail politician Denis O'Donovan, - now the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad.

Mr O'Donovan said he does not personally remember Mr Hampton, but said it was likely one of the firm's other partners acted for him.

"He came in to instruct us to deal with a transaction in the purchase of a house," Mr O'Donovan said. "We had no further dealings, or interactions with him, after the purchase of the house in 1988."

The house is understood to have lain vacant for many years since. It is now owned by Gloria O'Sullivan, who runs the Sea Lodge B&B next door.

Land registry papers show she became the owner on February 15 last year. She declined to comment when contacted.

Private Eye investigative journalist Paul Halloran remembered Billy as a "frail individual" who "lived on his own and moved around a lot".

Billy approached Mr Halloran over fears an accountancy firm handling his father's assets was trying to do him out of money. As it happens, Mr Halloran determined there was nothing to the allegations, and the firm was merely trying to pay dividends to Billy.

He heard from him sporadically over the following years and then was surprised to learn he was included in Billy's will to the tune of £1,000 when it was sent to him in 1997. Mr Halloran tried to contact his would-be benefactor through his solicitors, to tell him not to leave money to him, to enjoy it himself and suggested "putting it on a horse". He doesn't know if he ever got the letter as Billy was difficult to track down, given that he was living in a mobile home in Ireland at the time.

Labour MP Dennis Skinner, who was also left £1,000, last week said he did not know Billy and insisted he had not received any money.

Sinn Fein did not respond to questions last week about how Dessie Mackin and Joe Cahill came to be executors of Billy's will. They also would not say if Billy was even a member of the party, or if any attempts were made to discourage him from leaving his family's fortune to the party.

Sunday Independent

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