In this extract from his new book, Shane Ross explores how Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and her husband renovated their Dublin home.
On May 20, 2010, Dublin City Council received an intriguing planning application. It was made in the name of a man called Martin Lanigan. A few days earlier, the planning notice had appeared in the Sunday Business Post, followed by a site notice at New Cabra Road, Cabra, Dublin 7. The notice didn’t cause a ripple, probably because no one had ever heard of Martin Lanigan and because the Sunday Business Post had a small circulation.
The bungalow on the site was vacant. It was, however, still technically owned by a successful Mayo solicitor, Brendan Flanagan. He was the legal personal representative of the former owner, the late Mary Stafford, a member of the local Fianna Fáil Stafford family. Flanagan was a well-known Fianna Fáil activist. Martin Lanigan, who had a ‘contract to purchase’ the property, was not yet the legal owner, despite being the applicant for planning permission.
Brendan Flanagan sent a letter to Dublin City Council saying that he had no objection to Martin Lanigan applying for this permission and was giving his consent to the application. No one objected. Not surprisingly, because the application aimed to convert a drab bungalow into a mini-mansion. The tone of the entire neighbourhood would be lifted by such a dramatic conversion.
The site was in the posh part of Cabra. Martin Lanigan had done everything by the book. He had attended a pre-planning consultation with area planning officer Margaret Coyle. He had employed professional architects, Fitzgibbon McGinley, with offices in Naas, Co Kildare, to design and deliver on his elaborate plans.
It is crystal clear from the list of their commercial customers that Fitzgibbon McGinley do not come cheap. Nor do the builders chosen by Martin Lanigan. Weslin Construction, of Damastown, Dublin 15, has a blue-chip client base.
The name of Mary Lou McDonald, wife of the applicant, was nowhere to be seen on Martin Lanigan’s application, nor was anybody reading the notice ever likely to connect her with it. In 2010 very few people would have recognised the name of Mary Lou’s husband. He rarely, if ever, appeared anywhere with her in public, not even at election counts. Politicians and the media knew there was a ‘Mr McDonald’ somewhere in the background, but that was as far as it went.
The scale of the proposed increase in the size of the house was mind-boggling. It would be unrecognisable — effectively a new dwelling — when it was finished. It would no longer be a bungalow. It was going to have two storeys, five bedrooms, bathrooms to match, a living room, a dining hall, a family room, a kitchen, a study/meeting room and a playroom. It would need a completely new roof and it would be largely gutted internally. Covering 254sqm, it was almost three times the size of the average Irish house. The planning permission positively flew through the hoops. The last day for observations was June 23, 2010. There were none. The decision to grant permission was given on July 8.
Exactly a week before the formal planning decision date, according to the Property Price Register Ireland, the property changed hands for €517,000. According to documents in the Land Registry, it then passed from Brendan Flanagan, as administrator of the estate, to Martin Lanigan and Mary Lou McDonald. There is a Bank of Ireland mortgage on the house.
Martin and Mary Lou had moved house several times since their marriage in 1996. There was little doubt that it was her political ambitions that determined the area where they were living. By 2011 it looked as though she had opted to settle permanently within the Dublin constituency which she saw as her political home. She had lived in a modest semi-detached house in Castleknock, Dublin West, when she contested that constituency in 2002 and continued to live there until she and Martin sold it in November 2008.
They then stayed strictly within the boundaries of her new hunting ground, Dublin Central. First, they rented 23 Ashington Heath, off the Navan Road, followed by another nearby property, 22A Villa Park Road, both in the Cabra area. Cabra was the base for her career aspirations. Martin Lanigan did all the wheeling and dealing necessary to secure the little bungalow in Cabra, but the timing of its purchase was awkward and could have been electorally sensitive if the couple’s names became public knowledge.
If Martin and Mary Lou had been spotted embarking on such a lavish planning project just before the 2011 general election, there might have been a mighty media frenzy and a left-wing backlash from Éirígí and others. In defence of the couple, however, there might have been dozens of malicious, politically motivated objections. There would certainly have been deeply critical comment.
The rebuilding works carried on during the countdown to the general election, but the family did not settle permanently in the mansion until Mary Lou was safely ensconced as a TD. Journalist Sam Smyth was prompted to raise the issue only because, several years later, in 2015, he heard Mary Lou demanding personal accountability from others. Under parliamentary privilege, she had read into the Dáil record the names of politicians allegedly holding illegal Ansbacher accounts.
She was mistaken. None of them had held them. Smyth’s article in the Irish Mail on Sunday taking her to task was headed: ‘Just how does Mary Lou afford her luxury home?’
Smyth first colourfully referred to Mary Lou’s family house as having the potential to be “categorised as what anti-austerity campaigners now call ‘property porn”’. Then he asked rhetorically: “How could anyone earning the average industrial wage and a spouse in the public utility afford to build such a luxurious home? I’m still none the wiser. Maybe Ms McDonald and her husband Martin have wealthy and generous relatives; perhaps they asked for anonymity after a big win on the Lotto.”
Smyth was touching a raw nerve, but he was asking a fair question. When public figures suddenly reveal vast sums of money, it is only right that they should give a plausible explanation of their origin. Most politicians are led into temptation from time to time. Some have yielded to it, as we saw in the planning scandals, when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councillors abused their positions in the rezoning rows of the 1990s. After the controversies surrounding the unexplained housing extravagances of both former taoiseach Charlie Haughey and ex-Fine Gael minister Michael Lowry, we should be wary of politicians suddenly living in mansions.
There is nothing to suggest that Mary Lou or her husband have ever been involved in anything untoward or that she has been anything other than a person of impeccable financial integrity, but she ruthlessly demands transparency of others. So Smyth’s question was fair. There has been a deafening silence on the topic. The answer is far from sticking out a mile. Mary Lou has never had bucketloads of money. Her annual declaration of interests as a TD has always produced a ‘nil’ return, meaning that she has no declarable assets and no meaningful income beyond her Dáil deputy’s salary.
It is difficult to see any evidence of the sort of six-figure windfall needed to convert a small bungalow into a grand residence on New Cabra Road. Neither Martin nor Mary Lou has ever earned more than a modest income. Indeed, when they bought the house she had no public office, having lost her seat in the European Parliament in June 2009. If she was an employee of the party, consistency demanded that [as during her time as an MEP], her salary was not above the average wage.
Even the number of financial donors Mary Lou returned over this period was surprisingly small. Corporate donations were non-existent. The maximum donation she ever declared was €2,500, the lowest €500.
All in all, Mary Lou declared only 10 donations, valued at €14,000, over her first nine-year period of contesting elections between 2002 and 2011. More recently, it appears that the financial strength of the party’s coffers has reduced the necessity for her to solicit personal funding from supporters.
When the couple bought the house in Cabra, Martin Lanigan had been an employee of Gas Networks Ireland (GNI), a State-sponsored body, or its original incarnation, Bord Gáis Éireann, for over 30 years. His job was permanent and pensionable. However, his take-home pay was far from spectacular.
He did not sample the sort of spoils enjoyed by those at the top of State-sponsored bodies because he had never reached those dizzy heights. Martin was on the clerical side. He was a settled employee, a gas emergency controller. He worked shifts, sending out staff from the GNI control room, which has its own department.
There is no sign of any large capital sum available to either spouse, no windfall. Their own trading in houses had been limited. After their marriage, they purchased a compact dwelling in Dublin’s Stoneybatter, before buying 10 Riverwood Green, in a quiet cul-de-sac in Castleknock.
In January 2008 they put that house on the market at around €530,000 and sold it for a lower price in a private November sale, probably for a price in the region of €485,000. That would give them a base, but no more, to buy the bungalow in Cabra.
While the couple waited for their palatial home to be ready, they rented a house in Villa Park Road, off the Navan Road. The next part of their narrative is puzzling. They paid €517,000 to Flanagan for the bungalow before partially demolishing it. They took out a mortgage. Weslin Construction moved on to the site. No doubt the couple were able to meet the difference between the selling price of Riverwood and the buying price of the Cabra Road house. Their mortgage repayments might be heavy, but, even with two young children, they could probably afford them, at a stretch.
The real riddle is how Martin and Mary Lou funded the dramatic transformation of the building. I discreetly asked three experienced builder/developers for a ballpark estimate of the cost of the venture. None consulted with the other two; all insisted on anonymity. The first estimated that, at 2010 building-cost levels, the price of the works would be a minimum of €600,000. The second estimate was €900,000, including interiors. The third, a more modest €500,000.
All three developers’ estimates may be wide of the mark, but the cost was undoubtedly deep in the six-figure stratosphere. One builder looked at the photographs and commented on the high quality of the windowsills, the expensive imported Scandinavian windows and the building’s exquisite style.
If Mary Lou is to become taoiseach, it is highly desirable that she sets out clearly the source of her sudden stroke of good fortune. It would put an end to the inevitable speculation about how the couple funded the dramatic conversions.
This is an edited extract from ‘Mary Lou McDonald — A Republican Riddle’ by Shane Ross, which is published by Atlantic Books on October 6