Protection payments at housing site 'like a plot from The Sopranos'
On September 29, 2016, the front-page headline of 'The Herald' read: "Locals fear as 'bloodbath' mob guard council housing site."
The story revealed Dublin City Council had launched an investigation into claims a gang led by well-known criminal Derek 'Dee Dee' O'Driscoll was providing "security" at social housing developments in the Cherry Orchard area of the city.
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The sites had been targeted by anti-social behaviour and O'Driscoll's cronies had been hired by the construction firm building the development for the city council. The local authority said it had not hired any security for the site as this was the responsibility of the firm contracted to build the houses. Not much more was said publicly about the very serious allegations.
However, on Christmas Eve 2016, Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh sent an email to former justice minister Frances Fitzgerald, former housing minister and now Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Minister of State Catherine Byrne. The email's subject line was "seeking urgent meeting re Cherry Orchard".
Mr Ó Snodaigh said the construction of 73 social houses had been stopped due to "a sustained campaign of intimidation of building workers and site security staff" including a "JCB driver being attacked with petrol".
"It is clear that the intimidation has been orchestrated by criminals who have vowed that no work on any Cherry Orchard site will go ahead unless they get the security contracts or receive monies from the builders," he added.
The Sinn Féin TD said gardaí were aware of the alleged intimidation, and he offered to hold a meeting in the new year to resolve the "deepening crisis".
On January 5, 2017, Mr Ó Snodaigh wrote again to the ministers to say issues around the housing developments had "escalated".
He said he was told criminals were involved in "setting out conditions" for work restarting on the site after it had ended before Christmas. "I believe the possibility of interference from criminals in deciding the security contract for the site has major implications for this State-sponsored project in the here and now, but also in the future.
"Would such an element be allowed decide who gets housed in the houses, what shape other proposed works will take, who will get to open shops, businesses, etc, in a regenerated Cherry Orchard?"
Fast-forward to Monday morning in the High Court where Ms Justice Carmel Stewart was hearing a case taken by the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) seeking to freeze the bank accounts of O'Driscoll and his associate David Reilly.
Counsel for the CAB, Ben Ó Floinn, told the court that sums of €1,500 a week and €1,200 a week were being paid by construction companies to O'Driscoll and Reilly to maintain the safety of workers and equipment at building sites. In total, just over €553,000 was paid to the two criminals, according to the CAB.
The court heard three construction sites had been targeted with anti-social behaviour, such as equipment being burned out and workers being intimidated. However, this stopped after Reilly approached the developers to tell them he could put an end to the trouble.
The court was told council staff advised construction companies to pay the criminals for security and recoup the money from the local authority.
O'Driscoll and Reilly's barrister John Noonan said the men had earned the money legitimately, but had failed to pay the relevant taxes which they were not willing to do. Ms Justice Stewart dismissed their claim and agreed to freeze the bank accounts of both men as per CAB's request.
After the case emerged, Dublin City Council issued another statement saying it did not pay money to the two men but said it was aware of the "extraordinary level of intimidation and criminal activity directed at this contractor's staff".
Yesterday in the Dáil, Fianna Fáil deputy leader Dara Calleary raised the alleged extortion payments directly with Mr Coveney.
Mr Calleary said the payments were like something out of the crime drama 'The Sopranos' and asked why Fine Gael ministers had not discussed the issue when it was first raised. Mr Coveney sought to deflect the issue on to the Department of Justice but was forced to admit his office was made aware of the extortion allegations by Deputy Ó Snodaigh.
"My office was CC'd on some of that email traffic. The first I heard of the issue was yesterday, but we are now trying to establish the communication lines in terms of email traffic."
The Tánaiste went on to say Mr Ó Snodaigh was given a "comprehensive" response from Ms Fitzgerald, which he read into the record of the Dáil. It said the council "understandably" stopped work after a "shocking petrol-bomb attack".
However, Ms Fitzgerald said she was advised that gardaí had not received any complaints that "criminal elements may be attempting to extract protection money". She said gardaí were pursuing a thorough investigation into the matter.
Mr Coveney also said: "I am not saying emails were not sent in to my office. I am trying to understand what happened."