Saturday 7 December 2019

Fionnan Sheahan: Dockland spending heaps new pressure on Gormley

Fionnan Sheahan

Transformed from a downbeat part of town, Dublin's docklands is now a genuinely thriving residential and business quarter of the city.

The completion this year of the landmark National Convention Centre on the northside of the river and the Grand Canal Theatre on the southside, linked by the Samuel Beckett bridge, adds a valuable cultural dimension to the area.

Designed by the world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, the theatre is a striking and imaginative building, well worth a visit just to admire it from the outside. (And it will make many wonder why the Abbey Theatre has not moved already to a purpose-built premises, rather than taking out the measuring tape to see if it just might fit into the GPO in time for the Easter Rising commemoration in 2016.)

The conference centre will help make Dublin city centre the base, once again, for significant events.

Just when the docklands project is blossoming, on both sides of the river, the leadership of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority is rightly facing questions about its management of the venture.

Professor Niamh Brennan, one of the most singularly competent and conscientious individuals in Irish public life, has been brought in to clean up an organisation that has suffered a severe dent to its reputation.

The new DDDA chairman has conducted two reports into the authority, which she has passed to Environment Minister John Gormley -- the old constituency adversary of her husband, Michael McDowell.

"I am hopeful as chairman of the DDDA that business is now conducted in a manner that is fair, equitable, to the highest possible standards and by the book," she said on RTE's 'This Week' programme yesterday.

The implication was clearly that affairs were not administered in this fashion up until now.

Mr Gormley now has the reports on corporate governance sitting on his desk.

The longer they stay unpublished, the louder will grow the rumours that the Government does not want them published as it would prove damaging.

The general thesis is the DDDA encapsulated the overly close and overtly cosy relationship between Fianna Fail-led governments and the building and banking professions.

Primary among the concerns raised about the DDDA is how it developed into a state-sponsored property speculator, backed by taxpayers' money.

Where it all went so horribly wrong for the DDDA was its unorthodox involvement in the €412m purchase of the Irish Glass Bottle site, drawing the authority away from its core activity.

The authority was part of a consortium, including developer Bernard McNamara and Derek Quinlan, which purchased the Ringsend site.

The group set up Becbay Limited, a joint venture company, to carry out the purchase of the land in November 2006.

Mr Gormley now has a report about the Becbay Joint Venture. The purchase of the site, at the height of the property bubble, was funded by Anglo Irish Bank and Allied Irish Bank, but the site is now worth substantially less.

The fact that Lar Bradshaw and Sean FitzPatrick were directors of both Anglo and the DDDA raises glaring questions about the inappropriate crossover between the semi-state and private sectors.

The DDDA now requires financial aid from the Government as a result of its purchase of the Irish Glass Bottle site.

The taxpayer is left with the tab and the responsibility for this ill-conceived venture. The current value put on the site is €60m and the taxpayers' exposure is unclear,

The expense accounts revealed in the Irish Independent today certainly suggest the DDDA figureheads regarded themselves as more than just the facilitators of urban regeneration.

The taxpayer funded a culture befitting the property developers who came to such prominence at the height of the Celtic Tiger.

The DDDA has accumulated losses of €213m, yet its board members spent hundreds of thousands of euro on luxury travel, expensive meals and fine wines.

Visits to dockland developments in the US, Russia, Finland, the Netherlands, and elsewhere, involved lavish expenditure on hotels, champagne and caviar.

Much like FAS, the DDDA is an example of what happens with a state agency when there is light-touch monitoring of its activities and a culture of excess is allowed to prevail.

The reports sitting on Mr Gormley's desk will indeed be revealing -- whenever he decides to publish them.

The minister insists the delay in publishing the reports is because they are being considered by the Attorney General.

Fine Gael's environment spokesman Phil Hogan is unconvinced and has warned the minister he is in serious danger of a whitewash.

The revelations on expenses today will simply add to the pressure on the minister to make the findings of Niamh Brennan's reports public.

Amid all the worthwhile development undertaken by the authority, the DDDA's legacy will be flawed by the excesses of its leading lights.

Irish Independent

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