Ireland’s property crash could have been avoided


The report on the Corrib Gas controversy raised fundamental questions about the safety of the high pressure gas line through a small north Mayo community which contributed to a reassessment of the project, a process which is still underway.
Our next report was even more ambitious – to identify the ownership of every site in the DDDA area, the developers involved, their banking arrangements and their links to the political establishment. The reason was simple – it was the single biggest commercial development in the history of the State, the area where property prices were rising at the fastest rate and where a substantial number of the country’s first crop of billionaires were investing and profiting with the aid of a Government agency.
The CPI got early guidance from well placed sources within the DDDA machine, public servants who were concerned at the way in which a State body was easing the path for the wealthiest business interests at the direction of one the country’s most powerful bankers. Fitzpatrick sat on the board and on the key finance committee of the DDDA while the chairman of the agency, Larry Bradshaw, was appointed to the board of Anglo Irish Bank in late 2004.
This coincided with the information that Anglo-Irish was to back the Spencer Dock scheme on the north quays, involving a ‘national conference centre’, residential and commercial space and developed by Treasury Holdings, by advancing 50% of the then €300 million construction cost.
In its investigation the CPI was assisted by informed whistle blowers and by some less endowed developers watching from outside the loop. It soon emerged that a cosy and politically well connected, cartel was operating in the docklands area.

The CPI identified minutes of specific board meetings of the DDDA where a clear conflict of interest involving Fitzpatrick and Bradshaw was evident. Minutes seen by the CPI researchers showed that both participated in board discussions without declaring their commercial interest or ‘stepping outside’ when issues of potential conflict arose in decisions pertaining to the development of Spencer Dock - the brainchild of controversial property gurus, Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett.
The CPI investigation did not go unnoticed as the questions submitted by its researchers to the DDDA and various Government departments under Freedom of Information legislation triggered political defence warnings at the highest level in cabinet. Not least in the offices of Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern (1997-2008), who was identified through the high visibility annual party fund raiser at the Galway races with many of the dockland developers that patronised the event along with one of their primary lenders, Fitzpatrick.
From early 2005, Ahern was hinting to Chuck Feeney that he did not particularly appreciate the Irish American’s funding of the CPI. It was the case that we were about to examine potentially unethical political and corporate behaviour under his watch.

The then Progressive Democrat (PD) leader and Tánaiste (deputy prime minister), Mary Harney, said that “the idea of some group of citizens setting themselves up with absolutely no justification to the wider public is absolutely sinister and inappropriate.” It was noted that she had no problems with the Irish government accepting up to €1 billion of Chuck Feeney’s monies for health and education projects.
Harney’s PD colleague and justice minister, Michael McDowell, raised questions about an allegation that I had visited Colombia using a false Irish passport in 2001. This story first surfaced in the Irish media in 2002 and in early 2003 the Irish police said there was no basis for my prosecution on any charge nor has there been any since.
In November 2005, McDowell then took the unprecedented step of using (or abusing) Dáil privilege to denounce me, again, with a series of unsubstantiated claims. These otherwise libelous allegations were made in a written reply to a parliamentary question concerning the CPI. The reply was faxed to a board meeting of Atlantic Philanthropies in New York within minutes of its deposit in the library of Parliament in late November 2005. With this intense official pressure the fate of the CPI was sealed and its funding immediately withdrawn.
Just weeks later the members of the CPI board were sent a letter issued by prominent solicitors, Arthur Cox, on behalf of Treasury Holdings which threatened that their family homes would be pursued in damages claims if its clients (Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett) were written about in any report by the CPI that was libelous or defamatory.
The first casualties of the CPI closure were the three researchers the administrator and creditors of the CPI along with myself as executive director. The next casualty was the series of reports into official wrong doing which formed its five year programme of investigation including, of course, “Who Owns Dublin?” the working title of the Docklands report.
Other investigations underway included the cause of deaths of detainees in State custody; the inaccurate conclusions of the official tribunal of inquiry into the Stardust tragedy of 1981 when 48 young people died in a Dublin disco fire; the need for Whistleblower protection legislation; an enquiry into lax governance in Irish corporate life; an examination of the monopolisation of the Irish media; and the circumstances surrounding the €30 million purchase (authorised by justice minister McDowell) of a hugely over priced piece of agricultural land in north Dublin for a new top security prison. Several other areas of enquiry by the CPI were also detailed in a comprehensive five year programme endorsed by Atlantic executives in 2004.