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Malign manoeuvrings on Moore St. By Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD. Traders allegedly rejected improper payoffs linked to support for development and opposition to culture bill.

NAMA

In 2009 I was one of four Sinn Féin TDs in the Dáil when NAMA was set up. It was characterised then and since, by some, as the scam of the century because it would bailout billionaire developers while at the same time many ordinary people would get evicted from their homes. What was worse is that, despite public monies being involved, the public had only limited access to information about its goings on: how much a billionaire received from NAMA, what discounts it gave away on the sale of land and properties etc.

Project Jewel

This leads us to Moore Street and to the NAMA portfolio aptly named Project Jewel, the largest property portfolio NAMA would offload, which included a property-holding consisting of a quarter of Dublin’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street; a large portion of Henry Street; the vast bulk of Moore Street, Moore Lane, and Henry Place; a section of Parnell Street; and 50% of the Ilac Shopping Centre.

Project Jewel – including also 50% of the Pavilions Shopping Centre in Swords, County Dublin; Dundrum Town Centre; and the old Dundrum Shopping Centre – was put up for tender in 2015[1].

Sale to Hammerson

The Project Jewel sale to British shopping centres’ management and development company, Hammerson, was agreed in 2016[2] and finalised in the summer of 2017 [3], under the watchful eye of Nama’s then Head of Assets Recovery, Conor Owens [4]. Owens had also been the NAMA person overseeing Project Jewel’s  tender in 2015 [5]. That Project Jewel was a steal at the price paid for it was demonstrated within months when Hammerson sought to refinance one part of the full portfolio, Dundrum Town Centre for €1.5 billion – just shy of what it had paid for the whole package [6].

If such a gain was achievable across the whole portfolio, Hammerson would have been sold €6 billion worth of property by a state company for €1.85 billion – a loss to the state of €4.15 billion. Nama obviously believed it was getting the best deal possible, and there is no suggestion that anything illegal or untoward occurred in relation to this portfolio sale. I nevertheless believe that, given the scale of Project Jewel, a greater price would have been achievable for Nama had the property bundle been broken up into single sites. Such a strategy would probably have attracted more interest from smaller bidders otherwise scared off by the scale of the offering.

A short four years after selling NAMA’s biggest asset to Hammerson for that €1.85 billion, Conor Owens would be back in charge of the Project Jewel portfolio, this time as Hammerson Ireland’s CEO [7].

High Court judgment stymies planning application for moment

A 2016 High Court case resulted in the Moore Street area becoming a National Monument. A consequence of that judgment was the blocking of a live planning application which would have destroyed much of this heritage site.

Establishment of Advisory Groups to implement imperatives of High Court decision

The judgment was appealed and overturned in 2018 by the Court of Appeal[8]. However, against the backdrop of the High Court decision, an advisory group had been set up[9] to “seek a positive way forward” for the area, with the then-Minister Heather Humphreys selecting certain campaigners, 1916 relatives and Moore Street market traders to be members alongside Councillors, TDs and senators. That group carried out its work and submitted ‘The Moore Street Report – Securing History’ to Minister Humphreys on 29 March 2017.

A second group, ‘the Moore Street Advisory Group’, was set up on 25 May 2017, and on 31 July 2019 concluded its deliberations with the publication of its report by the Minister. I chaired one of this group’s sub-committees, the Surveys Subgroup, after Peadar Tóibín left Sinn Féin in 2018 to set up his own party.

After the 2020 general election the new Junior Minister for Heritage Malcolm Noonan set up ‘the Moore Street Minister’s Advisory Group’, the third such advisory group.

Third advisory group reports

This group began considerations in December 2020. It was set an ambitious target to report in just over three months, at Easter 2021, but in fact ‘reported’ to the Minister a month late on 5 May 2021.

Version submitted to Minister was not that which had been agreed

The version submitted to the Minister and published by him was not that which was agreed by the membership of the group. I and others challenged passages contained in it which were clearly favourable towards Dublin Central, the development being proposed by Hammerson[10]. Given the original stated positions of the members of the group on Dublin Central, voting on the report or aspects of the report was likely to be tight, so any change could shift the thrust of the final report. In the final deliberations on the group’s report to Minister Noonan, the traders absented themselves, which they may have felt was better than voting for the report but given what emerged since was unfair on the rest of the advisory group membership as we were in the dark about the wheeling and dealing that had gone on in the background of our meetings. Such knowledge might have persuaded some who were inclined one way to vote the other way.

Unfortunately, that report may well be material to the Bord Pleanála decisions that are awaited, that will determine the future of the site, referred to by the High Court as the Moore Street Battlefield Area.

So why did the report not represent what I thought had been agreed?

Inferring what happened

I will set out, without naming names, what I have been told or pieced together as well as what is already in the public domain concerning Moore St and voting on its advisory group [11].

Garda Investigation

Certainly a Garda investigation could better establish the reality of what is not yet in the public domain. As a TD many people approach you and accuse state officials, gardaí, planners etc of being corrupt, and more often than not their accusations are groundless. Without any proof or documentary evidence the allegation just hangs there, hearsay that can’t be unheard and can’t be pursued. Even those that have a grain of truth in them, my advice has always been for the accuser to take the information they have to An Garda Síochána, but more often than not that isn’t done.

Pending such an investigation, and mindful of the need not to defame anyone, let’s see what we can infer from information that is already in the public domain.

Allegation

An important allegation has been made by a Moore Street trader to several unimpeachable people known to me, including to a Moore Street businessman Stephen Troy of Troy Butchers, which can be broken down into the following: that Moore Street market traders received three financial offers, ascending in value with the final offer €1.7million or €100,000 per trader. These offers were made on condition that the traders supported the Hammerson development on the Moore Street Advisory Group (MSAG).

Silence

The traders were allegedly told that nobody outside the traders could be informed of these financial discussions, especially other members of the group.

Vote for Hammerson Plan

They were allegedly told that they must vote in favour of the Hammerson plan and that no objections would be lodged against the planning application to Dublin City Council.

Vote against supporting my Culture Bill

They were also allegedly told they should not support my Moore Street legislation1916 Culture Quarter Bill 2021[12]) on the group having originally supported it.

Not reversing their views on the bill would stop them from getting any offers of money.

There is no apparent opposition to my bill.  The contribution of Green Party Minister for Heritage Malcolm Noonan was indicative.  He told the Dáil, during the debate on 24 March 2021, that he would review the bill in light of the group’s report: “Against the background of the imminent report of the Moore Street Advisory Group which is due to report to me shortly. I will clarify as I go along the importance of the report to the question of whether there is a case for the Bill to progress further… I will be asking the committee to thoroughly examine the Bill for those sorts of instances and indeed to assess the extent to which there is justification for the Bill to advance further in light of what emerges from the Moore Street Advisory Group’s report” [13].

So I had cross-party support, but that seemed to be conditional from the Minister’s point of view on a favourable reaction in the group’s report. But it seems that any such support was being actively eroded.

It would be a scandal in a democracy if there were any suggestion that somebody was financially induced to publicly support a development and to vote a certain way on a ministerial advisory group, on a bill that had the endorsement of the Dáil.

Wrongdoing

Not Hammerson

There is no allegation, made or implied, that the developer Hammerson engaged in any wrongdoing whatsoever.

Not Keegan

Nor is Owen Keegan, Chief Executive Officer for Dublin City Council, under any suspicion at all.

Three payoff offers to traders

Keegan did admit that a sum that matches the value of what is said to be the second offer in terms of ascending value had been offered to the traders, though he made it clear it was not at his behest.  The offer he acknowledged totalled €1.5 million, of which Dublin City Council would pay at least €200,000 and the Department of Heritage would pay at least €300,000, with Hammerson paying the rest, €1 million. Keegan also confirmed that it was offered in the spring of 2021, which correlates to the time when the advisory group was still deliberating on its remit and preparing its report [14].

A traders’ representative confirmed in a newspaper at the end of February 2022 that an offer valued at €1.7 million was made, presumably after the second €1.5 million offer, making it the third offer [15].  The final €1.7million offer was made less than two hours before the traders were due to vote on the report at the final meeting of the group.

The first offer, which is not in the public domain, was in the region of €1 million.

Of course, if the market traders are being removed from Moore Street during construction of course they should be relocated or compensated by the developer, as should owners of other stores on Moore Street which face closure due to the scale of the development.

Four individuals

In the February 2022 edition of Village magazine Frank Connolly confirmed that two of the individuals I have been told were involved in these ‘pre-planning financial offers’ meetings don’t dispute offers were made, but don’t believe anything untoward was going on with regard to votes.

The other two involved to my knowledge have not commented on it since the issue became live [16].

Position of traders

That such large sums of money were being offered to the traders at the very time the Moore Street Advisory Group was finalising its report of course would or could have influenced the traders’ representatives lest they were seen to be supporting a report critical of ‘the hands that feed them’, in this case Dublin City Council, the Department of Heritage and Hammerson.

Significance of traders’ votes: swing votes that could make a majority

Before these compensation offers were allegedly being made, the traders were steadfast against Hammerson’s proposal, as reflected in the traders submission to the group in February 2021. That was important since they could have had the deciding votes.  If, for example, Brid Smith TD, Jim Connolly Heron, Councillor Donna Cooney, Neasa Hourigan TD and I[17] all opposed the Hammerson plan, then the traders would have had the two deciding votes. Even if the other six members of the group, who had adopted an essentially uncritical position on the Hammerson proposals from day one, supported the Hammerson plan, the group would have still produced seven to six against it. Turning the traders’ to support would have been crucial for those who believed in the planning permission.

Position of rest of group

I believe that, if we had been aware of these financial deliberations while discussing the details of our report we would have agreed to end the pretence that this was an independent ministerial advisory body.  Such behind-the-scenes shenanigans would have confirmed what some had been saying from the start of the process was a ready-up to support whatever Hammerson came up with.

For that reason alone, the group should have been aware of the negotiations.

Compromised position of another on group

Another bizarre issue emerged towards the end of the group’s existence which indicates the vested interests of those at the table that were unstated at the start of the process. In April 2021 it emerged that one of the members of the group had been granted a lease on No 16 Moore Street by the developer, Chartered Land, when it owned the whole site [18]. The state has since asserted that the agreement for a lease/occupational lease was not legally binding as the state now owns the building, since the person had not taken up the option of possession in good time [19]. This was contested by the person who circulated a copy of the lease to the group while we were deliberating our final report, but it somehow didn’t seem as if he was being offered ‘compensation’ in the same way that the traders were – for being discommoded – or for the option of a lease being denied by the state. Maybe this group member’s support for Hammerson plan was assured already, as he had been vocal in support of it from day one, or maybe the traders’ compensation was a more emotive issue for the group that was trying to do its best by the city  – Moore St market resonates for all Dubliners not just those who trade there and not just for its commercial value  – and their support maybe less transactional, so many of us would, all things being equal, have cherished their support.

That anyone with a declared or potential financial interest was allowed to vote on the content of the group’s report was wrong, whether it was the traders or the potential leaseholder of No. 16.

Position of Dublin City Council

A planning authority like Dublin City Council is required to develop a separation between those who are involved in submitting planning applications and themselves. They should try their best to stay out of taking a side or promoting a project that they are due to consider. The fact Dublin City Council was willing to make a large financial intervention in support of this application as has been shown from the offer to the traders (without the knowledge of the Council members) further confirms the partiality of the Council on this matter. The pre-planning process should be to guide applicants, not to endorse an application in advance of that application being subjected to an allegedly impartial process.

Whether a Council should be the one compensating or contributing to a compensation package for a business or businesses being discommoded or unable to trade due to a private development is also questionable. It sets a precedent for future developments – that Dublin City Council considers itself liable to compensate other businesses within Moore Street that will be undoubtedly affected by the Hammerson development and other potential developments; and indeed businesses affected by developments all over the city. This is an important legal point.

Situation of other disrupted Moore St businesses

It speaks volumes about the purpose of this ‘compensation package’ that the other businesses on the street which had no representative on the group, with just as strong a commercial claim, were not involved in any talks and have had no offer made to them, at least until now. A precedent has been established.

Taoiseach’s intervention

Compounding the peculiarity of the planning saga around Moore Street is Taoiseach Mícheál Martin’s intervention while a ministerial advisory group was meeting.  According to the Taoiseach, he met Hammerson in the spring of 2021 to review their planning application [20]. To my knowledge, Mícheál Martin is the only sitting Taoiseach to give such a  strong endorsement to a property developer’s planning application, to such an extent that he provided quotes for Hammerson’s own press release [21]. I believe that Mícheál Martin was wrong to meet Hammerson while the Moore Street Advisory Group  was meeting, wrong not to inform the group that he would intervene and also damningly wrong to endorse the plans which would destroy our heritage in the Moore Street area.

His role as cheerleader for Hammerson’s proposal is at odds with that of his Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh Ó Brien, whose brief it is and who in opposition was a strong supporter of saving Moore Street against destructive developments and who even proposed a bill in the Seanad in 2015 to turn Moore Street into a Culture Quarter.[22].

My solution to neglect of Moore Street

Moore Street has been neglected for years by Dublin City Council, the Department of Heritage and developers including Hammerson and Chartered Land. They have allowed a bad usage policy to overwhelm this area, by allowing an incredible 21 phone shops into the street [23] and by failing, despite repeated calls from people like myself, to open 14-17 Moore Street as a Museum and to revitalise the market. Not allowing the market traders to expand the range of goods they sell, 14 of the 17 stall-holders are frustrated by being restricted to selling only workaday fruit and veg [24], which has resulted in the market declining. Perhaps the restriction has been part of an agenda to force people into supporting a redevelopment of the area.

Culture Quarter focused on North Inner City

My 1916 Culture Quarter 2016 Bill would have allowed for all of these issues to be fixed.  It would create an area to celebrate Culture, not just history and the Rising, but Dublin’s North Inner City’s generally. Only a minute’s walk from O’Connell Street, the development of a Cultural Quarter in this location would link into the proposed development plans for the markets area up to Smithfield, and of Parnell Square and O’Connell Street. It can be the catalyst for establishing a new vibrant part of Dublin, allowing for the expansion of the city centre’s overall visitor appeal. As well as allowing for the buildings to have usages like a GAA shop, Irish music shop, cafés, museums, a genealogy centre, art studios as well as a wide range of other shops.

International and Local Food Market

It would allow for the market to become a permanent food market, with food trucks, cheese stalls and food from around the world but especially local produce. This is the type of location we need to complement Temple Bar, which has been overdone. We also have enough malls and office space; my bill if passed without any unwarranted influences would revitalise Moore Street and serve balanced and sustainable redevelopment of the whole wider area [25].

The Law

If payments of public monies offered are proved to have been linked to a vote, it could be against the law under Section 7 and 8 of the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Act 2018 which states:

Corruption in relation to office, employment, position or business:

Section 7. (1) States: “An Irish official who, either directly or indirectly, by himself or herself or with another person, does an act in relation to his or her office, employment, position or business for the purpose of corruptly obtaining a gift, consideration or advantage for himself or herself or for any other person, shall be guilty of an offence”.

Section 2. (1) of the Act states that—

“Irish official means…

(j) an officer, director, employee or member of an Irish public body (including a member of a local authority) or…

(l) any other person employed by or acting for or on behalf of the public administration of the State;

 

“corruptly” includes acting with an improper purpose personally or by influencing another person, whether—

 

(a) by means of making a false or misleading statement,

 

(b) by means of withholding, concealing, altering or destroying a document or other information, or

 

(c) by other means”.

 

So, applying the facts to the law:

An Irish employee of a local authority or any other person acting on behalf of the public administration of the State who, does an act in relation to his or her employment, position or business for the purpose of corruptly [by any, i.e. other, means]obtaining consideration or advantage for himself or herself or for any other person, shall be guilty of an offence.

In this case it is clear that buying a vote, being the essence of acting with an improper purpose, is corrupt.

Any person offering payment for a vote would also be guilty of an offence under Section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Act 2018 which states:

A person who gives a gift, consideration or advantage to another person where the first mentioned person knows, or ought reasonably to know, that the gift, consideration or advantage, or a part of it, will be used to facilitate the commission of an offence [payment for votes] under this Act shall be guilty of an offence”.[26]

Summary

It is alleged that a compensation package aimed to influence traders to vote in particular ways on the ministerial Moore Street Advisory Group, in particular regarding support for the Hammerson scheme and for a bill which I had drafted for the Moore St area.

It may also have demanded revocation by traders of their early support for other Moore Street initiatives and been conditioned on their not making observations/objections on the planning applications for the area.

Essentially, what is clear to me is that while the Moore Street Advisory Group was set up to advise the Minister, it was undermined in its work by being kept in the dark by secret meetings between the Taoiseach and the developer Hammerson, by the failure to disclose that a participant in the group held a lease agreement on a key property under discussion, and by secret machinations with traders’ representatives on a ‘compensation’ package for them.

If forces were conniving to produce a particular result in the Moore Street Advisory Group report, it surely demands answers as to under whose authority it was being done.

I know that the vast majority of the Moore Street Advisory Group  were not aware of the negotiation of payments (whether authorised or illegal) to influence the outcome of the group’s report.

What makes me most angry is that public funding was going to be used in this subterfuge. Thankfully it seems that the street traders saw sense and refused in the end to go along with the scheming and resigned from the group. Though they didn’t vote against the final report, they also did not vote for it.

We, however, weren’t aware as to the reason they walked away.  Other discussions on the report were concluded without the traders – to the benefit of Hammerson – rather than being suspended or abandoned as should have happened if the improper negotiations had been disclosed to us and appropriate measures taken to avoid a knock-on advantage to Hammerson.

Our political decisions should not be for sale.  Politics is about what’s best for the people and not what’s best for the developers. The moment you start to pay more attention to the interests of the rich elite, than you do to the ordinary people is the moment you have been exposed as a political failure.

We as politicians, need to take the allegations I have been made aware of very seriously. I have written to Minister Malcolm Noonan seeking a full and comprehensive Garda investigation into these matters. I will also directly be requesting the Garda to investigate if any members of the group were offered improper financial incentives for votes. And I will be requesting that consideration of the planning permissions as granted by Dublin City Council are suspended, at An Bord Pleanála level, pending resolution of these investigations and, if there are conclusions of wrongdoing, that the applications remain suspended and ultimately be deemed null and void.

 

[1] https://costarfinance.wordpress.com/2015/10/12/difficulties-ahead-for-execution-of-project-jewel-loan-to-own-strategy/ (explains size of portfolio)

[2] https://www.independent.ie/business/commercial-property/hammerson-chief-eyes-long-term-investment-horizon-as-he-steers-steady-course-35502619.html (explains sold in 2016)

[3] https://www.independent.ie/business/commercial-property/hammerson-ceo-upbeat-on-dublin-jewels-34869766.html (explains year buy back clause with Chartered Land)

[5] NAMA letter to Brid smith stating role, with inaccurate reference to sale occurring in 2015, charted land blocked in in 2015 as exampled in point 4)

[6] https://www.irishtimes.com/business/commercial-property/dundrum-town-centre-valued-at-1-5bn-as-owners-refinance-1.3206121

[7] https://europe-re.com/hammerson-appoints-connor-owens-as-director-of-ireland/68421

[8] https://ie.vlex.com/vid/moore-v-minister-for-793371877

[9] https://www.rte.ie/news/2016/0614/795561-moore-street-1916/ (minister submits request to appeal and introduces the ministers forum in same press statement.

[10] https://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/60743 (my statement surrounding the production of an inaccurate report)

[11] Recorded meeting with reporter, two traders and another person where an individual. Individuals at this meeting confirmed the accusation were made at this recorded meeting.

[12] https://data.oireachtas.ie/ie/oireachtas/bill/2021/36/eng/memo/b3621d-memo.pdf (my bill)

[13] https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/dail/2021-03-24/2/ (bill transcript)

[14] Copy of Owen Keagan letter confirming 2nd offer

[15] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/we-dont-want-2m-each-say-moore-street-traders-just-enough-for-us-to-live-on-3vt0rm0bl

[16] Frank Connolly article in Village Magazine, February 2022 edition

[17] Submissions on the Moore Steet Ministers advisory group confirm this

[18] Copy of lease of no.16 from this individual also note the date it was sent

[19] Copy of PQ response in relation to lease

[20] A copy of the Taoiseach is Diary

[21] https://www.hammerson.com/news-insights/press-releases/hammerson-submits-plans-regeneration-landmark-dublin-site

[22] https://www.oireachtas.ie/ga/debates/debate/seanad/2015-06-10/9/

[23] A personal head count

[24] A personal head count

[25] https://data.oireachtas.ie/ie/oireachtas/bill/2021/36/eng/memo/b3621d-memo.pdf (my bill)

[26] section 8 of the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Act 2018