Health minister needs financial and political surgery – Frank Connolly
U-turning Minister for Health Dr James Reilly is hanging onto his position by a thread if the reports about his varying degrees of popularity among his cabinet and party colleagues are to be believed. Some reckon he may fall victim to the famous ‘Angola’ problem first identified by former health minister, Brian Cowen, in reference to the number of potential land mines in the department. But others believe that he more likely to succumb to something akin to the ‘Ahern syndrome’ when a steady drip feed of information about the politician’s bizarre financial circumstances eventually forced the former Taoiseach out of office.
Reilly has plenty to worry about on this score as he faces a possible seizure of assets following a High Court order on the former GP to pay a £1.9 million debt he owes to co-investors in the unsuccessful Greenhills Nursing Home project for the elderly in Carrick on Suir in south Tipperary. For a man with such substantial assets it seems extraordinary that he cannot find the readies to sort out this problem before the sheriff calls to the door of his County Offaly estate or indeed his many other properties in north Dublin.
This is not the only embarrassment for the doctor as he was unfortunate to become embroiled in the failed nursing home venture with former FG north Dublin councillor and rabid re-zoner, Anne Devitt, who has also been listed in Stubbs Gazette for failing to pay the co-investors what they are owed. Devitt was cited in the Mahon Report last Spring for accepting an inappropriate payment of £20,000 from Joe Moran of Manor Homes when the former councillor was an influential political figure in north Dublin.
Moran said he gave Devitt the money for providing professional and legal services. She was paid through his company, Rayband, which owned an 18.5 acre site in Lissenhall near Swords. She was a member of the Health Board which owned property bordering Rayband’s landlocked site. The company got agreement to go through the Health Board lands, provided they built a new ambulance centre and day care unit among other facilities in a deal brokered by Devitt and which had the added effect of multiplying the value of the Rayband lands.
Reilly, who served for a time with Devitt on the Northern Area Health Board, has had an interesting relationship with the former councillor turned planning consultant. She had a role in another failed investment when Reilly sought to establish a large medical clinic at Airside in Swords close to his party colleague’s home base. Devitt was chairwoman of Fingal County Council in 1997 and a sponsor of many, including controversial, re-zonings in the area. Among the most controversial was the zoning of Crowcastle where the Airside Retail Park is located and where Reilly and two other GPs planned to set up their ambitious clinic but which 2000 local residents unsuccessfully opposed.
While all of this has been the subject of media attention since Reilly’s outing in Stubbs earlier in the summer, not so widely reported was another, apparently lucrative, property deal involving lands he owned at Glebe House, Balrothery, which was his former family home before he and his wife Dorothy moved to Laughton House in Moneygall some years ago. Built in 1777, the lavish Offaly mansion on 150 acres has been leased out for weddings and christenings by the Reillys who also receive generous tax breaks for maintaining the stately home if they allow occasional access to the public.
Planning records show that Dorothy McEvoy first sought outline planning permission to build nine luxury houses on lands on the Glebe House estate in Balrothery in 1999. The following year her husband commissioned architect Paul Kelly to carry out an archaeological study in advance of a residential development of the lands, according to documents submitted to Fingal County Council. Refused the first application, she unsuccessfully applied again for planning in late 2000, but in the event was refused for the proposed two-storey, four- and five-bedroom house development.
While the plan appeared to hit the rocks, another similar scheme on the same lands was not so unlucky, although the application was not made on this occasion by the Reillys. Instead, an architect called Gerard Murphy of UK-based Melville Dunbar Associates, which had offices in Dublin at the time was granted a permission to build four houses on the Glebe House lands in August 2004. In August 2005, builder Jim Donlon acquired the lands, which, he told Village, had planning permission and eventually completed the lavish four- and five- bedroom properties in 2007, just as the property collapse came on the horizon. The relationship between Melville Dunbar and the Reillys is unclear, while it is also unknown how much was paid for the 1.137 hectares of land at Glebe. The deal was completed before Reilly entered the Dáil for the first time in 2007 and required no official declaration.
In that year James Reilly won a seat in North Dublin for Fine Gael and concentrated on his political fortunes rather than his financial ones, rising rapidly to become the party’s deputy leader and health spokesman before his appointment as minister in 2011. As they say, the faster they come, the harder they fall…
Frank Connolly is Head of Communications at SIPTU and has written extensively on planning issues