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Treasury: reflections by Michael Smith as Treasury go down in the High Court

The Treasury boys are back.  Without Treasury. Great.  Richard Barrett is reported to be deploying two billion euro of investment in property and Johnny Ronan has paid Nama back and is back in business all  over town.  He’s even found time to make reference to Nazi slogans in pinpointing the injustice done to him by Nama and to get the Banking Inquiry to pull its criticism of him, lest he perhaps injunct it from publishing.

The Irish Times misreported in September 2015 (and has still not corrected the error) that Treasury had “exited Nama” but in fact Treasury went bankrupt owing €2.7bn, €1.7bn to Nama alone.  This suggests they cost the country around €7oom. Johnny Ronan may have bought out his personal loans but Treasury benefited from the socialised capitalism for market losers that is the bankruptcy regime.  No swaggering market icon, Treasury.

Treasury  – Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett, inspired awe and respect in financial, political and media circles but I have had reason to be circumspect, myself, over the years. Johnny is an accountant whose father was a wealthy pig farmer in Tipperary and whose cousin is Vita Cortex’s Jack Ronan. Richard comes from a family of Ballina millers. They were at school together in Castleknock College.

Treasury once had little Dublin at their feet.

I first met Richard and Johnny in the mid-nineties when they were developing the Hilton (subsequently Westin) Hotel on Dublin’s College Green. I was opposing their plan for the biggest destruction of listed buildings in Dublin since the 1960s. After they got their permission from An Bord Pleanála, an academic advised us that they should clearly have carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) because of the significant “nature, size and location” of the ‘project’. We decided the scheme was unsustainable and uncivilised, Treasury’s attitude cocky and the planning authorities’ flouting of the law on EIA outrageous – so we would attack their scheme in the courts. Treasury, it was said, were vicious, and were involved in twenty-six other sets of litigation around town. An Taisce, which I had been representing, didn’t want the risk of a devastating legal-costs order, we didn’t want the inevitable PR storm to blow away vulnerable individuals and we didn’t want personal legal liability for costs, so we formed a company. We had little time so we got a pre-formed ‘shelf’ company, the chivalric-sounding, “Lancefort’.

After 47 appearances in the High-Court and six days in the Supreme Court, Lancefort lost its case on the primary ground that, although it was okay to litigate through a company that had not even existed at the time of the Bord Pleanála decision which it was challenging, the protagonists in the company, primarily I, should have raised the need for an EIA before An Bord Pleanála. The chief justice Ronan Keane seemed to imply I had known of the point at the time, even though I did not, and there was no evidence to that effect. Usually the Supreme Court is very careful not to invent or infer false facts. Furthermore European law clearly states it is the obligation of the authorities to conduct the EIA. The Lancefort decision is generally, by academics and practitioners, accepted as wrongly-decided.

Since that time – 1997 – EIA (and its plan-focused counterpart (SEA)) has taken off as a tool for residents and environmentalists in assessing the impact of what is being imposed on them – if only because it often requires photomontages of the proposed schene and an indication that the developer fully considered the alternatives.

During the campaign we were assailed by Treasury and their PR team – and I guess since Johnny Ronan reckoned we cost them 6m Euro, we were fair game. Irish Times environment correspondent, Frank McDonald, is sometimes one of the most acute and courageous commentators on these matters. But he was close to Richard Barrett – as well as to some of us in the campaigning sector, and he wrote several damaging reports including pieces misrepresenting our European Law stance in a way that was likely to annoy Irish judges, mis-stating the numbers of listed/historic buildings on the site and giving extraordinary coverage to the supporters of the scheme – including a fawning profile of the ‘conservation’ architect who was writing off the value of some of the buildings to the benefit of Treasury, in an interview under the headline “Keeper of the Past”. When we lost the case Frank McDonald in the Irish Times quoted Richard Barrett saying “his [ie my] house is gone” and that “I” faced legal costs of £1m. In fact we were always going to escape the costs of the case because the company was a separate vehicle from its directors, which at various stages included, apart from me, heritage activists Garret Kelly, Ian Lumley, Tony Lowes and in the end my gamey brother. Nonetheless Lancefort finished up comprehensively liquidated. Treasury later boasted that “certain opponents of ours have underestimated our ability to cause legal havoc to their detriment”. Probably true.

At one stage when the publicity was bad and the case looked fragile, we had discussions with Johnny Ronan about settling our case and it appears some of our lawyers got further with instructions we gave them than we had understood. We were then skewered by Matt Cooper in the Sunday Tribune and Cliodhna Ó’Donoghue, editor of the property section of the Irish Independent, in aggressive but not entirely unfair features that made it sound like we were seeking money for ourselves rather than building-conservation causes (which we were not). We had discussed a wide range of possible resolutions ‘without prejudice’ and got nowhere close to agreeing any of them. It emerged a little later that Cliodhna Ó’Donoghue was the beneficiary of a glittering Italian trip paid for by Treasury in 1998, an extravaganza involving a Pavarotti performance I seem to recall.

I was invited by current affairs magazine, Magill, to write about all this for a new ‘rant’ column it was blooding. Not too sure of what they expected, I wrote a wry piece, like this one, and advised them to check it for libel and tone before hearing nothing more for months (magazine-article commissioners can be insensitive). The next I heard was from the Irish Times asking me if I knew about the scrapping of an entire print run of Magill. It appears that Emily O’Reilly, the then incoming editor  didn’t like the article which had been commissioned under her predecessor, Vincent Browne. But hadn’t bothered to inform me. The Sunday Tribune implied the article, which had mysteriously got into their hands, was libellous but that seems unlikely.

I also remember the boys (you have to call them the boys) at around that time, when architect, Paul Clinton, was trying to develop the vast Carlton Site between Dublin’s O’ Connell St and Moore St. Irritatingly for Clinton, Treasury proposed a detailed scheme designed by André Wejchert for Clinton’s site, even though Treasury didn’t own it.  The scheme almost inexplicably made its way into Dublin Corporation’s plan for the area.

Treasury advised Clinton that if he did not let the boys develop his site as a joint venture they would ensure he was denied planning permission, they (hilariously in view of the analogy to the Lancefort Case) would sue to demand an EIA and that if after all that Clinton got permission they would ensure he was compulsorily purchased by Dublin Corporation. Treasury claimed to be “torturing” and to have ‘their feet on the throat’ of adjoining developer Garret Kelleher (who subsequently attempted to build North America’s tallest residential building in Chicago). They used a small site they owned for its “strategic nuisance value” against mild-mannered Kelleher; pressurised their mutual bank, Anglo Irish, to make life difficult for him; and inveighed that like cowboys they were going to (yawn) “run him out of town”. When Frank Connolly printed this in the Sunday Business Post, they threatened to sue the newspaper for €20 million in damages and to sue “the pants off” Paul Clinton for €100m Euro – though of course after the threat made its way into the adoring media, no more was heard of it.

Cutting the story short… twelve years later, just as Dublin Corporation was on the brink of compulsorily purchasing his land, Clinton sold out on favourable terms to Joe O’Reilly, the developer of the Dundrum Shopping Centre. Complexly, Paul Clinton is now a partner of mine in a food venture.

Subsequently, Treasury fronted the vast and over-scaled Spencer Dock scheme. It failed after Bertie sort of came out against it – half-pretending to be against it to assuage his constituents, though both he and his successor, Cowen, went all knock-kneed in the presence of the boys, particularly of Barrett.

Clinton and I were by now well out of love with Treasury who were everywhere. Clinton drew attention to the extraordinary deal they had with malleable CIÉ, which owned the site of the Convention Centre on Spencer Dock, a deal which left state-owned CIÉ with nearly all the potential downside risk and none of the land-carry costs of the Spencer Dock scheme and National Convention Centre. Fifteen years later it emerged the deal on the Convention Centre was massively skewed against the state. For example, the state paid €43 million to the consortium behind the National Convention Centre in its first year – a subsidy of more than €500 for each visitor. The state will pay the consortium about €715 million over 25 years before the centre reverts to state ownership. Inconveniently, it is not clear if the Convention Centre is being targeted by NAMA for receivership as a part of the legal proceedings. If so, the state may finally get a fair share in this scandalously-lopsided deal.

After Spencer Dock, Treasury set their sights abroad and were the preferred bidder for the Millennium Dome in London. Big Players the Boys, then. Clinton and I discovered an affidavit signed by Ronan showing that he attempted to rig a tender process for the purchase of the Royal Dublin Hotel on O’Connell St. Johnny claimed the sales agent told him the highest price anyone had bid, so he could bid a few pound more than that. When Johnny did so he found in fact the other bidder had come in a little higher still, so Johnny had come in second. Out-foxed and furious, Johnny sued the agent. He actually sued the agent for not delivering on a fraudulent deal. Now there’s style. We gave his affidavit to BBC Newsnight and the Financial Times which used it sniffily to sustain the case that Treasury were ethically dubious and that the boys were ‘buccaneers”. Treasury duly lost out on the bid.

After that I lost touch with Johnny and Richard. I know they wrecked the demesne around Powerscourt House in Co Wicklow with a cheesy Las Vegas Ritz-Carlton hotel, built the madly ill-conceived highish-rise ‘Central Park’ in faraway Sandyford, planned to destroy ancient Bremore in Louth with a container port to import half of China and failed to redevelop the fading Stillorgan Shopping Centre. I know they ran Real Estate Opportunities for dramatic returns for themselves as agents. That they usually banked with Seanie Fitz and Lar bradshaw of Anglo, who sat on the board of the Docklands Authority while as bankers they bank-rolled many of the schemes, including Spencer Dock, for which the Authority decided lucrative planning permissions. That Treasury rented their Treasury Building headquarters to Fianna Fáil at election time and that they rent it to NAMA as its own headquarters. I know they claim to control over 130 individual real estate projects with a combined value in excess of €4.6 billion. I know they got into China and that Richard moved there and said anyone who wasn’t in China was an eejit. They at least tried to use good architects and gave a good bit of money – admittedly money that has turned out to be your and my money – to charity.

Mostly like the rest of gossip-starved Ireland I read about them in the media. Frank McDonald wrote books consigning endless admiring, ill-judged acres of dead forestry to Johnny who is “good fun” and Richard who “one unnamed industry source” said was the “cleverest man I ever met”. It turns out Richard writes poetry too. And reads tomes on land law in bed. As to my own dealings with them we shared a few shape-throwing pints when we were opposing their schemes. I always found Johnny friendly in a basic way whenever I met him but Richard I have found not, at least in my case, to be a hand-shaker. In general these particular Celtic tigers seem stronger on hubris than any sense of irony. That matters.

Johnny became fodder for the Sunday Independent and tabloids, his badger-like ‘good looks’ and penchant for drop-kicking models and whimsical long-distance travel by Nama-underwritten private jet not apparently jarring with editorial stances.

The well-dined media love them. No comeback-developer is complete without them. And though Treasury has been unseated in Britain and bankrupted in Ireland, Johnny and Richard are back.