Occupy Nama: the protesters' latest strategy

Sat, Jan 7, 2012, 00:00

The population might prevent our eviction from a property if they know it may be empty anyway

DESCRIBED BY letting agency DTZ Sherry FitzGerald as a “unique landmark development in the heart of Cork’s retail and commercial district”, Stapleton House is an impressive corner building. It occupies six floors, including basement, and backs on to the South Mall, the epicentre of Cork’s financial district. And while the letting agent boasts that it creates “one of the most modern working environments in Cork’s commercial district”, the experience inside is somewhat different.

The building, constructed by Bowen Ltd (which went into liquidation last year), has no light or heating. It remains unfurnished with exposed concrete walls and floors and large steel beams can be seen in some of the ceilings. Some walls have yet to be plastered, and the stairwell is accessed through a makeshift step. It looks for all the world like an unfinished building site, albeit one with a nice glass front.

Records filed with the Companies Registration Office show that by 2006 the building was owned by Padlake Ltd, which applied for planning permission to redevelop the site in 2007. Padlake’s directors included the Cork developer Joe O’Donovan.

Mortgages for the building were registered to Anglo Irish Bank (now known as the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation). There is no indication in the records at the Companies Registration Office whether a receiver or an examiner was appointed in respect of Padlake, which was dissolved in February 2011. Nor is it clear what efforts were made to dispose of this property or others in Cork owned by the company. These include the former Cineplex site on Grand Parade, and several addresses at Paradise Place and Castle Street, close to North Main Street, all in the heart of Cork city.

Our efforts to contact Padlake Ltd and former director Joe O’Donovan were unsuccessful, while DTZ Sherry FitzGerald had no comment to make on the ownership of Stapleton House. Nama said it would not comment on whether or not loans related to Padlake were now under the agency’s control, but another source indicates Padlake’s loans are held by the agency.

Stapleton House, like several other properties previously owned by Padlake Ltd, are now, according to legal expert Joe Noonan, apparent “orphan sites” and there is uncertainty over their ownership and legal status. If the company was struck off for not filing annual accounts, then the property could have passed into State ownership.

Enter the fray members of Occupy Cork, the protest movement that appeared to be dwindling in recent weeks.

These people (the group involved in Stapleton House claim they are not part of the official Occupy movement, though there is a significant overlap of personnel) claim that on Christmas morning a set of keys along with instructions was left at its camp on Cork’s Grand Parade. They were left there, they say, by a mystery donor. The keys gave them access to Stapleton House and they have maintained a presence there since.

The group’s plan is to open the building as a community centre on January 23rd and to “liberate the building for the people of Cork”. The group’s presence and plans for the site could spark a major headache not just for the owners of the building, but for any agencies that may have an interest in the property – including, allegedly, Nama – as well as past and present financial lenders. It could also set a precedent and spark public debate about what social dividends exist regarding vacant city-centre buildings, and it could focus attention on what Nama is doing with properties in its remit.

At 7pm on Wednesday, members of the group kept watch at the entrance to Stapleton House, as trolleys of office equipment and items including massage tables were wheeled down side streets and into the building. Inside, group member Liam Mulvaney was drawing up plans to clean the building and ready it for use as, among other things, a music school, creche, meditation centre and soup kitchen.

The group members describe themselves as “tenants” and claim they are paying a nominal rent while acting as “caretakers” of the premises. Gardaí called to the building the previous day, after a complaint, and say their investigation is ongoing.

By Thursday morning, the group had moved a generator on to the site. Tents had been set up in the basement, and on the glass facade large posters informed the public about the planned uses for the space, renamed the Cork City Community Resource Centre.

Looking tired but focused, Mulvaney paced around the first floor, on the phone to a radio station, answering questions about the legality of occupying the building. “I’m looking out the window now, and everyone passing is paying for this,” he said. The group plans a fundraising event tomorrow at 3pm to help pay for the transformation into a community centre and have an online petition to keep the building for community use.

The takeover could create tensions with local businesses, particularly if the resource centre offers goods and services in competition with local outlets.

On the other hand, it could be a catalyst to transform Ireland’s Occupy movement.

IN DUBLIN, MEMBERS of the Occupy Dame Street camp say that, following Cork’s lead, they will begin targeting Nama properties. Group member Liam Mac An Bháird says “If the Occupy movement wants to become really relevant again, we need to up the game and take a Nama building. While the Occupy movement is a peaceful one, it is not just a group of leftie lunatics and this is what needs to happen next. I think if we did get into a building, the general population might prevent our eviction from it if they know it may be empty for years to come anyway.”

What happens next is anyone’s guess. At least one case has already dealt with the takeover of an empty property. In October Judge Catherine Staines dismissed a prosecution for trespass against William Tuohy, a separated father of seven, who made a vacant Nama property his home in Tullamore.

In relation to a general query about occupying vacant buildings for civic use, a Nama spokesperson says: “While it may appeal in the short term to have a vacant building taken over for use for ‘community’ based projects, if that activity prevented the sale/rental of the building at some future date then the taxpayer could lose millions of euro and Nama would be remiss in allowing such a development occur.”

The spokesperson also says there are health and safety concerns in relation to entering vacant premises illegally.

If the Cork occupation goes to court it could raise questions about the role not only of empty buildings but of Nama, if the agency has a connection with the building. The occupiers are heating and maintaining Stapleton House and say no structural changes will be made.

The legal owners might find it hard to persuade a judge that a criminal act was committed and that removing the group would not create a further drain on taxpayers’ money. And if the Irish Occupy movement rebrands itself as an “Occupy Nama” movement, this could be the first of many battles.

'I know this is right’ - Positions on occupations

THE OCCUPIER’S POSITION

Liam Mulvaney: “We now have a board of directors and every occupant of this building is a tenant paying a peppercorn rent as part of a limited company. This company is the caretaker or landlord for the time being. We will only enhance the building. Morally, I know this is right. Every town and city in the country has one of these properties that needs to be opened up and to help get communities active again. This is a huge opportunity for the city and the country.”

THE LEGAL OPINION

Joe Noonan, partner in Noonan Linehan Carroll Coffey Solicitors: “In a situation where a building is occupied peacefully, it is difficult to see how there would be a criminal law issue. It would be up to whatever person claims to be legally entitled to possession of the premises to take court action themselves if they feel their property rights had been breached. A court would then hear both sides and make a decision.

“It is an interesting choice for a court: does it make a decision whose effect is to keep a useful building empty indefinitely while it is incurring on-going costs falling on the public purse, and perhaps deteriorating through being empty, or does it allow, maybe even on a trial basis under review, a coherent alternative which eliminates those disbenefits and may even have some public usefulness?”

THE GOVERNMENT POSITION Statements by the Minister for Finance in response to parliamentary questions: “As regards making properties available for social or community purposes, the Nama board has committed to giving first option to public bodies on the purchase of property which may be suitable for their purposes.

“The Department understands that a number of Nama debtors are in advanced negotiation with a number of housing associations for sales at various locations throughout the country. Nama also advises the Minister that it is willing to facilitate dialogue between debtors and third parties interested in acquiring property for social or public purposes.”

THE NAMA POSITION

“Nama has facilitated the sale of residential units to housing associations for use as social housing. The agency has facilitated a number of sporting clubs with access to neighbouring lands (linked to loans held by the agency). The agency has offered the National Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art first refusal on works [at prices set by independent valuation] which are linked as security to certain loans in Nama.”