IRA hunger striker turned property developer Tom McFeely (73), who was responsible for building the controversial Priory Hall apartment complex in Dublin, has incorporated two new property companies in England, company filings show.
The first of the new companies was incorporated just five months after the Derry native emerged from eight years of bankruptcy and has as its object the buying and selling of its own real estate, according to documents filed in the UK.
McFeely is arguably the most disastrous developer to have operated in Ireland over recent decades, causing misery to people who bought his often uninhabitable apartments and houses during the Celtic Tiger years.
He was the sole shareholder of Welly Park Unlimited when the London company was incorporated in October 2020, but his children Eamon and Sorcha McFeely have since become the company’s main shareholders.
A second company, Lisburn Ltd, which is fully owned by McFeely, was incorporated by him in May and is also classified as being involved in the “buying and selling own real estate”, according to the UK filings.
He is a director of both Welly Park and Lisburn Ltd, but gives office addresses in London in his company filings. It is not known where he is currently living.
McFeely, arguably best known for being associated with the notorious Priory Hall apartment complex in Donaghmede, Dublin 13, has been spending at least part of his time in Belfast during the past year or so.
The Priory Hall complex of 187 apartments was evacuated in 2011 by order of the High Court because it was a fire risk. Dealing with the disaster has cost the State tens of millions of euro.
The complex was one of a number of developments built by McFeely that were later found to be defective or unfinished. His bankruptcy process raised questions as to whether he had disclosed all his assets.
McFeely is now in trouble with Belfast City Council for building work done on a period residential property near Queen’s University where he stays on occasion.
The property is a large end-of-terrace house that McFeely himself renovated. While working on the house he provoked a dispute with the council and with local residents because of the knocking down of a fence and trees allegedly without the required permission.
The 392sq m six-bed property changed ownership prior to the renovation work but the identity of the new owner is not publicly available information. However, its address is being used by McFeely’s son Eamon in company filings.
The house has a rateable valuation of £500,000 but is believed to have been bought for significantly less than this. McFeely’s work on the house may have breached planning regulations, according to the council.
“Belfast City Council is continuing to carry out an enforcement investigation into alleged breaches of planning control at a property within the Malone Park conservation area,” says a spokeswoman. “As this is a live investigation, we cannot disclose any detailed information.”
When The Irish Times called to the property, no one came to the door, although there appeared to be someone inside. A letter dropped through the letterbox asking McFeely to make contact has received no response.
It is not known if the property, 22 Wellington Park, is connected to the London company, Welly Park.
In April a company called Oneeight Developments Ltd was incorporated, with McFeely’s son Eamon as its owner and sole director. The Wellington Park house was the address given for Eamon McFeely in the company filing and is the company’s registered address.
Oneeight is also classified as being involved in the buying and selling of its own real estate. There are no mortgages registered against the Belfast company or against either of the London companies established by Tom McFeely.
The address given by Tom McFeely in his company filings for Welly Park is on Wenlock Road, London, and is the address of a business called Companies Made Simple.
Companies Made Simple offers a registered address service so directors can use its address and thereby “protect your home address from the public domain”, according to its website.
The address given for McFeely in the incorporation document for Lisburn Ltd – 71-75 Shelton Street, Covent Garden, London – is the office address of 1st Formations, a business similar to Companies Made Simple.
McFeely was placed in bankruptcy in this jurisdiction in July 2012 on the application of Theresa McGuinness, who had placed a deposit to buy a house in the Cloch Choirneal estate, in Balrothery, Co Dublin, some years earlier.
The Balrothery estate was developed by Coalport Building Company Ltd, owned by McFeely and his business partner, Larry O’Mahony.
McGuinness did not go ahead with the Balrothery purchase because of defects in the house, which McFeely, whom she met to discuss the problems, never rectified.
“I would have been left with a property that I could never sell, and probably never give away,” she says. “He couldn’t make a cup of tea properly. He just couldn’t.”
McGuinness went to court and successfully secured a judgment for €103,618, comprising her deposit, money she had handed over for additional features for the house and other expenditure.
McFeely has been jailed for, among other matters, trying to kill a policeman in Northern Ireland, but McGuinness said she never considered not pursuing the debt.
“That was a lot of money that I was putting into that property. He has a bullying, domineering way; he thought he was threatening me. But I said no. I said you are nothing but a bully.”
During her time pursuing McFeely through the courts, she and her then supporter and now husband, Gerry Hughes, got to know many of the people who had bought homes in Priory Hall.
These included Stephanie Meehan, whose husband, Fiachra Daly, died by suicide in 2013 against a backdrop of being pressed to make payments on the arrears on his Priory Hall mortgage.
The extent of the arrears had accumulated after the couple and their two children had been ordered to leave the development because it was unsafe.
McGuinness says she met Meehan and Daly the week before Daly took his own life.
“The amount of harm that man has imposed on honest, innocent people. He has no idea of the pain that he has actually imposed on people, the heartache.”
Graham User is one of those who had to leave the apartment he bought in the Dublin complex.
“It was a horrendous experience, losing your home with two days’ notice, and having to fight for two years to have something done about it, particularly for families with young kids,” he said. “It absolutely took a big toll on people.”
In an interview in 2014 with BBC Northern Ireland programme Spotlight, McFeely said he was not to blame for Daly’s death.
“Why didn’t everybody else not commit suicide in Priory Hall? What was the difference there, you know?” he said.
McFeely, who came from a large Catholic family near Claudy, Co Derry, became a bricklayer after he left school, and went to work in England. He returned to Northern Ireland in 1968 and joined the IRA. In 1977 he was sent to prison for 27 years for his part in an armed robbery of a post office, which was followed by a siege.
The IRA gang took £30 from the post office, and a further £500 from a bread salesman who happened to be in the shop at the time.
“You are a danger to the public and, to a greater extent, to the police,” the judge who sentenced McFeely said at the trial. “It is clear to me that you must be put away for a long time.”
During a subsequent dispute in the Maze prison over the wearing of prison clothes, McFeely was the IRA “officer commanding” of those involved in a dirty protest, where the inmates smeared excrement on the walls of their cells.
He later took part in the first IRA hunger strike, going without food for 53 days, after which the strike was called off. He was not happy with the terms agreed for the ending of the protest, which left him in a “rage”, he told the Guardian in 2013. When a second hunger strike began, he was not among those who took part in the protest.
After his release from prison in 1989 McFeely, whose first marriage had broken up, came to Dublin with little or no money, and sought work in the building trade. When the Celtic Tiger years hit, he began to make connections and got support from various banks. He teamed up with Larry O’Mahony, a member of the Dublin family of builders’ providers. In 1997 the two men formed Coalport.
By 2006 Offaly County Council was taking Coalport to the High Court for the noncompletion of works at the Na Cluainte housing estate in Portarlington. Around this time McFeely and O’Mahony also got involved in dealings with the development of The Square in Tallaght.
The business partners got funding from Irish Nationwide to buy a pub that in turn had a lease that was key to the development of the site. The plan was that a substantial profit would be made by selling on their interest.
“He was very difficult, very mercurial,” said a source who met McFeely at around this time. “You would do a deal with him today, and he would change his mind tomorrow.”
Because of how he managed his position, McFeely did not profit from his involvement in the Tallaght development to the extent he could have, according to this source.
“It was not a launch to any great wealth for Tom. I never got the impression that he had any real money behind him. I think he was hoping to get there. He was always talking about how he had this big site in London, and he had this other thing, but I never got any detail.”
Over the course of the following years, McFeely got loans from most of the major Irish banks, including Irish Nationwide, Anglo Irish Bank and Bank of Ireland. He was involved in property deals in England and Northern Ireland as well as in the Republic.
By the mid-2000s he was living in a large house on Ailesbury Road, Ballsbridge, in Dublin, with his second wife, Nina Kessler, and their children Eamon and Sorcha.
“One of his problems was that he recognised that he had wasted so much time in prison, and I think he now needed to make up time very quickly, so he took shortcuts, which ultimately ended up in [what happened in] Priory Hall,” says the source who has had dealings with him.
By 2006 McFeely’s turnover was such that, following an investigation by the Criminal Assets Bureau, he was served with a bill for more than €8 million in unpaid taxes.
He was involved in the building of the Aras na Cluaine apartments in Clondalkin, Dublin, (where part of the roof blew off in a storm in 2015), and the Ard Dealgan apartment complex in Dundalk, which the town council deemed unsafe in 2012.
As the Celtic Tiger years were coming to an end, McGuinness continued to pursue McFeely through the courts for the money she was owed, making her case as a lay litigant. Despite the large sums of money he was dealing with at the time, McFeely never offered to directly pay McGuinness the money she was owed, though he did make an offer that she didn’t accept because of its convoluted terms.
“He was always obsessed that we had somebody behind us,” says Hughes. “He was convinced that somebody was controlling us and trying to get at him, and he wanted to know who it was. And there was absolutely nobody.”
In a letter to McGuinness in March 2012, after he had been made bankrupt, McFeely wrote that it was “more in sadness that I write this letter to you but I have been totally mystified by your stance which forced me into bankruptcy. I certainly cannot believe that you did this of your own accord.”
“There was never anyone behind me,” says McGuinness.
In 2012 McFeely declared himself bankrupt in England, saying he had been living in London while pursuing property ventures in London and Manchester. At the time a person could re-emerge from bankruptcy within a year in England, whereas in the Republic the specified term was 12 years (it was later reduced to three).
McGuinness went to the courts in England and successfully argued that the centre of McFeely’s business interests was in Ireland, not the UK. She then went into the courts in Ireland and successfully argued that McFeely should be made bankrupt in the Republic, which he was.
“At the time his wife was in court in Dublin with the bank that was trying to repossess their house [on Ailesbury Road], saying they lived in that house, and that it was their family home,” says Hughes. “All we did was, we went around the various courts where they had cases and pulled them all together.”
In her action to try to stop the State-owned National Asset Management Agency (Nama) from repossessing the house on Ailesbury Road, Kessler told the court she had signed for an interest-only loan for €9.5 million from Irish Nationwide in 2006, and given the house as collateral.
She said she understood the loan was to be repaid from the profits from Priory Hall, which Irish Nationwide was financing. At the time of the loan the development had a value of €44 million, she said, and had incurred costs of €22.5 million, so she believed it would produce a profit big enough to pay off the Nationwide loan.
“Where did that money go?” asks Hughes about the profit made on Priory Hall.
After the Ailesbury Road house was seized by the banks, and sold for €2.6 million, a plumber working for the new owners found €140,000 in €50 notes hidden in the bathroom. Searches the following day by the Criminal Assets Bureau found an additional €60,000 in €50 notes.
McFeely was so unco-operative with the Irish bankruptcy official, Chris Lehane, that Lehane was not able to establish McFeely’s home address.
The property developer would have emerged from his Irish bankruptcy in 2015 had Lehane not gone to the courts and had the period extended because of the Derry man’s refusal to co-operate.
In her judgment on Lehane’s application in June, 2016, Ms Justice Caroline Costello cited McFeely’s failure to disclose his address as well as his failure to disclose that he owned seven apartments in Aras na Cluaine.
She also cited his failure to disclose he owned five units at the Old Saw Mills Industrial Estate, on Lower Ballymount Road, Dublin 12. The Ballymount units were worth €750,000-€1 million, the court was told.
One of the allegations made by Lehane was that McFeely had used an Isle of Man company called Ashwood Enterprises to hide rental income worth €3.5 million from a 28-storey apartment complex the businessman had developed close to the Olympic Village in London. (The complex was subsequently seized by Nama.)
McFeely rejected Lehane’s accusation, and said he had merely acted as a trustee for the company when dealing with the London rent. The court was told that most of the shares in the Isle of Man company were held by Taupin Trustee Ltd, based on the offshore island of Nevis.
Ms Justice Costello extended McFeely’s bankruptcy for the maximum period possible, but then took two months off in recognition of his age, and set the date for it to end as May 30th, 2020.
In 2013 the State oversaw a deal that involved the banks writing off the existing debts of the owner-occupiers in Priory Hall. Dublin City Council took on responsibility for renovating the apartment complex as part of the deal.
According to the council, 122 renovated apartments have now been sold, with total income from sales of €28.3 million. Of this €12.3 million has been used to fund redemption payments to the banks, making for a net income from sales of €16 million.
Costs associated with fixing the development have been €56 million to date, and the final cost of the project has yet to be agreed with the contractor, the council said.
It is a scandal that McFeely built so many sub-standard apartments, McGuinness says, but it is another scandal that the State bodies charged with regulating property development allowed him to.
“He is nothing short of a cowboy gone seriously wrong,” she says. “But he got away with it.”