Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy is to set up an independent investigation into the manner in which his department and Dublin City Council handled information about potential interference by criminals on a building site in Dublin.
In a statement on Thursday, Mr Murphy said: “The issues raised in recent days on foot of a court case involving the Criminal Assets Bureau are very serious matters, and we are treating them as such in Government.
“I will be appointing a person to carry out an independent investigation... I will get to the bottom of this matter as quickly as possible.”
It is understood this inquiry will supercede the investigation announced by Dublin City Council earlier this week.
Earlier, it emerged Mr Murphy’s department was informed two years two years ago of the allegations of criminality.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney, who was minister for housing at the time, has insisted he was not personally informed of the extortion allegations, despite emails being sent to him as minister in 2016.
Mr Coveney was challenged in the Dáil on Thursday about the Government's response to repeated warnings made directly to him about protection money being demanded by known criminals for up to three building sites in the Cherry Orchard area. But he said an appropriate response was given by then minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald.
He told Sinn Féin deputy leader Pearse Doherty that "I'm not saying that emails weren't sent to my office" but he said he only heard on Wednesday about the story of protection payments to criminals at the site in Cherry Orchard and was only getting to grips with it on Thursday morning. And he agreed with Fianna Fail leader Dara Calleary that an investigation into the issue should be "independent from Dublin City Council" which has said it is conducting an inquiry into the case.
Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh wrote to Mr Coveney, who was the housing minister at the time, as well as the former minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald, in 2017 to seek an urgent meeting about “approaches by criminals.”
The High Court this week heard that Dublin City Council paid protection money to the leader of a Dublin drugs gang, and also to a man who was connected to three murders. The money was allegedly paid so that council houses could be built in Cherry Orchard. Dublin City Council has denied the allegations.
In the letter sent by Mr Ó Snodaigh on the January 5th, 2017, which followed up on previous correspondence, he wrote that matters on the site had “escalated”.
"I have been made aware that there have been serious approaches by the criminals involved setting out conditions regarding the restart of the works, scheduled I hear for Monday morning. I have also been told that the Gardaí, Co-operative Housing Ireland (formerly NABCO), Dublin City Council, the security company and the builder are aware of all these developments.
“I believe the possibility of interference from criminals in deciding the security contract for the site has major implications for this state sponsored project in the here and now, but also in the future.
“Would such an element be allowed decide who gets housed in the houses, what shape other proposed works will take, who will get to open shops, businesses etc in a regenerated Cherry Orchard.
"I hope that you would agree with me that they shouldn't and that a similar approach to Limerick where the various arms of the state eventually stood firm against such a criminal element and won out in the end should be adopted."
Mr Ó Snodaigh said he was of the “firm belief” that submission to these demands would lead to “contagion, not only on other sites in Ballyfermot/Cherry Orchard, but also on other social housing and other state sponsored building and regeneration projects throughout the city.”
He said that “word of a capitulation would surely spread to other criminal elements in the city, who would only be too happy to take their lead.”
The Tánaiste said his office was copied in some correspondence through a reply from Co-operative Housing Ireland.
“Obviously, we’re trying to establish the various lines through email traffic,” Mr Coveney said but he stressed that it was not raised with him and that was why he did not speak to Mr Ó Snodaigh or respond to him.
They were criminal investigations and the appropriate response came from the minister for justice. They would follow on with inquiries and “I certainly hope it is not a common practice,” he said.
The Tánaiste said Ms Fitzgerald told Mr Ó Snodaigh in a comprehensive reply that the issue was a matter for An Garda Síochána and was being investigated, she could not intervene and it would not be appropriate to have a meeting.
Earlier, Mr Murphy said there would be a “quick” investigation in the matter.
“Quick is weeks. It’s not clear to me at this point in time who knew what, when and that’s what the investigation will get to the bottom of,” he said.
It emerged on Thursday morning that in 2016, the Evening Herald newspaper ran a story which stated the council was investigating the circumstances of the alleged payments. Mr Murphy acknowledged that the city council appears to have known about the issue for some time.
Speaking at a housing conference in Wexford, Mr Murphy said: "From the reports and what was stated in the courts it would seem to be that there may have been knowledge at city council level in 2016, before I became Minister. I need to figure out exactly what was known at the time and figure out what actions need to be taken from that," he said.
“If what is being reported turns out to be the case, it is an incredibly serious matter, which we will treat very seriously at a government level, and we cannot condone that kind of activity if it’s what took place.”
Mr Murphy said he has spoken to Owen Keegan, the Dublin City Council manager, directly. "It's serious in terms of the type of potential misuse of public funds, the potential behaviour of public officials in terms of interacting with criminal elements. These are the questions that are going to be asked and answered and we'll take things forward from there depending on what's revealed."
Asked about the actions of his colleague Catherine Byrne, who was told of the issue at the time, Mr Murphy said: "What I've seen is the email that was sent to Catherine Byrne, I know Catherine Byrne addressed some of these questions yesterday in public so what we now have under way is a process that will get us answers to these types of questions. I don't want to get ahead of that process, I want to know exactly what has happened before I then decide what further actions need to be taken."
The Minister was speaking in advance of the biannaul conference of the Irish Council for Social Housing, which is taking place in Wexford today.