The Carysfort Saga

 

The purchase of Carysfort College by UCD, at the instigation of the then government of Charles Haughey, remains a very sensitive political subject, despite the passing of 10 years. Mary O'Rourke, Minister for Education at the time, refused to answer questions about the affair when asked during the preparation of this article, and other persons connected with the sale also declined to discuss it.

UCD had no intention of buying the Blackrock, Co Dublin, property until it was contacted by telephone by O'Rourke in September 1990 and told the government would provide financial support. This urging to spend Exchequer money - from a government in the midst of a programme of cutbacks in public expenditure - came as a great suprise to the university.

A year after the sale, during a sometimes vicious Dail debate on a motion of confidence in the government, Haughey said it was O'Rourke who suggested to him the idea of UCD buying the property and not the other way around, as was being alleged by opposition deputies.

Asked recently if she agreed with what Haughey told the Dail in 1991, O'Rourke declined to give an answer. It was a long time ago, her spokesman said.

At the time, O'Rourke did not contradict Haughey's version of events.

The principal reason for the controversy was that the property was sold by Robert "Pino" Harris, a multi-millionaire truck importer and supporter of Fianna Fail, for a price which was £1.5 million greater than what Harris had paid for it six months earlier.

J.H.A. (Exports) Ltd, Harris's company, bought the property for £6.5 million in June 1990 and received £8 million for it six months later. No mortgage was ever registered for the company in the Companies Registration Office, though all the £6.5 million was handed over by July 1990.

Charles Haughey was personally involved in ensuring the deal went ahead. The then leader of the Labour Party, Dick Spring, alleged in the Dail in 1991 that Haughey "orchestrated" the entire transaction. "I throw that back in your teeth," Haughey replied.

CARYSFORT was formerly a teacher-training college. The last student teachers graduated from the college in 1988. It was government policy at the time to find another educational use for the building and surrounding lands, and a working group examined the possibility of using it for a college of music and dramatic art.

Teresita Durkan, formerly Sister Regina and president of Carysfort College up to 1988, was the representative for the Sisters of Mercy on the working group. She told The Irish Times that the group was in favour of the development and that the Carysfort property would have been available to the State for about £4 million at that stage - mid-1988.

However, the idea was not taken up by the government.

The college, with approximately 15 associated acres, was not the only property the nuns were trying to sell. The order also had a convent and more land in Blackrock, and it was this element of its property that was of most interest to private developers.

The reason the college was of limited interest was simple: it was zoned for educational use, and it was not government policy that this should change.

On August 18th, 1989, the college and 15 associated acres were offered to the government for £8.5 million. The Department of Education commissioned a report from the Valuation Office, but negotiations broke down before the report was received.

On August 29th, the Valuation Office reported that it considered the property to be worth £3.8 million.

Further negotiations took place in October, but came to nothing. A contract to buy all the property being sold by the Sisters of Mercy was then entered into with Davmac Investments Ltd, a property development company now in liquidation.

Davmac was not particularly interested in the college, because of its zoning, and before it had completed the sale the late Fintan Gunne made an approach and negotiated the direct purchase of the college from the order on behalf of his client, "Pino" Harris.

The price paid was between £6.25 million and £6.5 million, and the deal was completed in July 1990.

So Harris had paid about £6.5 million for a property valued by the Valuation Office at £3.8 million one year earlier, and for which the order had been seeking £8 million one year earlier.

UCD, meanwhile, had plans to build an oncampus postgraduate business school using funding raised from the business community. However the plan was running into difficulties and a scaled-back plan, costing £5 million, was being looked at in early 1990.

In July 1990, Gunne estate agents approached UCD and suggested it buy Carysfort for its business school. UCD decided there was no way it could afford the property.

Then, in early September, came the telephone call from Mary O'Rourke. She invited the university to make a proposal to the Department of Education, the implication being that the Department would provide funding.

As the President of UCD, Dr Patrick Masterson, subsequently told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC): it was not so much a case of the university being pressurised as of its being made an offer it could not refuse.

During the following months eight meetings took place between representatives of UCD and O'Rourke or Haughey or O'Rourke and Haughey together. No civil servants attended these meetings, despite some of them occurring in Government Buildings.

The government was pressurising UCD to bring more funding to the purchase, funding it would raise from the business community.

However rather than offer to bring more funding to the deal, UCD said it could only promise £2 million, and would also need an assurance from the government that running costs over and above the projected costs of the oncampus school would be paid from the Exchequer.

Twice during the months after September 1990, Haughey met with the chairman of the business school, Laurence Crowley, for private discussions of the matter.

Crowley, for UCD, was negotiating a price for the property with representatives of Harris. Amazingly, the Department of Education never informed UCD of the 1989 valuation it had from the State Valuation Office.

On December 4th, the cabinet approved the idea of finance being provided to UCD. No memorandum to cabinet was prepared and so the Department of Finance had no prior notice. This is an unusual procedure which can only occur with the permission of the Taoiseach.

The Department of Finance was against the decision, but a supplementary estimate was prepared and passed by the Dail in December 19th. The amount was £9.7 million, being for the purchase and adapting of the Carysfort premises.

UCD formally opted to go ahead with the plan on December 19th, but only subject to a further assurance that extra funding towards the running costs of the school would be available from the Exchequer.

Haughey assured Masterson in this regard when the UCD president returned a telephone call on December 21st. Following that final intervention by Haughey, the deal was completed.

In the event, no extra funding towards the running cost of the school was ever received by UCD.