Fintan O’Toole: Here’s something else you may not know about The Gleneagle
‘Killarney hotel was at the centre of some classic Celtic Tiger rezoning shenanigans’
Patrick O’Donoghue in the RTÉ series The Gleneagle. Photograph: RTÉ
In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart’s Rick famously complains: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” And of all the hotels in all the towns in all of Ireland, the national broadcaster manages to walk into the only one that’s owned and run by someone with a criminal conviction for the abuse of public office. RTÉ’s endlessly hyped fly-on-the-wall series The Gleneagle is presumably intended to boost the Irish tourist industry.
It seems rather unfortunate that it provides a massive PR boost to a man who had to resign from the board of the tourism authority, Fáilte Ireland. RTÉ’s website carries a feature called “Ten things you didn’t know about The Gleneagle”. Oddly enough, not one of them is the most interesting thing about the Killarney hotel – that it was at the centre of some classic Celtic Tiger rezoning shenanigans.
Patrick O’Donoghue owns and runs The Gleneagle and thanks to the series he is now a familiar face nationwide. What viewers are not told, though, is that he used to be a very prominent figure in the politics of Killarney.
He was a Fianna Fáil member of Killarney town council and mayor in 2008-9. He was appointed to the boards of Bord Fáilte and Tourism Ireland by the (unrelated) then minister John O’Donoghue, succeeding his own late father Maurice.
Given Patrick O’Donoghue’s standing in the political and business life of the town, it therefore took some courage for Killarney town manager Tom Curran to lodge a complaint against him with the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) in May 2006.
The complaint concerned a motion passed by the town council in March 2006 to rezone 20 acres of land around The Gleneagle and its sister hotel, The Brehon. The effect of this motion, at the height of the property craze, was to designate the land around the hotels, which are a mile away from Killarney town, as part of the “town centre”.
This would have opened them up for apartments, offices and shops, with potentially major financial advantages for Patrick O’Donoghue. Officials objected that such development would be harmful to Killarney’s actual town centre. O’Donoghue acknowledged to Sipo that he sought “support, as a businessman, for the motion from the councillors before the meeting”.
Sipo investigated the town manager’s complaint and found that Patrick O’Donoghue had breached both the Local Government Act and the Standards in Public Office Act. He failed to disclose the full nature of his personal interest in the motion and failed to withdraw from the discussion and the vote – breaches Sipo regarded as minor.
Much more seriously, from Sipo’s point of view, O’Donoghue “sought to influence the decision of Killarney Town Council by seeking the support of councillors in relation to the motion”. He also broke the law “by failing to maintain proper standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest in his conduct in relation to the motion to rezone land”.
Sipo found that O’Donoghue “did not act in good faith in relation to the matter” and that his conduct “was inconsistent with the proper performance by him of the functions of councillor and/or with the maintenance of confidence in such performance by the general public and which matter is one of significant public importance”.
On foot of these findings, O’Donoghue, who had (remarkably) been elected mayor of Killarney in the meantime, was prosecuted before the Circuit Criminal Court in Tralee in March 2009. He pleaded guilty to a charge of seeking to influence Killarney town council to rezone lands in which he himself had a beneficial interest.
He was given a very lenient sentence: a fine of €5,000. But he got off so lightly precisely because of a notion of public shame. In explaining why he was not giving him a custodial sentence or even a suspended sentence, Judge Carol Moran said that “the fact that Mr O’ Donoghue now has a criminal record and has publicly resigned from Bord Fáilte and political life was punishment enough”.
It seems clear from these remarks that he was spared prison because he had fallen from grace and would suffer public opprobrium.
But not if RTÉ has anything to do with it. There are around a thousand hotels in the State. One of them is chosen for a priceless gift – six prime time TV programmes promoting their business. I’m sure The Gleneagle is a fine place with lovely staff and an important part of its local economy. But the same could be said for hundreds of other hotels around the country.
I’m sure all of them would love to have a wad of public money spent on what amounts to a massive promotional campaign. Why does that public money have to go to the one hotel whose owner showed such flagrant disregard for the public interest? Because, I suppose, we just don’t do disgrace. You can get off lightly because of public opprobrium and then find that there’s no opprobrium after all. A criminal record for abuse of public office? Sure there’s no shame in that.