Fintan O'Toole: Tax breaks for housing developers show Fianna Fáil's true colours
Martin Keane’s tales of getting the inside track show gap between rhetoric and reality
‘I happened to go into the Shelbourne Hotel one day and PJ Mara was there. Naturally enough we had a refreshment, and he said ‘the Bossman is coming in’, and he was talking about the bus station as it was supposed to be, and he said ‘he’s knocking that on the head and you should get yourself down there and buy a bit of property, it’s going to be the area’. Charlie came in and we had another refreshment, and he built up my confidence about what was going to happen in Temple Bar. So as soon as I found something available I was down there as quick as possible.”
The speaker is Martin Keane, who is the biggest beneficiary of the Temple Bar tourist trap in Dublin. He owns the most profitable pub in Ireland, the Oliver St John Gogarty, as well as Bloom’s Hotel, a nightclub and a hostel.
He is in the news because the long-running saga of his failure to develop the Iveagh Markets is coming to a head. The late PJ Mara was the fixer and sidekick for Charles Haughey, who was of course “the Bossman”. The year, presumably, was 1991. Haughey was taoiseach and he was about to take over the Temple Bar area from CIÉ, which had bought up most of the property for a planned bus station. There would be very lucrative tax incentives for developers.
Two things are especially striking about Keane’s reminiscences. One is that they are completely and utterly shameless. He was speaking, not from the witness box at a tribunal of inquiry, but in an interview with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ radio last week. He volunteered the story as a colourful anecdote of Dublin in the rare oul’ times. Earlier in the week he had given a slightly different version to Mark Paul in The Irish Times: “PJ said he wasn’t going to turn it into an effing bus station. He said if you’ve any money, go down there and spend it. Then Haughey came in for a pint. I asked him if the Temple Bar thing was correct. That’s effing right, says he.”
This insouciance is rather telling. It suggests that, a quarter of a century on, there is still a perception in the hinterland of Fianna Fáil, its reserve army of developers and wheeler-dealers that there is nothing wrong with a taoiseach giving you the inside dope on a major State development supported by very generous tax breaks: here’s where the money will be made so get in fast.
Keane grew up in this culture: he was a protégé of the quintessential developer of the 1960s and 1970s, Matt Gallagher, who, along with his fraudster son Patrick, was a major patron of Haughey. It’s the way things work – what’s the problem?
The second thing to note is that what Keane was being told in the Shelbourne’s Horseshoe Bar was not what the public was being led to believe. Temple Bar was a funky, edgy, bohemian quarter. Rent was cheap, so it was full of painters, writers, performers, oddballs.
Haughey’s public promise was that the State takeover and the tax breaks would enhance these qualities and create a “bustling cultural, residential and small-business precinct” – no mention of megapubs. Keane was a publican. Mara and Haughey surely did not think he was going to hotfoot it down to Temple Bar to open an experimental black box theatre space. The public story was all about culture, innovative city living and small business. The private story, for the insiders, was about spectacular amounts of money to be made if you got in first to develop megapubs, tourist hostels and nightclubs.
There are indeed terrific cultural facilities in Temple Bar: the Project, the Ark, the Irish Film Institute, the Gallery of Photography and so on. But Bohemia it is not. Owen Hickey, who looked after CIÉ’s low-rent portfolio before becoming property director of the new Temple Bar Properties, told Frank McDonald in The Irish Times in 2011: “The ‘mini-bohemia’ everyone recognised as worth saving – colourful, edgy, rough-grained and utterly benign – was destroyed by the initiative because grittiness wasn’t part of the agenda.”
Haughey claimed in 2003 that he had created in Temple Bar “an atmosphere of relaxed non-conformism”, which is true if “relaxed” is a euphemism for “pissed” and “non-conformism” is stag groups in gimp masks waving inflatable penises.
This history is worth recalling because Fianna Fáil is at it again. Over the weekend it unveiled its big new idea to solve the housing crisis: tax breaks for developers.
Its “radical” solution is a cut in the VAT rate for construction to 9 per cent, cuts to development levies and other tax incentives for the lads.
The party has a bad case of builder’s bum: when it bends over to help out its friends it reveals the hideous gap between its recent left-wing rhetoric and its true loyalties.
If tax breaks for developers created a stable housing market and good urban planning we’d be living on Paradise Island.
Developer-led get-rich-quick schemes, fuelled by tax incentives, have led only to disaster. But they sound great over a few pints in the Horseshoe Bar.