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Property’s heavy-hitter
24 December 2006  By Neil Callanan (Sunday Business Post)
When Bernard McNamara first moved to Dublin, he used to frequent the Shelbourne Hotel on Friday nights with his wife.

But he mixed business with pleasure and used the nights out to meet architects, in order to add his building contracting company to their list of tenderers for projects.
The policy paid off. McNamara now owns a stake in the five-star hotel, which is due to reopen early next year after an extensive refurbishment carried out by his contracting company, Michael McNamara & Co.

Since taking over the family company, McNamara, who trained as an accountant, has turned the business into one of the top three building contractors in the country. The company has a turnover of more than €400 million and employs more than 500 people.

Typical profit margins in the building business are between 2.75 and 4.75 per cent, and McNamara works for a salary. In an interview with Ivor Kenny for his book Leaders, McNamara said he had never taken a dividend out of the contracting side of his business.

McNamara moved into property development in the early 1990s because of the tax breaks on offer. This has helped to propel him into the league of the wealthy Irish elite. He has grown his interests diversely: he owns hospitals, hotels and shops.

Born in Limerick, McNamara grew up in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare, and served as a councillor for Fianna Fail on Clare County Council from 1974 for two terms.

In 1981, he was nominated by party headquarters to contest the general election, joining Dr Bill Loughnane, Sylvester Barrett and Brendan Daly on the party ticket. He polled only 2,676 first preference votes but, while he wasn’t elected, his performance was an important factor in Fianna Fail holding onto three seats.

McNamara eventually left politics, due to his business commitments, but continued to be involved in public service.

He is a member of the board of governors of the National Gallery, and previously served as deputy chairman of the National Roads Authority (NRA). He also served on the board of Great Southern Hotels and, earlier this year, he bought the group’s hotel in Parknasilla, Co Kerry.

He is a regular at the Fianna Fail fundraising tent at the Galway Races. The Radisson Hotel in Galway, which he owns with Jerry O’Reilly, is the social epicentre of the race week.

McNamara owns a helicopter with O’Reilly. Last year, he was told by An Bord Pleanala that a helicopter pad he was using beside Booterstown Marsh in Dublin needed planning permission. He tried to develop luxury apartments and a public park beside the marsh in 2003, but was denied permission.

He is a board member of the Trinity Foundation, which helps Trinity College Dublin in its educational, research and social missions. He has made donations to the foundation. He is also involved in the Royal College of Surgeons and has carried out building work for both institutions.

Last year, he bought a sizeable tract of industrial land near Dublin Airport. He owns large amounts of development land in Meakstown and Finglas, and about 100 acres of industrial land at Ballycoolin in Blanchardstown, west Dublin. He is part of the consortium planning a shopping centre at the Westbury hotel and surrounding buildings off Grafton Street.

McNamara bought a site in Navan town centre for more than €23 million. The site has been rezoned for shops. Earlier this year, he bought three bank branches from Bank of Ireland - at the corner of St Stephen’s Green and Merrion Row, on Upper Leeson Street and on Arran Quay.

He has also invested in hotels. Earlier this year, he was part of an unsuccessful bid to win the new licence for the northwest.

McNamara, Riverdance impresario Moya Doherty, telecoms multimillionaire Denis O’Brien and Aer Arann founder Padraig O Ceidigh joined forces in a bid for the licence.

‘‘He doesn’t like the long way of doing things,” said a senior property industry source of McNamara. ‘‘He’s not one to put up with procrastination. He’s a great operator and has a massive capacity for retaining information. He’s often on two or three phones at the same time.”

‘‘He hates yes-men,” said another property source. ‘‘He hates people who can’t give him an answer. You have to know your stuff before you talk to him. He’d have a temper, in that he wouldn’t suffer fools gladly. You only get one chance with him and if you fuck up, that’s it.”

‘‘He’s not somebody who’d bid on everything,” said another source, speaking about McNamara’s investments. ‘‘It’s always something with a development angle or something that’s next to something he already owns.”

Next year, a vote is due to be taken in Ennis on whether to relocate the stadium in the town to a 15-acre site on the outskirts of Ennis. McNamara, Noel Connell and Sean Lyne are proposing to take possession of the present ground, Cusack Park, and turn it into a shopping centre, subject to planning permission.

McNamara is involved in the Elmpark scheme on Merrion Road which is being developed by Radora Developments. A consortium led by Jerry O’Reilly paid more than €45.7 million for the 14.5-acre site and McNamara has since taken a stake in the development, which will include more than 400 homes, 28,000 square metres of offices and a 168-bed four star hotel. A five-storey private hospital is also being built on the site.

O’Reilly and McNamara paid €14.2 million for the Jurys Doyle Tara hotel next to the Merrion Road site. They applied for a 25-storey hotel, office and residential tower on the site, but this was turned down by Dublin City Council, although that decision is being appealed to An Bord Pleanala. The tower would have been almost twice the height of Liberty Hall.

They own a 50 per cent stake in the Bishops Square office development in Dublin 8. McNamara owns a strip of shops on Chatham Street off Grafton Street in Dublin city centre.

A number of years ago, McNamara, along with property agents David Courtney and Bernard Doyle, bought part of the Harcourt Square office block in central Dublin for about €92 million through a company called Pecan Properties. Terry Sweeney who owns the Schoolhouse in Ballsbridge, Dublin, and EJ King Bar in Clifden, Co Galway, is also believed to be involved.

The four men, as well as O’Reilly, have stakes in the Shelbourne and Select Retail Holdings, which bought Superquinn for €450 million. Superquinn recently bought the Four Provinces pub in Ranelagh with the intention of building a supermarket. It has also secured a number of other sites.

They were also involved in the acquisition of Champion Sports earlier this year; Sweeney is thought to be the main player in that deal.

Media reports suggest that McNamara is planning two shopping centres in Finglas with a number of those investors.

A redevelopment of the main Finglas Shopping Centre already has planning permission and the Drogheda Mall in Finglas will also be redeveloped.

He has not managed to secure Dunnes Stores as a potential anchor tenant for his Finglas developments - the retailer will open up the road in a development being built by the Bailey brothers. However, it would be no surprise if Superquinn relocated to one of the centres.

McNamara attended a construction conference in India last month, which featured a number of property developers who were keen to explore opportunities in this booming market. Dublin financier Derek Quinlan and Olan Cremin, chief executive of his finance firm, Quinlan Private, also attended.

He has also teamed up with US not-for-profit hospital-operator Methodist to build a private hospital on the grounds of James Connolly Memorial Hospital in Blanchardstown, west Dublin.

McNamara lives on Ailesbury Road, Dublin 4, in a house built on the site of the former Japanese embassy. It has its own cinema, ballroom and swimming pool. He is also a keen golfer.

He became a member of the interim governing authority of the Irish Academy for the Performing Arts in 2002, donated €100,000 to the Abbey when it was strapped for cash and, for several years, served on fundraising committees for hospitals.

McNamara will have three other major projects in his sights in the coming years.

First, there’s Pembroke Road. McNamara and O’Reilly must have been delighted with the bidding war that erupted over the last 24 months for sites on the eastern side of Pembroke Road.

The price per acre rose steadily from what was then an eye-catching €54million an acre to more than €130 million an acre earlier this year.

McNamara and O’Reilly own almost all of the buildings on the other side of the road, and are eventually expected to redevelop the entire side of the street.

For now though, McNamara will be content to wait for the unveiling of the local area plan being drawn up by Dublin City Council for Ballsbridge next year.

There had been some talk about the American embassy objecting to such plans, but developers with landholdings in the area have questioned whether they can legally object, given that the embassy is technically part of a foreign jurisdiction.

McNamara is also part of a plan to develop a new town at the South Beach in Greystones with his partner Durkan Residential. The initial plans for the €1 billion scheme were drawn up by award-winning architect Norman Foster, and involve the development of Charlesland golf course and a 25-acre site owned by Wicklow County Council. The project is conditional on the land being rezoned.

The headline-grabbing acquisition of the €412 million South Wharf site in Ringsend, Dublin 4, will occupy a large slice of McNamara’s time over the next five years or so, as it involves the development of more than 2,000 residential units, shops and offices.

McNamara bought the site with Derek Quinlan and the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. McNamara may only invest €5 million of his own cash for his 41 per cent stake in the development, which is expected to cost €1.5 billion.

He can do this because a company set up by him is investing €57.5 million in the project, €52.5 million of which will come from clients of Davy Stockbrokers. In turn, he stands to make a profit of more than €62 million.

As the saying goes, you need to have money to make money. McNamara’s Ringsend deal proves that.