WHAT some Leesiders took as an exercise in idealistic social service on behalf of his city by property developer Owen O’Callaghan, there is no doubt that, on the sad occasion of his untimely death, politicians and media acknowledged in a respectful manner his commercial, retail and housing successes.
Corkonians were keen to recognise that almost single-handedly he revamped the Real Capital and, astonishingly, he did so with very little fault-finding or carping from the city’s political class. Almost to a man, they had backed him, particularly those in Fianna Fáil, a party with which he had very close connections.
From being the biggest house builder in Cork, Mr O’Callaghan went on to develop industrial estates at Carrigaline and Glanmire before moving on to retail developments, such as the multi-storey car park at Paul Street. This was followed by shopping centres, office blocks and car parks.
They included Mahon Point, Merchant’s Quay, the North Main Street Shopping Centre and Dublin’s Liffey Valley Shopping Centre, a project that led to a spate of controversial planning tribunals regarding corruption in public life. His most recent Cork venture, still at the planning approval stage, is the biggest office project ever in the city, a 310,000 square foot office block on Albert Quay.
Not as enthusiastic
But while his imposing edifices garnered Leeside admiration, his Dublin critics were less enthusiastic. The cognoscenti from that part of the architectural world were not impressed, bellyaching that none of his commercial developments was worthy of favourable comment.
For instance, they said his Merchant’s Quay shopping centre was devoid of architectural merit. According to an Irish Times guru, ‘it was probably the biggest negative impact on the city visually, made worse by the fact that it marked most people’s first point of arrival at the city centre when coming from any part of the country.’ Another ‘expert’ added, that ‘nothing could disguise its features as the most ugly building in Cork, with its loading bays and fire exits doing nothing to bring life back to what was an appealing stretch of Cork’s quayside.
Similarly they tore strips off his top tier project, Mahon Point, which one critic described as a completely soulless tarmac-desert with some tin boxes thrown around, and a bit of copper to make it ‘interesting.’
Whatever about the architectural merits of Mahon Point and the ghastly road access to the place, which apparently was not the fault of Mr O’Callaghan, the horrific traffic jams makes this innocent scribe wonder how the Corpo ever gave planning permission for such a mess. A mystery indeed!
Was a ‘visionary’
So, fair dues to the Rt Hon Lord Mayor Des Cahill who paid tribute to Mr O’Callaghan by stating that his legacy will be evident in Cork for decades to come. (There’s no doubt about that!).
He said that Mr O’Callaghan didn’t just build from the street. ‘He had a much more holistic way of looking at things, he built quarters and communities.’ Mr O’Callaghan was a ‘visionary,’ he declared.
And whereas a visionary is never accepted in his own hometown (should that be a prophet? – Ed) Mr O’Callaghan’s vision often met considerable opposition and sometimes he was not appreciated in other parts of the country. For instance, because of his commitment to the Liffey Valley Shopping Centre, he became entangled in serious allegations relating to widespread bribery and corruption – assertions that became a part of the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments (the Flood/Mahon Tribunal).
From the early1990s until his death Mr O’Callaghan faced protracted legal action involving the Tribunals. He gave evidence for 38 days between 2004 and 2008, stoutly denying that he had made corrupt payments of large sums of cash to prominent Fianna Fáil politicos so that they would back the rezoning of the Quarryvale-Liffey Valley project.
In 2013, he took a judicial review in the High Court of the planning tribunal report, but lost the case. Nevertheless the good gentleman continued to insist that the Tribunal’s findings were based on procedures ‘that by any reasonable criteria were biased, unfair and unjust.’ The matter is currently under appeal in the Supreme Court and is scheduled for hearing in June.
Forgotten now is the Mahon Tribunal recommendation for a change in the law that would enable the State to strip bribe-taking politicians of their pensions. The Tribunal said political corruption was not a victimless crime. ‘Political corruption diverts public resources to the benefit of the few at the expense of the many,’ it warned.
The pension-proposal was laughed out of the Dáil, and gradually people ceased to think about the terrible allegations of corrupt Quarryvale rezoning. In the process, they banished from their thoughts the memory of Tom Gilmartin, Frank Dunlop, Liam Lalor and many others.
White collar crime
Not unrelated is the fact that Ireland dropped another place in global corruption ranking. So says that excellent watchdog, Transparency International. Published last month, the Corruption Perception Index for 2016, which is seen as ‘the definitive guide to how cleanly each country’s political system is perceived to operate,’ Ireland is now ranked as the 19th least-corrupt state in the world.
Denmark was named the least corrupt state out of 176 countries, followed by New Zealand, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland.
Chief executive of Transparency Ireland John Devitt said ‘the failure of some politicians to hold to account a handful of suspects of corruption and serious fraud continues to undermine public trust in parliamentary democracy.’
Significantly, he reminds us that in Ireland people are slow to admit the link between political corruption and the public distrust it creates towards democratic institutions.
He points out that the reason for Ireland’s relatively low standing in the corruption stakes is due to the failure to police financial institutions in a proper fashion, controversies surrounding the sale of Nama portfolios and the series of planning tribunals that revealed serious corruption in Ireland’s planning system.
Interestingly, the report suggests that the least-corrupt countries owe their success to access to budget information so that the public knows how money is spent, high levels of integrity among people in power, a judiciary that is independent of other parts of government and, importantly, high levels of press freedom.
Something to chew on, particularly for Fianna Fáil!
Two fingers in Dáil
Mickey Martin was crowing at capturing for his gang the former independent TD and Social Democrats founder, Stephen Donnelly, even though Donnelly had described the F&Fers as ‘a party with a culture of jobs for the boys – bonuses for the boys – lack of accountability and two fingers in the Dáil.’
Clearly, Mickey appreciated the political apostate’s integrity and truthfulness, as well as his skill for getting to the nub of the matter!
Needless to say, the observation of our man in Dinty’s was to the point: “Some men change their party for the sake of their principles, others their principles for the sake of their party”!
•CLARIFICATION – In last week’s column, we erroneously stated that Henry Ford was born in Ballinascarthy, whereas it was his father, William Forde. Furthermore, the people who run the homestead have never profited from the Ford connection, but have helped – by allowing its use for various events – to raise a substantial amount of money for charities over the years.