Exclusive: Bertie and Manchester businessmen
Bertie Ahern made several trips to Manchester in the early 1990s that were paid for by millionaire businessmen lobbying the government for the development of a casino at the former Phoenix Park racecourse. Ahern was Minister for Finance at the time. By Frank Connolly
A number of trips to Manchester made by Bertie Ahern in the early 1990s were paid for by the millionaire developers of a proposed gambling casino in the former Phoenix Park racecourse.
The Taoiseach was entertained at football matches at the Manchester United grounds, Old Trafford, by Norman Turner, a locally-based buinessman who was the main promoter of the controversial casino project – marketed as the Sonas Centre.
Another director of the company, which unsuccessfully sought to develop the casino, was Robert White, a school friend and longtime associate of the Taoiseach.
Bertie Ahern is under severe pressure to provide a more detailed explanation about the timing and purpose of an event in Manchester in 1994 when he received a payment of £8,000 (sterling).
Dublin jeweller Robert White and Turner, the key movers behind the ambitious project, made an agreement in 1993 to purchase the racecourse from its then owners, a consortium which included JP McManus, Vincent O'Brien and Robert Sangster.
The project was backed by the US-based Ogden group which identified the casino as the "financial engine" of the development.
Ahern has confirmed that he visited Manchester at Turner's expense on a number of occasions during 1993 and 1994 when the casino plan had significant support within the Fianna Fáil leadership.
Then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds supported the proposal by the Ogden Group for the £200m development on the disused Phoenix Park racecourse, which was to include the casino, a 65,000-seat stadium, a 12,000-seat indoor arena, a 2,500-seat national conference centre and a 349-bedroom hotel.
PJ Mara, the Fianna Fáil party strategist and another close advisor to Ahern, acted as public-relations consultant for the project, while another longtime associate, Des Richardson, was also involved with the directors of the company promoting the scheme to which there was fierce local opposition.
Richardson was embroiled in controversy in 2000 when the late Liam Lawlor alleged he had been offered £100,000 by Richardson to come onboard as a consultant for the casino project.
Before he revealed Richardson's name to the media, Lawlor had told the Fianna Fáil Standards in Public Life Committee that he was approached in 1994 and offered £100,000 to act as a consultant on the project which was to be located in the heart of his Dublin West constituency.
He told the committee he had heard that "the best way to receive tax designation for a development was to provide a pension fund for a named politician".
He later identified Richardson as the person who made the £100,000 financial offer to him. In June 2000, Richardson issued a public statement in which he confirmed he had asked Lawlor to meet with a director of the Sonas project whom he described as a personal friend.
He said he passed on Lawlor's contact numbers to the director and that ended his involvement.
"At no time during our conversation, or at any time in my longstanding friendship and relationship with Liam Lawlor, did I offer him money, on behalf of myself or anybody else, for this or any other project," Richardson said. He also denied offering Lawlor a consultancy role in the casino project.
Despite his enjoyment of Norman Turner's hospitality, Bertie Ahern said, during and after the election campaign in 1997, that he did not support the casino proposal.
Although the Fianna Fáil government had actively considered introducing a casino licence and other related proposals in 1994 while Ahern was Minister for Finance, no formal proposals ever came to cabinet. The subsequent Rainbow Coalition also declined to introduce the necessary changes to the Gaming Act to allow for the casino.
The casino issue had been hugely controversial during the 1997 general-election campaign due to a highly organised campaign of opposition, organised by the Castleknock-based West Dublin Action Group, which forced all candidates, including those of Fianna Fáil, to express their opposition to the plan.
In April 1997, during the general-election campaign Ahern published a leaflet for distribution in west Dublin purporting to reproduce a comment he had previously made in the Dáil.
"Let me make one thing very plain. We will not have the conference centre connected with the casino, good, bad or indifferent. There will be no casino as proposed for the Phoenix Park racecourse site," the leaflet said.
It later emerged that he had not made any such comments in the Dáil. He had intended to do so but the speech had not been delivered due to time pressures, Ahern said later.
Robert White and his partner Norman Turner sold on the site of the racecourse for a sum believed to be £38 million, after the casino project fell through, to Flynn O'Flaherty properties.
On Friday, sources close to the Taoiseach said Turner was not present when Ahern received £8000 (sterling) at a dinner in Manchester during 1994 while he was Minister for Finance.
The Taoiseach has said he intends to deal with the controversial 1994 Manchester function and payment in the Dáil on Tuesday.