Sean Dunne: Winner alright
If there were to be a competition to name the builder most liked by Fianna Fáil's senior politicians then it's a fair bet that Sean Dunne would be the winner, despite a long list of contenders.
Dunne is a regular at Fianna Fáil's annual fundraiser at the Galway Races, like so many other multi-millionaire builders. However, he is seen regularly in the company of ministers at various functions, particularly the likes of Charlie McCreevy (whose palatial country house he built) and Brian Cowen.
When he married his second wife, journalist Gayle Killalea, in the summer of 2004 he hired the controversial Irish-owned tax-incentive yacht, the Christina O. According to the definitive report of the event – a full page by Anne Harris in the Sunday Independent – McCreevy offered his best wishes over a speakerphone for everyone to hear. Twenty minutes later the Taoiseach came on the line. "Dunner, you and I go back a long way. I wish I could be there," Anne Harris reported Ahern as saying to the assembled audience. "I'm sorry I couldn't come but I would have been more trouble to you than I'd be worth."
Two years ago, Dunne was merely a highly successful builder of housing estates and apartment blocks. He prospered as the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats government made little other than vague gestures towards somehow reining in the extraordinary house-price inflation that has characterised its nine years of rule.
Now, however, Dunne has gambled vast sums on a project of extraordinary ambition. Village readers are familiar with his land acquisitions in Ballsbridge in Dublin 4. He spent €380m on buying Jurys Hotel and the Berkeley Court, to give him less than seven acres of land on which to build, once those establishments are demolished. According to reports, he wants to buy the Hume House office development from Irish Life to add to the site and another Office of Public Works-owned property, the Faculty Building. His plan to buy all the land in this sector of Dublin 4 was thwarted by Ray Grehan's purchase of the two-acre veterinary college site for the extraordinary price of €171m.
This monopoly-style game of land acquisition continued last week when he teamed up with Hibernian Insurance to buy AIB's headquarters (opposite the RDS) for €378m. It is believed Dunne paid about €200m for four blocks of commercial space and 2.5 acres of vacant land, with Hibernian getting the other four blocks. It seems that, if planning permission is obtained, Dunne will demolish the existing buildings to build taller offices or apartments, or a combination of both.
Taller is the key word. To profit Dunne must build upwards. There is talk of Manhattan-style buildings in Dublin 4, to accommodate Knightsbridge-style levels of consumption. An elite playground for the wealthy of modern Ireland made up of luxury apartments, swish shops, expensive restaurants and five-star hotels.
Apparently, his plans for the hotel site will be revealed within the next month. A major, international, architectural competition is quietly under way to draw up financially suitable plans. The expectation is that they could propose apartment blocks as high as 32 storeys, the Berkeley Court is just nine storeys high. This may be just a softening up of expectations, but experts say it is hard to see anything working commercially at less than 20 storeys. There may also be a little matter of preservation orders over the trees that border the two hotels.
But what do the planning authorities make of all of this? Little is being said about the social and environmental consequences of these plans. Does Ireland want the construction of an elite enclave for the super-rich? (Or does it have that already in D4, making the nature of further development irrelevant?) Will there be social and affordable housing on 20 per cent of the land, for example, or will Dunne compensate Dublin City Council by building such accommodation for the riff-raff elsewhere? Maybe Dublin should be a high-rise city, but has anyone in authority made this decision? And if so, should such high-rise be restricted to areas like the docks, instead of being allowed in leafy suburbs already struggling to cope with traffic volumes, or to overlook existing houses?
Few of these questions have been asked as yet. It is as if everyone is in awe of the sums of money involved and fascinated by the scale of Dunne's ambition. Clearly, Dunne has had many successes in the past, and has the money to use as downpayments on these investments and to attract banks to lend the balance (probably as much as 90 per cent, which reduces his risk). But past successes – in a booming market – do not guarantee future successes. What would the consequences for the banks and the heart of Dublin be if he fails? And what would happen to the character of Dublin if he succeeds?
Dunne is likely to lobby hard to get his way. He has to do that because the bet he has taken is enormous. As well as the cost of purchasing the land, he has to finance eventual construction costs and all other legal and technical fees associated with bringing the idea to fruition. But it has been estimated that he could spend €1.2bn in Dublin 4 over the next ten years before he generates real returns to repay the banks and reward himself. And he needs the property boom to continue if he is to sell lots of €1m plus apartments.
One wonders what Ahern, Cowen and other ministers make of their friend's ambitious plans to reshape the landscape of Dublin 4. Will they support, object or affect neutrality, as if this is merely a commercial matter of no real interest to politicians? Will friendship with Dunne influence their thinking? Eventually, of course, it will come down to the planners, and what they think is in the best interests of the development of the city. And we can have every confidence that they'll make the right decisions, oblivious to all factors of wealth, influence and begrudgery. Can't we?
The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm