Tribunal investigates casino project

Bertie Ahern was close to the promoters of a Phoenix park casino project in the 1990s but his eventual opposition ‘killed' the venture. By Frank Connolly and Justine McCarthy
Village understands the planning (Mahon) tribunal is investigating alleged payments to politicians by people associated with a proposal to build a casino in the Phoenix Park in the 1990s.

The promoters of the venture, Sonas Casino and Conference Centre, were two associates of Bertie Ahern – Norman Turner, a Manchester businessman, and Robert White, a Dublin jeweller and friend of Ahern since their school days.
While leader of the opposition from 1994 to 1997, Ahern was one of the politicians Norman Turner lobbied during that period. Ahern made several trips to Manchester and attended a number of Manchester United matches at Old Trafford, at Norman Turner's expense.

The casino project was vigorously opposed by residents of Castleknock and Ashtown in west Dublin.

PJ Mara, the former government press secretary, acted as a public-relations consultant for the consortium. The proposal involved a £375m casino, a 2,500-seat national conference centre, a 65,000-seat stadium, a 12,000-seat indoor arena and a 349-bed hotel on the site of the Phoenix Park racecourse. Des Richardson, a Fianna Fáil fundraiser and close associate of Ahern, was also involved.

The project was backed financially by the US Ogden group and the Sheraton Hotel.

An allegation by Liam Lawlor that he had been offered £100,000 to support the project alerted the planning tribunal to the venture and, Village understands, enquiries have been undertaken by the tribunal into what happened in connection with it in the 1990s.

Norman Turner, who developed the stg£32m Manchester Arena – Europe's biggest indoor concert venue which opened in July 1995 – was a frequent visitor to Leinster House in the mid-'90s. He bought a house in Co Wicklow and was resident there while he was trying to get the casino project off the ground. There was both cross-party support for, and cross-party resistance to, the Sonas proposal. Rainbow coalition Taoiseach John Bruton was against it, while the Labour party Minister for Finance, Ruairí Quinn, supported the project.

“All the economics showed that a conference centre is a loss-leader. It's the activities it brings in that sustains it. It needed the casino legislation to make it work,” said Quinn to Village. “This was before Abbotstown and the Bertie Bowl. To this day, Ireland still doesn't have a national conference centre or a national stadium.”

Ahern's position on the proposal was ambiguous although supporters of the project, including Norman Turner, believed that the then opposition leader would introduce the necessary changes to gambling legislation when returned to office.

During the 1997 election campaign, however, Ahern assured the voters of Dublin West that the proposed casino would not go ahead if he was returned to power – it was believed at the time that Fianna Fáil could have lost support over the casino project in that constituency in the election.

In May 1997, just weeks before the general election, Ahern told residents in a leaflet distributed in the constituency that there would be no casino attached to the proposed conference centre in the Phoenix Park. In the words of one person who was involved in the project: “It was Bertie who killed it. When he became Taoiseach, he wouldn't bring in the casino law.”

During his term as Taoiseach from 1992 to 1994, Albert Reynolds set up a cabinet sub-committee to examine the casino/conference centre proposal while the current Minister for Finance, Brian Cowen, attended celebrations in the Conrad Hotel in 1996 when planning permission for the scheme was granted by An Bord Pleanála. When it was put to Robert White that Sonas still needed to obtain a casino licence and the Rainbow government appeared unwilling to oblige, he replied: “But what about the next government?”

In fact, the Fine Gael-Labour government of the day did not provide the necessary Casino licence to allow for the high-class gambling which the promoters felt was an indispensable part of the project. Nor did the Fianna Fáil-PD coalition that took power after the 1997 general election.

By the time planning permission was granted, all the necessary environmental reports had been completed and about £5m had been spent on preparatory work, including architects' and PR fees.

Having agreed to buy the site for about IR£10m from a consortium controlled by JP McManus, Vincent O'Brien and Robert Sangster, the Sonas group sold it for around £35m to developers Flynn & O'Flaherty. Flynn & O'Flaherty is currently building houses on the site.

“They got out of it all right but to say Norman Turner was annoyed by his experience of doing business in Ireland would be a bit of an understatement,” says someone who worked with him.