Friday 22 June 2007

The TD, the developer and the holiday haven

TONY Gaughan first came to public attention in 2001 when he was spotted accompanying Beverley Flynn during her libel case against RTE.

The 50-year-old property developer had already established himself as a major player in his native Mayo over the previous decade, building housing estates in Westport and Castlebar.

But he was a frequent visitor to Doohoma, the remote north Mayo village where he grew up.

Located more than 50 miles from Castlebar, it has always suffered from massive emigration due to the lack of employment.

A famous RTE documentary in 1972 showed how the men in the village spent nine months of the year labouring on farms and building sites in England to send money home to their families.

And Mr Gaughan followed this path, travelling to England as a young man to work in the construction industry there.

But while other emigrants suffered from the burden of exile or alcoholism, he prospered and returned to Mayo a wealthy man.

He set up his own building company, TJ Gaughan Construction, in 1990.

According to the most recent accounts filed by the company, Mr Gaughan and his two fellow directors shared a salary of €250,000 in 2005.

They also benefited from a €3.9m payment into their pension scheme, compared to just €200,000 in 2004. The company has stocks of €8.2m.

At some point, Mr Gaughan decided to build a holiday home in his native village but he wouldhave been well aware ofthe problems thispresented.

Although the planning climate was much looser in Mayo in 1997, it would still have been extremely difficult to secure a site in one of the most scenic parts of the village.

But there was a desirable site available, just 200 metres from the local beach, and with spectacular views of Tullaghan Bay and Achill Island.

It was owned by a local small farmer, John Cooney.

According to planning files provided by Mayo County Council to the Irish Independent , his daughter Breege applied for planning permission to build on the one hectare site in May 1997.

On the face of it, it seemed a curious decision.

Ms Cooney had a job in the village's only factory, the now closed Eagle Isle Seafoods, but as someone living in a council house, it would presumably have been difficult for her to raise the finance for a large house on the site.

But her connection to the land meant that her planning application was almost guaranteed to succeed.

Under the section which required Ms Cooney to state her interest in the site, it said: "owner is applicant's father".

The application included detailed architect's drawings of the proposed 120 square metre house, with four bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room.

There was provision for a winding driveway up to the house and a new entrance to the public road via "a 3.6m wide gate".

The planners were also supplied with a copy of a small advertisement in the 'Western People' newspaper in May 1997 to show that requirement to notify the public had been complied with.

The ad was signed "B Cooney".

The planning application was duly granted in September, 1997.

According to Mr Gaughan's account of events, he had "no hand, act or part" in Ms Cooney's planning application and wasn't even aware it was being made.

However, according to documents from the Land Registry, he was named as the "full owner" of the Doohoma site on December 9, 1997 - just four months after planning permission had been granted. He subsequently obtained a land registration certificate on July 6, 1998.

Around the same time, there was a dramatic improvement in the Cooney family's housing status. John Cooney and his family had been living in a run-down council house in the village.

But in 1998, Mayo County Council built a new house for the family on the same site.

Ms Cooney's father, John, died in 2004, but she is still living in the family's council house.

Her mother Kate is listed by Mayo County Council as the main tenant.

The village has a charming, old-fashioned shop which doubles as a post office and a travelling grocer who calls to houses every Friday in his lorry.

The young people of the area are still migrating for work - albeit to Castlebar, Galway and Dublin rather than Britain.

Meanwhile, Mr Gaughan went on to build a holiday home on the coastal site, with a garage and a conservatory. It is located on the hillside overlooking the bay, with a curved tarmac driveway leading down to a set of locked black gates with gold ornamental decorations.

It is just 200 metres away from a sandy beach. There is no post box or name plate.

According to the Land Registry, the site was once part of 107 hectares of commonage land, which was subsequently divided into 50 sections.

All of the owners have been trying for the past six years to get a vesting order from the Department of Agriculture which would give them full legal title to their lands.

Mayo County Council has conceded it is "highly unlikely" that Mr Gaughan would now be permitted to build a holiday home in the area using planning permission granted to another person.

Under the 2005 sustainable housing guidelines, householders generally have to declare that they intend to use their rural one-off house themselves and cannot sell it for at least seven years.

But there was no "owner occupancy clause" inserted in Ms Cooney's 1997 planning permission - meaning that her father was entitled to sell the land to Mr Gaughan for building.

Mr Gaughan is now building another home in Doohoma on the site of his grandfather's former house.

He said it was for a cousin of his who is living in England.

It is not yet finished, so there are heaps of sand, timber and concrete blocks.

There's a site office in a port-a-cabin and the window frames are covered by blue plastic sheeting.

There is also a telescopic loader with a "T Gaughan Westport Road Castlebar" sticker on it.

He and his long-term partner Beverley Flynn are well known in the area due to their frequent stays in the holiday house.

Indeed, her popularity in the area was reflected in the fact that she got 50pc of the vote (117 ballots out of 234) in Doohoma in the general election.

Mr Gaughan did his bit for her election victory, canvassing personally for her in the Erris peninsula.

He also provided the prime Castlebar town site for the 'Flynn Headquarters', which had been previously occupied by a fruit and vegetable shop. When she took the final seat in the Mayo constituency, Ms Flynn personally thanked him in her victory speech.

However, she will not welcome the publicity about her holiday home as she attempts to navigate yet another obstacle in her stormy political career.

Ms Flynn is depending on a verbal assurance from Taoiseach Bertie Ahern that she will be re-admitted to Fianna Fail and appointed as a junior minister - if she can successfully deal with the bankruptcy proceedings being brought by RTE.

She did not return a call seeking comment.

There has been speculation that Mr Gaughan may step in as a "white knight" to save her but so far he has not done so.

If the couple married, he would avoid the prohibitive gift tax rate of 20pc (which could add another €600,000 onto the bill), but he has not done that so far, either.

Irish Independent

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