Sunday 14 September 2008

Torrid time for Dunne's towering ambitions

IN a different life, Lucinda Creighton and Gayle Killilea might have been friends.

They have much in common. Both are blonde, attractive, possess sharp minds honed by Bar Council law exams and both display an unapologetic and piquant ambition to make their way in the world.

But these days it would be a brave hostess indeed who would invite these spicy women to break bread together at a Dublin southside soiree.

The blondes are vehemently on opposing sides in the battle of Ballsbridge -- sparked by the elaborate plan proposed by Ms Kililea's husband Sean Dunne to change the southside landscape forever with a 37-storey tower.

But what should be an intellectual, albeit feisty, divergence of opinion on what constitutes good planning has become a matter of personal rancour.

It stems from allegations made by the Fine Gael TD Ms Creighton about what happened at a meeting in a small room in the main building of the RDS a year ago.

The meeting was chaired by Ms Creighton -- then making a strong and ultimately successful tilt for a Dail seat. A significant plank in her election campaign was her opposition to Mr Dunne's Ballsbridge plan, and she organised the public meeting.

Ms Creighton alleged six weeks ago in an interview with a journalist from the Daily Mail that supporters of the Ballsbridge plan tried to humiliate her in front on a hundred people at the meeting.

"I'm already on the record as saying that they behaved like total thugs, shouting down elderly residents from the back of the room and being abusive and rude to me," she told the journalist.

Ms Creighton stood by those comments when contacted by the Sunday Independent, and repeated them to this newspaper. Legal letters were sent to the Dail deputy some weeks ago by Mr Dunne and two individuals by Ms Creighton in her allegations. Ms Creighton has responded with correspondence.

The substance of the allegations of "mob" rule by proponents of the Ballsbridge plan at that meeting were repeated at an An Bord Pleanala oral hearing which began at Croke Park last week and will continue this week.

Dublin City Councillor Paddy McCartan, who was making an observer submission on behalf of his Fine Gael colleague Ms Creighton, said a number of people felt "physically intimidated by the threatening behaviour of Mr Dunne's supporters on that night". Ms Creighton couldn't attend the oral hearing because she was at the wedding of a close friend and Mr McCartan stood in her stead.

At the oral hearing, a barrister for Mr Dunne described Mr McCartan's allegations as "outrageous" and "completely untrue" and asked the An Bord Pleanala Inspector, Tom Rabbette, to strike them from the record.

"[This] can only be seen as an orchestrated attempt to damage the credibility, good name and reputation of Mr Dunne and the applicants," he added.

"It is defamatory and amounts to an injurious falsehood."

In his submission, Mr McCartan had said many of the 90 third-party supporters to the development had professional, financial or familial connections with the applicants.

"This does not affect their right to submit their opinion, but it would have been a lot more honest if they had been open about any such connections with Mr Sean Dunne or his companies," he added.

Mr Rabbette is considering the application to strike Mr McCartan's comments from the record.

Ms Creighton told the Sunday Independent on Thursday that she agreed "100 per cent" with Mr McCartan's version of events given at the oral hearing. She said she would attend the oral hearing on Monday and if Mr McCartan's comments were struck out she would seek permission to address the oral hearing herself.

So what really happened at that meeting in the RDS? The claims by Ms Creighton and Mr McCartan of "mob rule" have annoyed not just Mr Dunne and those close to him. Others who attended the meeting and who are in favour of the Ballsbridge plan proposed by Mr Dunne are aghast and incredulous.

Their recollections of events at the RDS meeting are at variance with the claims of intimidation suggested by the two Fine Gael politicians.

Terence Grant, one of the directors of the Ringsend and Irishtown community centre which stands to gain a brand new facility built free by Mr Dunne if the developer's plans are given the go-head in Ballsbridge, attended the meeting.

"I went on behalf of the community centre and was standing at the back of the hall. I tried to speak by raising my hand to speak in favour, but I was just ignored by Lucinda who was chairing the meeting. I didn't get to speak. There was no intimidation whatsoever. There were some older people who were in favour of the plan and they got up to speak, but you could see that they were nervous. It wasn't even tense. If I was to describe the meeting I would say it was buoyant. People wanted to have their say. Everyone wanted to speak either for or against and she called mostly those who were opposed.

Aidan Powell, the well-known architect and noted landscape artist, also attended the meeting.

"I was there. There might have been a dozen people who had a positive view on the matter; people like Arthur Ryan, who is the MD of Penneys.

"The room was overcrowded with the result that a few of us straggled in when the meeting had actually started. People like Arthur Ryan, who is living directly across from the site, spoke up in favour.

"I think it would be fair to say that those who are opposed were somewhat surprised that people were putting a contrary view, but they had called a public meeting and people did speak in favour. To go so far as to say that there was intimidation or bullying is utter nonsense.

"There was one fellow at the front who tried to inject a bit of controversy into it by describing those of us in favour as 'the Fianna Fail hacks and their clapometer at the back', or words to that effect, but there was no pushing or shoving or personal animosity towards anyone from both sides. It was a lively meeting.

"The issue was that the meeting was largely about people saying 'we protest' about the plan and them being somewhat surprised to find there was a body of opinion that held a contrary view. This view that there was intimidation is a bit selective, a bit of a try on," Mr Powell said.

Another of those who attended was Orla Nolan, a member of Fine Gael, who is in favour of the Ballsbridge plan. She said that she was taken aback when she was asked before she entered the meeting who she was, how she had heard about the gathering, and where she lived.

"I replied that I thought it was a public meeting. I was ushered to the front by a gentleman who spotted an empty seat.

"The best way to describe the meeting was that it was combative in the sense that it was a pro and con meeting.

"I got the impression that the people around me didn't think people would turn up who supported the Ballsbridge plan.

"They presumed everyone supported Lucinda and her objections and it seemed to come as a surprise to them that there were people who were supporting the development."

"The room wasn't very large.

"It was very full. There was catcalling. Someone would say something, either pro or con, and someone who had the opposing view would say 'sit down!' or 'shut up!', but it was childish banter. There were no fisticuffs.

"What happened to me was that I tried to make a point. They obviously thought I was going to say something against the development but when I said something in favour the old biddies started to boo and hiss at me. I found it quite funny. Really there was nothing untoward. I heard no unpleasant interchanges really. I heard lively debate. There was an element of catcalling but it was of a playground nature," Ms Nolan told the Sunday Independent.

Meanwhile, Ms Creighton's view of the meeting has since changed as a release posted on her website at the time of the meeting did not mention intimidation or mob rule.

She described the meeting as "a lively debate" in which "all those present got to put forward and debate their views".


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