'Sickening': McDowell calls on Murphy to probe any role Housing dept had in 'protection money' racket

'Sickening': McDowell calls on Murphy to probe any role Housing dept had in 'protection money' racket
Michael McDowell

Former Minister for Justice Senator Michael McDowell has called on the Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy to investigate any role played by his department in the payment of “protection money” on social housing building sites.

“It is essential that he looks at his department. He is the man now responsible for housing activities. He needs to know what did they do?” Senator McDowell told RTÉ radio’s Today with Sean O’Rourke show.

Evidence before the High Court this week set out how two Dublin City Council workers advised contractors working on house building projects for the Council to pay for “fence maintenance” in order that antisocial behaviour directed against the contractors’ sites would stop.

“Is this happening elsewhere?” he asked.

Senator McDowell, who is also a former Attorney General, described the seeking of protection money as “parasitic activity” and said it was despicable that it was aimed at communities who badly needed the housing developments.

“It is sickening,” he said.

It has to be made “very clear” that under no circumstances could any contractors “be encouraged to engage with protection racket payments”, he added.

On Tuesday, the High Court heard Dublin City Council officials were aware and recommended protection money be paid to two criminals so that social housing could be built in west Dublin in 2016 and 2017.

Three firms, who were developing the homes for the council, were paying between €1,200 and €1,500 a week. While no money was paid directly by the council to the criminals, the firms were reimbursed by the council.

Sinn Féin councillor Dáithí Doolan, who along with party colleague Aengus O Snodaigh TD, had first raised the matter in December 2016, told RTÉ that if such activities had taken place in Foxrock, action would have been taken immediately.

Cllr Doolan told of how he sent an email on Christmas Eve 2016 to the Ministers for Justice and Housing and the Minister of State for National Drugs Strategy, Dublin City Council officials and gardaí. He sent a further detailed email in early January 2017.

“Why were our emails ignored?” he asked.

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy
Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy

It was disgraceful that criminal actions were holding the area to ransom, he added. One worker had nearly lost his life, he said when he was doused in petrol and set on fire. “They are dealing with it now after the horse has bolted.

“I tried shouting from the rooftops, but I was met with silence.”

Senator McDowell pointed out that any decision to advise the payment of protection demands would have been made at senior level within the Council, which raised the question about how “independent” an investigation by Dublin City Council would be, he said.

Evidence heard in court this week

A known criminal and his associate are alleged to have extorted money from companies building houses in Dublin by offering them protection from anti-social behaviour in return for thousands of euro per week.

Justice Carmel Stewart at the High Court on Tuesday found that more than €250,000 in four bank accounts linked to Derek O'Driscoll is the proceeds of crime. The Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) seized the bank accounts in December 2018 and Justice Stewart's order means that the money will be kept by the State.

During Tuesday's hearing, Benedict O'Floinn SC, acting for the State, told Justice Stewart that gardaí and the Chief Bureau Officer at CAB had made statements detailing O'Driscoll's involvement in drug dealing in Ballyfermot and the wider Dublin area. Gardaí had also detailed the activities of David Reilly, an associate of O'Driscoll who gardaí said worked as an "enforcer" in O'Driscoll's organisation. He said the two men's lifestyles, which included foreign holidays, expensive cars and properties were financed by drug dealing, extortion and offences under the tax code.

He further detailed statements gardaí took from representatives of three building firms who said they had hired O'Driscoll, of Croftwood Grove, Ballyfermot or his associate David Reilly of Croftwood Park after suffering ongoing anti-social behaviour at their sites in the Ballyfermot/Cherry Orchard area of Dublin.

One of the companies that hired Reilly and O'Driscoll was building houses for Dublin City Council and another was building for Co-Operative Housing Ireland.

Large sums of money 'that appear to come from extortion'

Mr O'Floinn said the court could ask: "What is going on in this city that Dublin City Council and building companies would see it as appropriate that individuals such as the respondents should be paid simply so that housing can be built in the areas that need it most."

Mr O'Driscoll and Mr Reilly denied involvement in criminality and John Noonan BL, on their behalf, told the court that the money was legitimately obtained for "fence maintenance", a service provided to the building companies.

Delivering her judgment Justice Stewart said she accepts there are reasonable grounds for the evidence of the CAB's Chief Officer who said that he believes O'Driscoll and Reilly are involved in "serious criminality". In particular, Mr O'Driscoll is involved in the distribution of drugs in the Ballyermot and wider Dublin area, she said.

She noted that once Mr O'Driscoll and Mr Reilly became involved in security at the sites the anti-social behaviour stopped. One company had paid €1,500 per week for the service and another had paid €1,200 per week.

A company with a site at the junction of Blackditch Road and Orchard Lawns had suffered "an ongoing series of incidents". Mr Reilly's name was offered to them by locals and within half an hour Mr Reilly met someone from the site. Justice Stewart said the anti social behaviour at the site appeared to have ceased immediately.

She said Mr O'Driscoll's accounts had received large sums of money that "appear to come from extortion". She said that if he were operating a legitimate fencing business you would expect the company would have tools and equipment and VAT records. She said the building companies that handed over the money were trying to operate legitimate businesses and had to do something to protect their sites and machinery. She added: "They had no choice but to pay this money in order to acquire protection, safety and security to continue the legitimate work they had been contracted to do."

She noted that gardaí had named Mr Reilly as a "trusted member" and an "enforcer" in Mr O'Driscoll's organisation. She said she was not satisfied that the respondents had offered legitimate explanations for how the money came to be in their possession and ordered that it be kept by the State under Section 3 of the Criminal Assets Bureau Act. She also ordered that a mobile home and a horse box that was seized by CAB officers arising from the same operation be kept by the State.

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