The project — with a stated cost of £3.9 million — was abandoned by the government on January 2, 1980, just three months after the winning design had been announced.
Taoiseach Charles Haughey was keen to get the message out that the project, begun by his predecessor Jack Lynch, was being scrapped because of the economic situation and enquiries were made of RTÉ after the official announcement did not make the main teatime news on TV.
But while Haughey may have been trying to avoid criticism in advance of his State of the Nation address scheduled for broadcast the following week, he wasn’t entirely honest with the public about the full cost the project would have exposed the taxpayers to.
A draft of the announcement included the line: “Architectural and other fees would have brought the estimated cost well over the £4 million mark and it is probable that if the scheme had gone ahead the eventual cost would have been well in excess of that amount.”
This line did not make it into the final statement. Nor did the reference, contained in another draft, to the £8,500 compensation payment that had to be made to the winning designer because the job was not proceeding. Files also reveal the design by winning firm Evans and Shalev was the third most expensive of 98 potential designs submitted by architects in Ireland and abroad.
As well as a five-bedroom Taoiseach’s private residence, the project was to include five full suites for official guests, a dining room to seat 30 people, a library for confidential talks, reception rooms, staff living quarters and accommodation for security personnel.
The decision to provide the residence and guesthouse was one of the first acts of Jack Lynch’s government in summer 1977. The plan was to completely gut, extend and rebuild the old house in Ashdown Demesne in the Phoenix Park, which was owned by the State but had been occupied on a lease for a nominal fee by the Papal Nuncio until the previous year.
Files show that the Office of Public Works estimated then that the cost of the project would be “not less than £1m” but in February 1979 they revised that upwards to between £1.5-£2m. That cost had leapt to a minimum of £3.9m by October that year.
The papers show the Papal Nuncio was keen to leave the property as it was in a state of disrepair and the OPW was helping to find him a suitable alternative with the State offering £50,000 to help him purchase a property.
This offer was hard for some government officials to swallow — memos show they highlighted the fact that the Irish State had to pay for its own diplomatic accommodation in the Vatican. However, neither were they keen on a suggestion from the Nuncio that they offer to sell the property to the Vatican as a way of getting some money for it and avoiding the ongoing costs of maintaining or renovating it.
That suggestion was not taken up. Instead, Haughey stated his wish that the property be used as a public building, such as a museum. It was later to become what it is today — the official Phoenix Park Visitor Centre.
The dream of a State guesthouse was realised in the last decade after the purchase of Farmleigh in the Phoenix Park from the Guinness family for £30m. There is still, however, no official Áras an Taoisigh.