There was a shocked reaction in the political world during the week when details of a protection racket emerged in court. Two well-known criminals were paid off to guarantee the safety of construction sites in Cherry Orchard, west Dublin in 2016 and 2017, the High Court heard.
Payments were made to ensure that attacks on the site, where public housing was being built, would cease. In the course of one arson attack a worker had been seriously injured. Two Dublin City council officials advised the builders to co-operate with the criminals. Over half a million euro was handed over.
The site was left in peace after payments were initiated. The builders were subsequently reimbursed by the council. Since the court hearing, moral outrage has had a field day. Why should that be so?
After all, the general thrust of the racket has been known in the centres of power for the last three years. On September 29, 2016, the Herald ran a front page story about a criminal racket on the site in Cherry Orchard.
The report stated that Dublin City Council had launched an investigation into claims that a gang led by Derek O’Driscoll was providing “security” at the social housing building site. “Security”in this context is usually read as a protection racket.
It also emerged this week that Sinn Fein TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh and his councillor colleague Daithí Doolan contacted a number of senior politicians, the council, and An Garda Siochána about the criminality at the site on Christmas Eve 2016.
Doolan said that they followed up with another mail a fortnight later. The attacks on the site had been vicious by any standards, but nobody got back to him in a state of moral outrage. Among the recipients of the mails was the minister for justice.
According to a statement released on Thursday, the minister of the day, Frances Fitzgerald, passed the concerns onto gardaí, who were conducting an investigation.
So, by early 2017, both the council and the gardaí were investigating the matter. What happened those investigations? Asked about the racket on Wednesday, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said that “investigations are ongoing”.
Nearly three years after the Sinn Féin politicians first contacted the garda, investigations are ongoing? To be fair to the gardaí, this type of crime is difficult to crack, but one has to conclude that the protection racket at Cherry Orchard didn’t receive very high priority in Garda HQ.
Instead, it took a Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) investigation into the two criminals — O’Driscoll and his associate, Derek Reilly — and evidence tendered in the subsequent High Court action, before everybody apparently sat up and took notice.
On RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke on Thursday, Doolan noted that “this would not [have been] tolerated if it was Foxrock or Blackrock. They would have swooped in and dealt with it appropriately.”
He has a point. Cherry Orchard is a disadvantaged area. Is there a tacit acceptance in the centres of power that this kind of criminality goes on in disadvantaged communities? Tackling it would require serious resources, but make no mistake, those resources would be found if the criminality spread into salubrious neighbourhoods.
The High Court CAB case brought the whole affair out of the corridors of power and out of Cherry Orchard, and into the public domain, where it is, above all else, an embarrassment to the concept of law and order.
The other element to this case that meant it couldn’t be ignored any longer was the input of council officials.
The High Court was told that two officials advised the payment of protection money and had a role in facilitating it. As of now, it is unclear whether they were on a solo run or had received the nod from senior management.
Put yourself in the shoes of whomever made the decision. There were two choices. Pay the money and get the houses built. Or go to the guards and stop the work. Well, somebody had already gone to the guards and three years later they haven’t come up with anything of evidential value.
But if the contractor hadn’t paid up, the site would require 24/7 protection by An Garda Siochána.
Would that have been forthcoming? Would the houses have got built at a time of a housing emergency? There would have been a delay, possibly of years, and then everybody would be back to square one with some criminal once again extending a paw.
The council people were left in an invidious position. Over three years after the Herald reported that the council had opened an investigation into what was going on, it doesn’t appear as if there is any outcome regarding the culpability or otherwise of any employees.
Perhaps there is, in official circles, an acceptance that criminals will always look to skim the vast profits to be made in the construction industry. After all, until recent decades, some politicians required their palms to be greased if proposed developments were to get the appropriate rezoning in Dublin.
The man at the centre of the racket, Frank Dunlop, called it “pay to play”. It was little more than a protection racket in a suit and tie. That racket didn’t carry the threat of violence but neither was in without victims, as observed by the chair of the Planning Tribunal, Judge Alan Mahon.
“Corruption, and particular political corruption, is a deeply corrosive and destructive force,” Mahon wrote in his final report. “While frequently perceived as a victimless crime, in reality its victims are too many to be identified individually.”
So it went with a white-collar racket designed to skim from the construction business.
As with the racket in Cherry Orchard, the racket in rezoning was known to the dogs in the street. Once the smell became too much to bear, the government of the day conceded that something had to be done. A tribunal was set up and the dirty linen got an airing. As best as can be determined, the days of bungs for votes are behind us.
Will anything really be done about what went down in Cherry Orchard?
Possibly, now that it has been dragged out into the open and the criminals can’t be seen to be getting away with it. Maybe three years after being alerted to the racket, An Garda Siochana will make a breakthrough. But let’s not pretend that this is something that was hidden from view and is now receiving the requisite attention because it reeks of lawlessness.
There was knowledge of the racket in the centres of power, including the cabinet, garda HQ, and even the media. One can only surmise that the matter was not properly tackled because its location, in a disadvantaged area, meant that it really didn’t matter. At least not until this week when it was thrust headlong into the public square.