Ciara Roche looks at the Priory Hall debacle…

A three week deadline for a solution to the case of Priory Hall has been set by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan almost three years after over 200 residents were evacuated from their homes. The deadline has come into place almost 18 months after the collapse of a mediation process installed by Supreme Court Judge Joseph Finnegan.

Referred to by Taoiseach Enda Kenny as “one of the worst excesses of the so-called tiger years, and ” the case of Priory Hall has been an ongoing reminder of the indulgences of the Celtic Tiger. After Dublin County Council found that the complex was not meeting fire safety regulations and Coalport ltd. building company failed to fix these issues, treat 180 apartments were given a court order to be evacuated. Residents were given six months accommodation by Dublin County council, site but had to continue paying the mortgage on homes that were deemed unsafe to live in. Nearly three years after the building was labelled “potentially dangerous,” and residents were deemed “practically homeless,” a resolution is still in the works.

After the owner of the building company Tom McFeely was made bankrupt in 2012, it seems the residents of Priory Hall have been fighting a battle where no one is listening. The banks have insisted on continued payment of mortgages in unlivable homes. Tom McFeely’s bankruptcy has left Priory Hall abandoned and with no responsibility for the dangers that drove over 250 residents out of their homes. Whilst many have called for the imprisonment of McFeely due to his knowledge of the cutbacks that forced the evacuation of residents, as well as the twenty four thousand euro bill he failed to pay, he still remains a free man. Found this week with over one hundred thousand hidden in his house in Dublin, McFeely is still both a victim and an example of the dark side of Celtic Tiger Ireland.

Designed by Opperman Associates and built by Coalport ltd, building on Priory Hall was finished in Spring 2006 and sold to customers at affordable prices, attracting many first-time buyers and young families. Donaghmede had been transformed in recent years and was advertised as an up-and-coming area with close proximity to the city centre and convenient transport routes. The development was hailed by Catriona O’Connor of Hamilton Osborne King estate agents as “something for everyone” from “investors to first-time buyers.” Ireland’s property bubble had seen a dramatic increase in property prices from the beginning of the 2000’s and was at its peak in 2006. For many years the difficulty for first-time buyers and young families was that they could not afford a place on a property ladder where increasing prices were a prominent downside to Ireland’s increasing austerity. Priory Hall was welcomed as an affordable and attractive option for the young market.

In December 2010, reports mounted about serious safety concerns in many of Coalport Ltd’s developments. Chief fire officer for Louth, Eamonn Wolff described the Ard na Cleine apartment complex in Dundalk as “potentially dangerous” and as a “serious matter” as it became clear residents were allowed to move into homes that did not follow procedural fire safety regulations. It transpired that many of Coalport Ltd’s recent buildings had neglected to correctly build regulatory fire safety features in order to save on building costs. A fire safety notice was given on both buildings by Dublin City Council and with increasing complaints over safety concerns Labour Party TD Tommy Broughan raised the issue in the Dail. After the initial fire notice, Coalport Ltd. were given four months to rectify the complaints. Dublin County Council removed their tenants from the Priory Hall complex due to it being a “potentially dangerous building,” but many residents continued living in the complex with hopes of a resolution. The council pledged that “if the houses aren’t completed to make it safe; we will consider legal action.” A Coalport Ltd. spokesman reassured residents that they weren’t going to be “thrown out into the street.” A Dublin City Council spokesperson agreed that the “fire authority is not going to tell people to move out.”

In October 2011, residents of 137 apartments received letters ordering them them to vacate their homes. Dublin County Council’s city architects had found increasing structural damage that would cause flooding and damp in the future coinciding with the building’s fire safety hazards. It became clear that whilst the the architects of Priory Hall had designed the building with the correct fire safety regulations in place, Coalport ltd. had not followed these guidelines. Residents were warned that there was a “serious risk to the safety of the persons in the event of a fire on the premises.” Dublin County Council refused to explain how the building had gotten past initial fire safety regulations. It became clear that the building had in fact never been investigated by fire safety inspectors. Insurance cover was revoked from the building leaving residents “essentially exposed in the case of a fire.”

The case brought the practice of the ‘self-regulation’ of building companies to light. Building companies were entrusted with regulating building codes and safety regulations with little or no council intervention. The issue of regulation was already filling the news headlines due to the question of the extent of banking regulation. A lack of regulation by the Irish government was being reported as being one of the reasons for the banking crisis and subsequent economic downturn. The Irish boom during the Celtic Tiger years was revealed to be fueled by a lack of regulation that had now caused the worst recession in history.
The banking crisis had caused a panic in the country. The reclaiming of loans and drying up of credit began to take its toll. The residents of Priory Hall, whilst evacuated from their homes due to severe safety hazards, were still expected to repay their mortgages to the faltering banks.

During this time in limbo, residents were permitted meetings with the county council. They were provided with housing paid for by the council whilst redevelopments were supposed to be taken by the Coalport ltd. building company. However, as time went on residents began protesting outside the Dail because of the lack of action and resolution to their housing crisis. Some residents faced paying mortgages for their houses in Priory Hall as well as renting accommodation whilst they waited. Unable to sell the dangerous housing, one resident described his experience as “a noose around the neck… It doesn’t feel like a home anymore.” With McFeely’s bankruptcy and a lack of support from the residents local TD’s, Priory Hall residents became a fixture outside the Dail and in the media as their plight highlighted them as victims of the Irish recession.

One resident who campaigned for a resolution for the evacuees of Priory Hall was Fiachra Daly found dead in July 2013. His partner Stephanie Meehan publicly announced his suicide. She claimed that the stress from the evacuation of their home was a factor in his death. Fiachra Daly was a prominent resident who protested for justice for the occupants of Priory Hall. However, four days after publicly announcing his death Stephanie Meehan received a letter from KCB bank who granted the couple their mortgage for their Priory Hall apartment. The letter, claims Ms. Meehan, still owed a further debt of 17,000 that was not covered by Fiachra Daly’s Life Assurance. After the letter was publicly reported on, the bank subsequently decided not to pursue the remaining debt of the widowed mother of two. However, the faith of 250 other owners is said by banks to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Whilst the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Phil Hogan, the Minister for the Environment fail to speak on the subject or meet residents, the deadline set by Hogan is a light at the end of a five year struggle. This ongoing battle for the basic human right of shelter has been ignored for too long. Justice for Priory Hall residents who challenged failing banks, lying businessmen and an uninterested government, would be a true victory for all of Ireland.