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Dublin: 14°C Thursday 23 September 2021

Ahern dismissed plans for a National Stadium - five years before announcing his own

Ahern “abruptly” dismissed proposals to back a stadium in Neilstown – while Eamon Dunphy and Pee Flynn were involved in botched plans to move Wimbledon FC to Dublin.

Eamon Dunphy helped developer Owen O'Callaghan proceed with plans to move Wimbledon F.C. to Dublin.
Eamon Dunphy helped developer Owen O'Callaghan proceed with plans to move Wimbledon F.C. to Dublin.
Image: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

BERTIE AHERN “abruptly” dismissed a proposal for the government to offer financial backing to a new ‘National Stadium’ in 1994 – only five years before himself backing plans for a 65,000-seater national venue.

Previously private documents published by the Mahon Tribunal alongside its final report include a written disclosure from property developer Owen O’Callaghan in 2007 – in which he recounts a meeting with Ahern seeking financial backing for a stadium.

O’Callaghan had approached then-Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in 1994 inquiring if the government wished to part-fund a stadium for which he had been granted planning permission at Neilstown in Clondalkin, west Dublin.

Reynolds is purported to have told the developer – whose name appears frequently across the reports, as one of the main developers connected with payments to politicians – that the government could back the plan, but that it would need the approval of the Minister for Finance.

That minister was Bertie Ahern, who held a meeting with O’Callaghan and an American investor who was prepared to put up some of the cash for the IR£60 million stadium, which was never ultimately built.

O’Callaghan’s testimony insists that this meeting lasted “approximately 10 minutes”, however, before Ahern “abruptly told us that the Government would not support this stadium financially and that he did not envisage a stadium being built as [sic] Neilstown.”

O’Callaghan’s proposal would have seen the government pay £2 million towards the construction of the stadium each year for 20 years. He had intended that the stadium be used by the Republic of Ireland international side, fresh from their run at the FIFA World Cup in 1994, instead of the IRFU-owned Lansdowne Road.

Labour’s withdrawal from government a few weeks later meant that Fianna Fáil last power – and when it returned three years later, with Ahern as leader and Taoiseach, he set about plans to build his own National Stadium at Abbotstown, informally dubbed the ‘Bertie Bowl’, with a significantly larger capacity.

In an interview in 2011, the former Taoiseach described his failure to build a national stadium as his greatest regret from his 11 years in power.

The ‘Dublin Dons’

The testimony goes on to indicate how broadcaster Eamon Dunphy approached O’Callaghan after this meeting, proposing to bring Wimbledon FC – then a popular side in the English Premier League – to Dublin.

Dunphy said he knew Sam Hammam, the Lebanese businessman who was chairman of Wimbledon at the time, and introduced O’Callaghan to him to try and get the move underway.

“One of the problems in bringing Wimbledon to Dublin was to get permission from the EU because of the Bosman ruling,” O’Callaghan wrote, referring to a European court ruling which ensured footballers had free movement within EU member states.

“I arranged through Mr Brian Crowley MEP [a Fianna Fáil MEP for Munster] to meet with Mr Padraig Flynn, who was then an EU Commissioner in Brussels, to discuss this possibility with him and to ask him to speak to his fellow commissioners.”

Crowley obliged and set up a “very constructive meeting” in Brussels with Flynn, Hammam and his brother, and two London barristers – where the commissioner said he fully supported the idea of bringing Wimbledon to Dublin.

But although Flynn “promised to do what he could” with the other members of the Commission to progress the idea, “nothing happened”.

“In any event, the Football Association of Ireland was adamant that Wimbledon would not come to Dublin and take part in the English Premiership based in Dublin,” he added. ”The English Premiership Chairmen supported the idea of Wimbledon coming to Dublin.”

Dunphy later gave oral evidence to the Tribunal, recounting conversations with O’Callaghan who had given the impression of having bribed Bertie Ahern to secure favourable tax status for two major shopping centres in Blanchardstown and Liffey Valley.

Flynn, meanwhile, was found to have taken a corrupt payment worth £50,000 from developer Tom Gilmartin, which had been intended as a donation to the Fianna Fáil party but which Flynn had instead used “for his personal benefit”.

About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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