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# Controversy
Niall Collins: How Limerick County Council came to sell land to the Fianna Fáil TD's wife
Collins had not responded to the allegations until last night.

THE THREE COALITION leaders have expressed support for Fianna Fáil TD Niall Collins over the controversial sale of council land to his wife in 2008.

There have been calls for the junior minister to make a Dáil statement on the matter, which was raised at Leaders’ Questions this afternoon.

The allegations surrounding Collins relate to the sale by Limerick County Council of land located in the town of Patrickswell in 2008, when Collins was a member of the Dáil.

The council’s decision came a year after Collins attended a local committee meeting while still a Limerick County Councillor, during which local representatives agreed to recommend a full council vote to sell the land.

The Bruff committee was one of five local area committees on the old Limerick County Council, and was made up of seven councillors – including Collins – at the time.

It met once a month to coordinate services for communities in the Bruff area, as well as to propose votes on local issues at full council meetings.

In January 2007, the committee recommended that a full council vote should take place on the sale of land in Patrickswell; Collins was present at the meeting, and his wife Eimear O’Connor, a GP, had already written to the council through her solicitor to express an interest in the land a month previously.

Collins has become the focus of controversy for allegedly not recusing himself from the discussion or declaring that his wife had an interest in the land.

O’Connor subsequently purchased the land at Patrickswell from the council for €148,000 following a vote at a full meeting of Limerick County Council in 2008, by which time Collins had become a TD.

Collins issued a statement last night to clarify that he was not a member of the council in September 2008, because he was no longer a member of the local authority having been elected as a TD in May 2007.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act outlining the sequence of events were first reported by The Ditch website.

The Journal and other outlets sought access to the documents from Limerick County Council after allegations were first reported last week, receiving them this morning after Collins issued his statement last night.

‘In favour of disposal’

Correspondence released under FOI shows that the council received an expression of interest to purchase land via a letter to the local authority’s housing department from solicitor Patricia O’Connor.

“I write on behalf of a client who has instructed me to ascertain whether Limerick County Council would consider the disposal of the property outlined,” the solicitor wrote to the council on 15 December 2006 – a month before the local area meeting.

“My client is a [REDACTED] operating in the area and wishes to provide a centre within the environs of Patrickswell Village to provide this service to the local community.”

Minutes also released as part of that FOI response confirm that Collins was present for a motion at the Bruff local area committee on 15 January 2007 which dealt with the matter.

The minutes state that “a number of enquiries were received to purchase a parcel of land” at Patrickswell and that members present were “in favour of disposal”. (The Journal did not receive any other correspondence under FOI which detailed any other expression of interest in the land at Patrickswell.)

The motion was proposed by Fianna Fáil councillor Leonard Enright and seconded by Fine Gael councillor Richard Butler. No objections to the disposal of land were noted in the minutes. There was also no mention of any contribution or recusal by Niall Collins.  

Letter 1 Limerick County Council A handwritter letter about the sale of land, released under FOI Limerick County Council

On 21 March 2007, Paul O’Brien of P+W O’Brien auctioneers wrote to the council to say an offer had been made to buy the land at Patrickswell.

“These lands have been advertised in the Limerick Leader property section on two occasions, there has been good interest to date and this morning I received an offer of €110,000.00 for the land,” O’Brien wrote.

“The offer was made by Patricia O’Connor, Solicitor, Mallow Street, Limerick on behalf of her client [REDACTED] who plans to develop a medical centre thereon.

“There are other clients that I have given details to and I will await the hearing from them before the council makes a decision. I will update you when I receive any further offers.”

No other correspondence containing details of offers for the land were contained within the council’s FOI response.

Collins was subsequently elected as a TD for the Limerick West constituency in May 2007.

‘Agreed a sale’

On 14 September 2007, O’Brien contacted the council again to confirm that a sale of the land had been agreed for €148,000, to clients represented by Patricia O’Connor.

Two days later, O’Brien told the council in another letter that the buyers wanted to apply for planning permission for the site; he also asked the local authority to approve of the buyers’ decision to seek planning permission despite not yet owning the land.

“I would be grateful if you would prepare a letter stating that the purchasers’, [REDACTED] have permission from the vendor to apply for outline planning permission on the said lands,” he said.

“They are keen to get an application in to the planning department post haste.”

On 25 September, the council replied to confirm it was “happy to accept the offer of €148,000″ for the land at Main Street, Patrickswell.

“This sale is subject to outline planning permission being received within a reasonable time to be agreed and the approval of the full council for the disposal,” the council’s senior engineer Gerry Naughton wrote.

The council also confirmed on 28 September that it had ”no objection to [REDACTED] applying for planning permission on council-owned lands” at Patrickswell.

A planning file on Limerick County Council’s website confirms that Eimear O’Connor submitted a planning application to the local authority in December 2007 to build “a two-storey building comprising ground floor medical centre and first floor offices”.

The council granted conditional permission for the development on 9 June 2008.

Letter 1 Limerick County Council An image of the proposed medical centre submitted as part of an application for planning approval Limerick County Council

Sale of site

In an update to the head of the council’s housing department, James Fearne, on 26 August, senior engineer Gerry Naughton formally recommended the sale of the site to Eimear O’Connor. 

“A price of €148,000 was signed with the purchasers [REDACTED]. Planning permission was granted on 9th June 2008 for the construction of a two-storey building comprising of a ground floor medical centre and first floor offices to {REDACTED] who I believe is going to purchase the site on [REDACTED] own now,” he wrote.

“Therefore I recommend that the site be sold for €148,000 and the formal disposal notice be placed before the next suitable meeting of the full Council for approval.” 

Limerick County Council then issued a notice for the disposal of the site on 1 September, ahead of a full council meeting on 22 September when the sale of the land to Eimear O’Connor for €148,000 was approved.

The motion, Item 5 (b) on that month’s agenda, was proposed by Fianna Fáil’s Kevin Sheahan and seconded by another Fianna Fáil councillor James Cavanagh – who replaced Niall Collins on the council when he was elected to the Dáil the previous year.

However, the medical centre was never built on the site.

In the years after the sale of the land to her, O’Connor submitted a number of other applications for planning permission at the site.

In 2020, Limerick County Council granted conditional approval for the construction of a terrace of five two-storey houses at the site.

Expression of support

In a statement last night, Collins said the sale of land was a “transparent and open” process.

He said that “in September 2008 at a statutory meeting of the Limerick County Council the sale of a property in Patrickswell was approved and sold following a transparent and open sales process, which was open to all”.

“For the record I was not a member of the council in September 2008, having been elected as a TD in May 2007. Prior to the sale in 2008, the property was advertised in the local public press,” Collins said.

“When the council executive recommended to the Bruff LEA committee that the property should be put up for sale in January 2007, neither I nor my wife had any pecuniary or beneficial interest in that property. There was no disagreement to the executive’s recommendation.”

The mention of ‘pecuniary and beneficial interest’ in Collins’ statement reflects the language of Section 177 of the Local Government Act, which states that a member who has a pecuniary or other beneficial interest or is connected to a person with same should disclose the nature of that interest at the meeting before it is discussed.

Today, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Collins’ party leader and Tánaiste Micheál Martin and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan were united in expressions of support for the Limerick TD.

However, the three Coalition leaders all said that Collins should have recused himself from the 2007 Bruff local area meeting.

Speaking to reporters, Martin said that although the local area committee did not have the legal power to dispose of the land in question, Collins should have declared that his wife was interested in buying the land.

“In hindsight, it would have been better, I think, if that particular factor was identified perhaps and recused,” the Tánaiste said.

But it was, I think, 17 or 18 months later before that land was disposed of [at the full council meeting].

“It was an open sales process, transparently advertised and disposed of by the council in 2008. I’ve been a member of a council, and it’s only councils can dispose of property.”

Housing Conference-2 Coalition leaders at a conference today, when they expressed support for Collins

Asked whether Collins had not yet answered allegations that were first reported last week, the Tánaiste said: “I don’t agree with you.”

“He answered [the questions]. He is happy and the decision that Niall Collins made was to come before the Dáil to clear up the questions and to make a statement,” Martin added.

This is in reference to previous allegations about a 2001 planning application that he made, in which it was claimed he did not meet the correct criteria to apply for permission to build a house, also in Patrickswell.

Collins told the Dáil in March that he “met the correct planning criteria” and that his application “was correctly adjudicated on”.

Martin’s response today was echoed by both the Taoiseach, who said that local meetings did not have the power to dispose of land and that Collins was no longer a councillor by the time that Limerick County Council voted to do so.

“I think all of us have been members of local authorities, and the only time that land can be sold by local authority, because it’s a reserve function, is at a meeting of the full council,” Leo Varadkar said.

“And Minister Collins wasn’t even a member of the council at the time when the property was disposed.

“I think, as the Tánaiste said, it would have been better practice for him not to have participated in the local area committee. But the suggestion that some sort of law was broken or that he was involved in authorising the sale of this property just isn’t correct.”

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan suggested that Collins had responded to the “key issues” at the centre of the controversy and echoed the comments of the other Coalition leaders.

“I would say that he should have recused himself in that area committee, but the fact that the house was sold on the open market, anyone could have purchased it,” Ryan said.

“As the Tánaiste has just said, that was decided not the committee but at the council. Mr Collins can answer any other further questions, but they’re they’re the key issues.”

Until last night, Collins had not commented on the allegations since they were first reported last week.

His statement came after People Before Profit’s Paul Murphy wrote to the Dáil’s business committee yesterday to request time for Collins to make a statement to fellow TDs about the sale of land, which would allow the junior minister to respond to the allegations. 

Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall told RTÉ’s Upfront programme last night that Collins should request time in the Dáil to make a statement on the matter, as there are still “outstanding questions”.

“I think the best thing would be for Niall Collins to request time himself and I’m sure there’d be no difficulty. The Ceann Comhairle and the chief whip would agree to that and indeed, all parties would,” she said.

“I think it would be very helpful if he came into the Dáil because there are outstanding questions, and I think it would be a good idea if he responded.”

It emerged today that Collins would make a statement on the matter in the Dáil.

However, speaking during Leaders’ Questions today, Paul Murphy called for a the statement to accompany a Q&A session, claiming that Collins’ statement last night did not refute allegations about the council’s sale of land.

“He did not dispute a single one of the allegations of what was set out [...], he didn’t dispute the fact that his wife contacted Limerick County Council when he was a councillor seeking to buy a parcel of land,” Murphy said.

“He did not dispute the fact that he didn’t recuse himself. He didn’t declare his conflict of interest.”

Murphy added: “We therefore need to have, not just a statement; we need the opportunity for TDs to have questions and answers with Niall Collins.”

Contains reporting by Jane Moore.