The news that Thornton Hall, once planned to be the site of the State’s newest prison, may be used for housing, brings the curtain down on a memorably expensive folly.
Described as a ‘Celtic Tiger mistake’, the 150 acres close to Dublin Airport was acquired for €30 million in 2005, with the intention of building a 1,400 cell replacement for Mountjoy Prison. A further €20 million was spent when access roads, services and legal fees were added on.
Since then, it has lain idle, not a sod ever turned on the grandiose plan. In the past four years, €700,000 has been spent on maintenance and security of the site; in 2015, its value, according to the State Valuation Office, had fallen to €2.4 million.
But it was the almost offhand way in which the Thornton Hall decision was made that really underlined how public money was recklessly mismanaged in those years of artificial boom. The Minister for Justice, John O’Donoghue, TD, following extensive consultation, had made the decision to revamp and modernise the existing Mountjoy prison.
Two months later, his successor, Michael McDowell, overturned the decision, announcing that Mountjoy would be demolished, and that a new prison would be built on a greenfield site. John Lonergan, then Governor of Mountjoy, learned of the news on his car radio.
Thornton Hall was, however, symptomatic of the time. Public monies were routinely squandered on government inspired projects which were poorly researched, with minimal consideration, but for which there seemed to be an endless supply of exchequer funding. There was little by way of public accountability and, in the slipstream of the economic bonanza, few eyebrows were raised when public money was seen to disappear into bottomless sinkholes. Ambitious projects were allowed to run out of control as good money followed bad in the smug belief that Ministers could do no wrong and that ill-conceived schemes would somehow come right at the end of the day.
And so it was with the e-voting machines, that prized plan to modernise our outdated voting system and forever do away with Bertie Ahern’s ‘stubby auld pencils’. The 7,500 machines had cost €55 million by the time it was finally admitted that they would not work and that it was all money gone down the drain. Worse still, they were too useless to be offloaded to someone more gullible than ourselves. Eventually, they were sold off as scrap for € 70,000, to a buyer who had to be pressed to reluctantly agree to take them off the Government’s hands. It was the end of a nightmare for the Minister behind the scheme, Martin Cullen, who nonetheless emerged unscathed from a debacle which would have cost him dear in any other walk of life.
But there were other grandiose follies. There was the PPARS system, the HSE information technology project whose estimated cost of €9 million had escalated to €130 million before the plug was finally pulled and it was quietly put to storage in a sealed basement.
There was the project called Media Lab Europe which cost €150 million of taxpayers’ money before it was wound up with consultants describing its output as ‘dismal’.
And then there was the ‘Bertie Bowl’ – so named by former Minister, Pat Rabbitte – the huge sports complex planned to be built in Abbottstown in west Dublin on 500 acres. When the estimated cost went from €350 million to €900 million, and then went on to top €1 billion the project was shelved. And Bertie’s 65,000-seater stadium never came to pass.