Taking a hit for the underdogs

County View

John Healy

EVEN in an age of rampant materialism, something comes along every now and then to restore one’s faith in human nature. Something happens to remind us that there is still room for principle and decency even in the bear pit of the commercial jungle.
There was such an incident last week when a Dublin firm was offered the contract to restore the historic windows of the legendary Clery’s premises in O’Connell Street. The store, as is well-known and documented, was shut down abruptly by its new owners last year , and nearly 500 workers summarily lost their jobs overnight.
The specialised windows contractor, Lambstongue, thought about the contract and then said thanks, but no, thanks. At least, not until the owners agreed to meet the sacked workers - something they have steadfastly refused to do since the day they closed. The end result was that Lambstongue - the only company in Ireland qualified to carry out the work - lost the contract but, as its manager Kevin Meehan said, earned huge admiration and praise for standing up for the Clery’s workers.
To recap, it all started last year when ownership of Clerys changed hands. The venerable store had been owned for generations by the Guiney family, which had over borrowed in the years of the Celtic Tiger, as did so many others, to finance property expansions. When the tide went out, Guineys found themselves unable to meet their repayments, Bank of Ireland foreclosed, and sold off the iconic store to Gordon Brothers, a Boston investment group, for €15m, in 2012.
The first move by Gordons (while publicly professing to be ‘acutely conscious of and respectful towards the store’s heritage and traditions’), was to split the new acquisition in two - OCS Operations, to run the day to day retailing business, and OCS Properties, which would own the store building and whatever adjacent property came with it.
Then last year, Gordons sold on the entire entity to an Irish creation called Natrium for a sum of € 29m. Natrium’s shareholders are a company called D2, owned by Sligo-born businesswoman Deirdre Foley, and Cheyne Capital, a UK finance company. The ink was hardly dry on the agreement when Natrium hived off the OCS Operations arm to a London insolvency practitioner for the sum of one pound sterling (£1), who in turn immediately petitioned the High Court to appoint a liquidator to close down Clerys. All of that was done and dusted on the Friday afternoon of the deal, and by close of business, the stunned employees were assembled to be told that their jobs were gone. Full stop. The store was closed, and there was no need to come in tomorrow.
The workers were told they would qualify for statutory redundancy only, nothing more, with no recognition given for what was in many cases a lifetime of service. Despite appeals and entreaties, Natrium has refused to engage in any way with the workers, They have flatly rejected all approaches from angry staff who feel they have been the victims of a heartless duplicity. OCS Properties (aka Natrium) which now plans a hotel and retail development for the site, simply shrugs its shoulders and says tough, but nothing to do with us.
Meanwhile, Cheyne Capital, it is said, is not best pleased with the unwelcome adverse publicity being generated by the stonewalling attitude of its Dublin partners.
Other than that, the hapless ex-workers have got little solace out of their situation. And that is why, for them, the public gesture of support for their cause shown by Lambstongue is particularly welcome.
It has revived their flagging campaign, and has drawn huge attention once again to the shameful way they were consigned to the scrapheap.