Fianna Fáil junior minister and ex-county councillor Niall Collins voted to sell council-owned land that was bought by his wife.
Collins’s wife, Eimear O’Connor, had written to the council the month before the council meeting seeking to buy the land. O’Connor’s was the only expression of interest received by the council, according to documents released to The Ditch.
O’Connor is now in negotiations to sell the council five social housing units on the site. Collins this February had to deny his ownership of the site after a planning consultant – hired by his wife – claimed in an email to local residents that Collins in fact owns the site.
It is a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment, for a councillor to vote on a matter where his spouse has a material interest.
One expression of interest. One vote to sell the land
A solicitor for Eimear O’Connor, wife of Fianna Fáil minister of state and former Limerick County Councillor Niall Collins, on 15 December, 2006 wrote to Limerick County Council’s director of housing services.
The solicitor enquired whether the council would be willing to sell a site on Main Street, Patrickswell to O’Connor, writing that her “client is a general practitioner operating in the area and wishes to provide a centre within the environs of Patrickswell Village to provide this service to the local community”.
The following month on 15 January at a council meeting attended by Collins, a council housing engineer “stated that a number of enquiries were received to purchase a parcel of land”, according to meeting minutes.
However according to documents released to The Ditch under the freedom of information act, O’Connor’s was the only enquiry regarding the land.
Collins’s fellow Fianna Fáil councillor Leonard Enright proposed a motion to sell the land. All seven councillors present, Collins included, voted in favour of the motion.
Under section 177 of the Local Government Act 2001, when councillors have “actual knowledge that… a connected person (spouse) has a pecuniary or other beneficial interest in, or which is material to, the matter", they are prohibited from voting and must declare the conflict of interest to the local authority. Failure to do so is an indictable criminal offence under section 181 of the act.
“While the method of disposal was not yet decided,” read the meeting minutes, “it would be by open market and the matter would be brought back to the area meeting again for further consideration.”
The site was twice advertised for sale in the Limerick Leader property section, according to freedom of information documents. The sale to O’Connor was decided in August 2008 for €148,000. She didn’t take out a mortgage to buy the land, according to Land Registry records.
O’Connor is now negotiating with the council to sell it five social housing units on the land it previously owned.
In February 2020, along with business partner Noel Daly, she received planning permission for the construction of five homes on the site. Fergal Cusack of building and planning consultancy Cusack and Associates submitted the successful application.
The following year Cusack sent an email where he claimed Niall Collins is in fact the owner of the site. “Niall Collins TD is the owner and he is happy to meet with you… to discuss. Feel free to give him a call,” wrote Cusack, before sharing Collins’s mobile number.
When contacted by The Ditch in February this year about this email, Collins denied both his ownership of the site and that he knows Cusack. “Well the planner’s wrong… I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Collins at the time, adding, “I’m not the owner of the site at Patrickswell. It’s as simple as that.”
Negotiations with the council for the sale of the social housing remain ongoing.
The council received an email in April 2020 from the site’s owners wishing “to communicate an expression of interest in developing a turnkey proposal with Limerick City and County Council”.
The email stated, “We own two adjacent sites at Main Street Patrickswell which now has planning permission 20/125 granted for a terrace of five number, two story-two bed units.”
The site’s owners “are happy to engage fully to explore and advance a proposal”, reads the email to Limerick City and County Council housing executive.
Collins declined to comment.