On May 20th 2010, Dublin City Council received an intriguing planning application. It was made in the name of a man named Martin Lanigan. A few days earlier the planning advertisement had appeared in the Sunday Business Post, followed by a location advertisement at New Cabra Road, Cabra, Dublin 7. The advertisement had not attracted much attention, probably because no one had ever heard of Martin Lanigan and because the Sunday Business Post had a small circulation.
The bungalow on the site was empty. However, technically it was still owned by a successful Mayo attorney, Brendan Flanagan. He was the legal personal representative of the previous owner, the late Mary Stafford, a member of the local Fianna Fáil Stafford family. Flanagan was a well-known activist from Fianna Fáil. Martin Lanigan, who had a ‘deal of sale’ for the property, was not yet the legal owner, although he was the applicant for planning permission.
Brendan Flanagan sent a letter to Dublin City Council saying that he had no objection to Martin Lanigan applying for this permit and that he approved the application. Nobody disagreed. No wonder, because the application aimed to convert a dreary bungalow into a mini villa. The tone of the entire neighborhood would be raised by such a dramatic transformation.
The site was in the posh part of Cabra. Martin Lanigan had done everything by the book. He had attended a pre-planning consultation with area planning officer Margaret Coyle. He had hired professional architect Fitzgibbon McGinley, with offices in Naas, Co. Kildare, to design and execute his elaborate plans.
It is clear from the list of their commercial clients that Fitzgibbon McGinley does not come cheap. Neither did the builders chosen by Martin Lanigan. Weslin Construction of Damastown, Dublin 15 has a first class customer base.
The name of Mary Lou McDonald, the applicant’s wife, was nowhere to be found on Martin Lanigan’s application, nor was it likely that anyone reading the notice would associate her with it. In 2010, very few people would have recognized Mary Lou’s husband’s name. He rarely, if ever, appeared with her in public anywhere, not even at election counts. Politicians and the media knew that somewhere in the background, a “Mr. McDonald’, but that was about it.
The scale of the proposed enlargement of the house was amazing. It would be unrecognizable – practically a new apartment – when it was finished. It would no longer be a bungalow. It was to have two floors, five bedrooms, ensuite bathrooms, a living room, dining room, family room, kitchen, study/meeting room, and playroom. It would need a completely new roof and would be largely gutted on the inside. At 254m² it was almost three times the size of the average Irish house. The building permit literally flew through the tires. The last observation day was June 23, 2010. There were none. The permit was issued on July 8th.
Exactly one week before the date of the formal planning decision, the property changed hands for €517,000, according to the Property Price Register Ireland. According to land registry records, it then passed from Brendan Flanagan as executors of the estate to Martin Lanigan and Mary Lou McDonald. There is a Bank of Ireland mortgage on the house.
Martin and Mary Lou had moved several times since their marriage in 1996. There was little doubt that it was their political ambitions that defined the area in which they lived. By 2011 it appeared she had decided to settle permanently in the Dublin constituency, which she considered her political home. She had lived in a modest semi-detached house in Castleknock, Dublin West when she ran for that constituency in 2002 and continued to live there until she and Martin sold it in November 2008.
They then stayed strictly within the confines of their new hunting ground, Dublin Central. First they leased 23 Ashington Heath, off Navan Road, followed by another nearby property, 22A Villa Park Road, both in the Cabra area. Cabra was the basis for her career aspirations. Martin Lanigan did whatever it took to secure the small bungalow in Cabra, but the timing of the purchase was ill-timed and could have become picky if the couple’s names became public.
If Martin and Mary Lou had been seen involved in such an elaborate planning project just before the 2011 general election, there might have been a huge media frenzy and left-wing backlash from Éirígí and others. However, there are likely to have been dozens of malicious, politically motivated objections in the couple’s defense. There would certainly have been deeply critical comments.
Reconstruction work continued during the countdown to the general election, but the family did not take up permanent residence at the mansion until Mary Lou was safely housed as TD. Journalist Sam Smyth was only prompted to broach the subject because a few years later, in 2015, he heard Mary Lou hold others accountable to herself. Under parliamentary privilege, she had read into the Dáil record the names of politicians who allegedly held illegal Ansbacher accounts.
She was wrong. Neither of them had held her. Smyth’s article in the Irish Mail on Sunday When confronted, the caption read, “How can Mary Lou afford her luxury home?”
Smyth initially colorfully described the Mary Lou family home as potentially “categorized as what anti-austerity activists are now calling ‘real estate porn.'” He then asked rhetorically, “How can someone who earns the average industry wage and is a civil servant spouse afford to build such a luxurious house? I’m still none the wiser. Perhaps Mrs McDonald and her husband Martin have wealthy and generous relatives; maybe they asked for anonymity after winning the lottery big.”
Smyth touched on a sore point, but he asked a valid question. When public figures suddenly reveal huge sums of money, it is only right that they give a plausible explanation of their origin. Most politicians are tempted from time to time. Some have caved in, as we saw in the planning scandals when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councilors abused their positions in the rededication disputes of the 1990s. After the controversy surrounding the unsettled housing extravagances of both former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey and former Fine Gael Minister Michael Lowry, we should be wary of politicians suddenly living in mansions.
There is nothing to suggest that Mary Lou or her husband were ever involved in anything improper, or that she was anything other than a person of impeccable financial integrity, but she ruthlessly demands transparency from others. So Smyth’s question was fair. There was a deafening silence on the subject. The answer is far from sticking out a mile. Mary Lou never had buckets of money. Her annual declaration of interest as a TD has always produced a “zero” return, meaning she has no reportable assets and no significant income beyond her Dáil deputy’s salary.
It’s hard to find evidence of the six-figure windfall it takes to convert a small bungalow into a stately home on New Cabra Road. Neither Martin nor Mary Lou ever earned more than a modest income. In fact, when they bought the house, she was out of public office, having lost her seat in the European Parliament in June 2009. If she was a Party employee, the consequence demanded it [as during her time as an MEP]her salary was not above the average wage.
Even the number of financial donors Mary Lou returned during this period was surprisingly small. Corporate donations were not available. The maximum donation she ever declared was €2,500, the lowest €500.
All in all, in her first nine years of campaigning between 2002 and 2011, Mary Lou declared just 10 donations worth €14,000. More recently, the financial strength of the party treasury seems to have reduced the need for them to solicit personal funding from supporters.
When the couple bought the Cabra home, Martin Lanigan had been an employee of Gas Networks Ireland (GNI), a government funded entity, or its original incarnation, Bord Gáis Éireann, for over 30 years. His employment was permanent and pensionable. However, his take-home pay was far from spectacular.
He didn’t try the kind of booty that enjoyed at the top of government-sponsored corporations because he’d never reached those dizzying heights. Martin was on the clerical side. He was a tenured employee, an emergency gas controller. He worked in shifts and seconded employees from the GNI control body, which has its own department.
There are no signs that one of the spouses has a large sum of capital at their disposal, not a stroke of luck. Their own trade in houses had been limited. After their marriage they bought a compact flat in Dublin’s Stoneybatter before buying 10 Riverwood Green on a quiet cul-de-sac in Castleknock.
In January 2008 they put the house on the market for around €530,000 and sold it in November in a private sale at a lower price, probably for around €485,000. That would give them a base, but no more than that, to buy the bungalow in Cabra.
While the couple waited for their palatial home to be ready, they rented a house on Villa Park Road, off Navan Road. The next part of her narrative is enigmatic. They paid Flanagan €517,000 for the bungalow before partially demolishing it. They took out a mortgage. Weslin Construction moved to the site. Undoubtedly, the couple was able to make up the difference between the sale price of Riverwood and the purchase price of the Cabra Road house. Their mortgage payments might be high, but even with two young children, they could probably afford them all at once.
The real mystery is how Martin and Mary Lou funded the building’s dramatic transformation. I discreetly asked three experienced builders/developers for a rough estimate of the company’s costs. Neither consulted with the other two; all insisted on anonymity. The first estimated that the cost of the works would be at least €600,000 at the 2010 construction cost. The second estimate was €900,000 including interior. The third, more modest €500,000.
All three developers’ estimates may be well over target, but the cost was undoubtedly well into the six-figure stratosphere. A builder viewed the photos and commented on the high quality of the window sills, the expensive imported Scandinavian windows, and the exquisite style of the building.
If Mary Lou is to become a Taoiseach, it is most desirable that she should make clear the source of her sudden good fortune. It would put an end to the inevitable speculation as to how the couple funded the dramatic conversions.
This is an edited excerpt from “Mary Lou McDonald – A Republican Riddle” by Shane Ross, published by Atlantic Books on October 6th
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/mary-lou-mcdonald-how-did-the-sinn-fein-leader-and-her-husband-martin-lanigan-fund-their-costly-dublin-home-on-modest-incomes-42033027.html Mary Lou McDonald: How did the Sinn Féin leader and her husband Martin Lanigan fund their expensive Dublin home on modest earnings?