Intractable disputeAdded on July 23, 2012
Monday, July 23, 2012
THE Sisters of Charity has revealed its desire to sell lucrative tracts of land around Dublin which it no longer needs.
The sites are part of an international asset portfolio it valued at €233m in 2009, when the government of the time looked for a report of its affairs as part of the plan to renegotiate the redress package. That 2009 report identified its entire land bank as being restricted, because it was still in use.
The congregation then made an additional offer of €5m towards the cost of redress. This has not been paid, as a dedicated trust fund will only become law this week after President Michael D Higgins signs a commencement bill that was passed last Friday.
But in the last year the Religious Sisters of Charity (RSC) is understood to have informed the Government that part of its cash contribution is subject to the sale of assets.
The RSC, and all but one other order, has so far refused to sign up to the principle of 50:50 redress contributions between the State and the orders for the €1.2bn compensation bill.
Separately, a document filed with Dublin City Council reveals that the RSC has now identified a number of properties which could be put on the market.
It has also mapped out others that may come available in the near future and consist of significant and strategic holdings with the city.
The properties it can sell include its headquarters in the heart of Sandymount, a large tract around its regional headquarters in Harold’s Cross and a plot beside a key commuters’ junction on the Long Mile Road.
Dublin City Council had planned to restrict development on these, and other institutional grounds, as part of its 2011-17 development plan.
This was in a bid to protect green spaces in the capital and ensure educational and healthcare facilities remained available to communities.
But the council was forced to suspend this agenda when the High Court struck down the terms of the Z15 zoning it wanted to impose on institutional properties.
The RSC instigated the court action because it believed the zoning proposed for its land, and other parcels owned by religious orders, was unfair and discriminatory.
It wanted the option to sell these sites with development potential for either commercial or residential use.
In its submission to the council, and subsequently the High Court, the RSC argued the zoning proposal was a violation of a religious body’s constitutional right to manage its property interests without interference from the State.
In particular, it said the Council had attempted to "sterilise" the three key sites which it had identified for selling off.
The RSC also said the draft development plan impinged on rights protected by the European Court of Human Rights.
This was because the plan was an "arbitrary and irrational discrimination on the basis of religion for which no conceivable justification exists".
"Nothing in zoning Z15 remotely protects the rights of religion," the RSC’s argument said.
In addition to the tracts it now wants to offload at Walkinstown, Sandymount, and Harold’s Cross, the RSC said it was still using other significant land holdings at Merrion Rd, alongside RTÉ in Donnybrook and in Crumlin.
It predicted that these could be surplus to requirements shortly as congregation numbers dwindle.
The RSC told the council the restrictions suggested under the terms of the draft plan meant that development would only be possible if the "community" agreed the land was no longer needed.
The order said "it would be invidious if a landowner and facility operator had to defer to a local community to determine the future of a property".
In the High Court the council argued the stance taken by the RSC was tantamount to a class action on behalf of religious orders.
Its rationale for the Z15 clauses was that it wanted to protect privately-owned green spaces around hospitals, schools, prisons, and colleges.
According to evidence heard in court, there are 780 acres of institutional land in the city which the council wanted to designate as Z15 (institutional), 77% of the privately- owned portion was held by religious orders. The RSC owns 43.7 hectares of this.
The council has said it would be inappropriate to comment on whether it will attempt to reapply the zoning conditions as the High Court has yet to finalise its order.
In 2009, the assets appraisal submitted to the government, following the Ryan Report, included a schedule of the RSC’s properties. These were released to the Irish Examiner under the Freedom of Information Act. They included more than 70 non-school sites and another 13 that were leased to private healthcare providers and other companies.
The assets of the RSC, and other orders, have been scrutinised by the Department of Education due to the fallout from the inadequate and controversial indemnity deal in 2002.
This originally left the State with a €1.2bn shortfall in the cost of compensating the victims of abuse.
A year before the 2002 deal was struck, the RSC had sold off a plot of land on Merrion Rd for €45.3m.
In the wake of the Ryan Report into child abuse in residential institutions, the RSC offered to provide an additional €5m contribution.
But, it has resisted requests by successive governments to add to this and it is believed its offer is now subject to land sales.
"We genuinely regret any suffering experienced by former residents while in institutions under our care," it said in a letter in late 2009. "With this in mind we are contributing a sum of €5m to the trust fund.
"We are unable to pay the full amount immediately but we can commit to an early payment of €1m and the remainder in annual payments over a period of five years."
In a statement, the RSC said the council would now have to look at alternative zoning for its lands.
"Dublin City Council will now have to consider the matter of what is the appropriate zoning for institutional lands. Pending the outcome of this process, it is not possible to address meaningfully this matter," it said.