Minister of State for Skills and Further Education Niall Collins TD has maintained that “no law was broken’ in a Dáil address this afternoon.
Collins admitted that “in hindsight, given the focus and perception among some, in 2023 some 15 years later, it would have been better had I not participated in the local area meeting”. He also stated: “My wife did not benefit in any way from my attendance.”
Collins has faced accusations in recent days surrounding the sale of public property which was bought by Collins’ wife Dr Eimear O’Connor. Documents released by Limerick County Council under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act showed minutes of a meeting on 15 January 2007 stating that “a number of enquiries” had been received about the potential sale of the site.
Collins addressed the matter in front of the Dáil this afternoon following “recent focus and speculation”. He said: “I am in absolutely no doubt that my actions in relation to this matter were at all times legally correct.”
He told the Dáil that “neither I, nor my wife, had any pecuniary or beneficial interest in that property”.
The documents released indicate that O’Connor had been the sole applicant who had expressed interest, in a letter from Patricia O’Connor Solicitors on her behalf.
Collins said it was agreed at a January 2007 area committee meeting that “the property should be sold on the open market”.
“There was no vote taken and no disagreement to the proposal by the Council Executive,” he said.
“An area committee of a local authority, which in the case of the Bruff area committee included only seven councillors, does not have disposal rights for the sale of council property. This is a reserved and statutory function of the full county council by law.”
Under section 177 of the Local Government Act 2001,, representatives are required to “disclose the nature of his or her interest, or the fact of a connected person’s interest at the meeting, and before discussion or consideration of the matter commences”.
The representative is also required to “withdraw from the meeting for so long as the matter is being discussed or considered, and, accordingly, he or she shall take no part in the discussion or consideration of the matter and shall refrain from voting in relation to it”.
Collins has been married to O’Connor since March 2000, according to the couple’s marriage certificate.
Limerick County Council agreed to put the Patrickswell property on the market in 2008.
Collins said “a number of offers were received over a period of six months” through an independent auctioneer for the property, according to documents he received from Limerick County Council.
O’Connor placed the highest bid on the property at €148,000 and the final sale was approved by the council in September 2008.
Collins said the sale was made “in full transparency” in accordance with section 183 of the Local Government Act, which states any people involved or “any covenants, conditions or agreements to have effect in connection with the disposal [of property]” should be made clear to local authorities.
People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy wrote to the Ceann Comhairle and the Dail Business Committee requesting that Collins engage in a Q&A session on the matter. This request was denied.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stated: “This place is a parliament, it is not a kangaroo court.” Murphy criticised Varadkar in a statement to Trinity News saying: “The government shielding Niall Collins from questioning about his alleged corruption is disgraceful.”
“For the Taoiseach to compare Q&A with a Minister to a Kangaroo court shows his attitude to parliamentary accountability.”
A vote to allow a Q&A session on the matter was defeated 75 to 46 with nine TDs backing government to approve the weekly agenda.
Also on Tuesday all three coalition leaders, Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan said that Collins should have “recused” himself from the local area committee but maintained that Collins did not break the law. Varadkar said: “The suggestion that some sort of law was broken or that he was involved in authorising the sale of this property just isn’t correct.”
In Leaders Questions on Tuesday a number of TDs raised the issue including Sinn Fein’s Mairéad Farrell and Murphy.