What does Dundrum Town Centre tell us about the political economy of Dublin and Ireland? Quite a lot actually, as fascinating recent work by University College Cork geography lecturer Denis Linehan makes clear.*
More than 100,000 square metres in size, and built at a cost of half a billion euros, Dundrum Town Centre was one of the defining symbols of the Celtic Tiger when it opened in 2005. And it is still going strong: it employs 6,000 people at its busiest and is the source of about €100 million in VAT revenue annually, although the success of the centre has obviously displaced some jobs and businesses elsewhere.
Aside from its sheer scale, the centre sought to represent a way of thinking about ourselves and our society. As its director noted at its opening, it was to “define the way we live today and offer a holistic experience to enrich, indulge and inspire every aspect of our lives”. Or some people’s lives anyway. As Linehan acerbically puts it, this is “a wholly blinkered view of public space as a retail playground and business enabler only, and of the poor as trespassers within it”.
For those who are allowed the privilege of access, the usual manipulative techniques of spacing, light and sound are deployed to encourage them to buy things they did not realise they wanted when they entered. As the editors of the volume in which Linehan writes put it, this is about the “the fetishisation of consumerist identities”.
It is also about cultural homogenisation. The writer Anne Enright is quoted as observing that “when people say ‘Dundrum’ these days they mean a four-storey English high street”. It is not a Dublin centre, or even an Irish centre; rather, it is, in the words of one of its marketing slogans, “the centre of everything”.
And yet the story of the centre is also a recognisably local story of how politics and economics work, not least in the whiff of corruption that surrounds its origins. At the heart of the centre is what was once the derelict Pye electronics factory, rezoned for commercial development by Dublin County Council. Former lobbyist Frank Dunlop told the Mahon Tribunal that he bribed three councillors to facilitate that rezoning.
And the later driving force behind the centre was the archetypal Irish property tycoon Joe O’Reilly, a prominent client of Anglo Irish Bank and one of many such people whose loans were taken over by the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA). But Joe did not do too badly out of this debacle.
NAMA picked up a goodly portion of his debts and then put him on a salary of €200,000 a year to manage the portfolio for them. As part of the deal, he got to keep his enormous Foxrock mansion, including a swimming pool, tennis court, gym, cinema and sauna. This despite the fact that he initially tried to put the house and other assets beyond the reach of NAMA by transferring ownership to his wife.
GAA pundit Colm O’Rourke has recently accused NAMA of “systematically selling off all the best assets of this country, in some cases to foreign vulture funds” rather than making strategic use of them to build up, for example, sporting facilities. Mick Wallace TD, himself a property developer, has made similar allegations. But cushioning indigenous insiders from the consequences of their failed gambles has also been a large part of the NAMA story, as Joe O’Reilly’s experience demonstrates.
Deirdre Foley, one of the people behind the closure of Clerys that threw hundreds of people out of work, also availed of NAMA support. Another senior executive at the consortium behind the Clerys deal is himself a former NAMA executive. Thus does Irish business operate: interlocking elite circles making money in the shadows cast by the gleaming, soulless façade of Dundrum Town Centre.
* “‘The Centre of Everything’: Ireland at the Dundrum Town Centre”, in Defining Events: Power, Resistance and Identity in Twenty-First Century Ireland, edited by Rosie Meade and Fiona Dukelow, Manchester University Press, 2015.