Unease Over "Privatisation" of Dame Street Plaza

People Before Profit Councillor Andrew Keegan says Dubliners have lost an iconic piece of their city. “Wake up and smell the coffee,” he says. “They are selling off your public space.”

He wants to alert Dubliners to the fact that Dame Street Plaza has recently been sold to private developers Hines and Peterson Group, as part of the sale of the Central Bank building.

Dame Street Plaza is one of Dublin’s best-known meeting places, a popular hang-out for teenagers, and the focus point of many protests.

In November, the full council unanimously backed a motion from Keegan calling for the council to do everything it could to try to ensure that the space remains open to the public.

The new owners say they intend to allow the public to use the plaza, but Keegan says he doesn’t think that will last. Even if it does, privatisation of public space is still a big problem, he says.

Is It Privatisation?

There are spaces that are privately owned, but accessible to the public. And there are spaces that are publicly owned, but not open to members of the public.

So it can be unclear what people mean when they say something is a “public space”. (That it’s owned by the public? That it’s accessible to the public? Both?)

But there’s an argument to be made that Dame Street Plaza wasn’t a public space before, so its sale to Hines and Peterson Group can’t be called privatisation.

Yes, it was accessible to the public, and used at will by all kinds of Dubliners and visitors, according to this line of argument. But in terms of ownership, it was semi-public at most.

The plaza has been owned by the Central Bank since the 1970s, which means that, strictly speaking, it wasn’t a public space, according to Paddy McDonnell, a spokesperson for the Bank.

The Central Bank is a bit of a “unique entity”, says economist Brian Lucey, who used to work for there, and is now a professor of finance at the School of Business at Trinity College Dublin.

It prints money and sells it on to banks at a profit. But it generates most of its profits through providing banking services, said Lucey.

“It acts like an ordinary bank except for banks,” he says. The Central Bank holds bonds that it sells on at profit, and it also lends money to banks, on which it charges interest.

It is independent of government, Lucey says. “In some ways, it’s akin to a semi-state,” he says

The Central Bank is moving to a new building on North Wall Quay, which was once earmarked for Anglo Irish Bank. The building was bought for €7 million in 2012, and the refit has come to an estimated  €140 million, according to McDonnell.

The move is necessary because the Bank has more work to do these days. Its staff has grown, and is currently spread across four different locations, said McDonnell

Its finances are independent of the government, and it can afford the move, McDonnell said. In 2015, it reported a financial profit of €2.2 billion (€1.7 billion of which it transferred to the exchequer), he said.

As Lucey tells it, the Central Bank’s move to North Wall is perhaps comparable to “if Bord na Mona were to make money and move to a new HQ”.

The decision to sell up and move was made by former Central Bank Governor Patrick Honohan  in 2012, but the Minister for Finance would have been informed, said McDonnell.

A Popular Spot

Teenagers on the plaza Sunday said they knew the space had been sold, and that they are worried about it.

“At the moment you can’t be moved off, unless you are doing something wrong, like under-age drinking, and that is ’cause it’s public space,” says Dia McEvoy, a tall guy.

(Yes, it wasn’t really publicly owned, strictly speaking. But McEvoy thought of it as public space.)

Even if the plaza remains open to the public, now that it’s privately owned, McEvoy said, the owners might be able to move you on just because they don’t like the look of you. “So, I would be worried about the changes.”

McEvoy’s friend, Megan Oz, who has a pink fringe, says that many of the young people who hang around the Central Bank aren’t happy with what they see as the privatisation of the plaza.

“It’s a great meeting point for all different groups of people – skinheads, goths, punks, everyone comes here,” she says. “We have so many memories here.”

They serenaded tourists with rock versions of Christmas carols in 2015. “There are some people who hang out here so much they are called ‘bankies’,” says Oz.

Jamelyn McHugh joins in the conversation. “There will be riots if this gets fenced off,” he says.

McHugh says that generations of teens have used the plaza, and he thinks it should have been retained in what he saw as public ownership when the buildings were sold.

What Does the Future Hold?

Robert Hanley, a spokesperson for Hines, one of the parties that has bought the building, says there hasn’t been a decision yet on how to develop it.

But “it is the intention of the new owners to keep and maintain the space to the front of the building as open public space”, he said.

That’s something Labour Councillor Andrew Montague says he wants assured.

The sale of the premises is a cause for concern, as the plaza is an important public space, said Montague, who is the chair of the council’s Planning Strategic Policy Committee, But as long as it remains open to the public, he doesn’t see a problem with it being privately owned.

Others have similar feelings. Fine Gael Councillor Paddy McCartan says he supports the move by the Central Bank and thinks the plaza will remain open. “I’d expect it would be retained as a public space,” he says.

Keegan, though, says he suspects it is only a matter of time until the new owners will look to develop Dame Street Plaza.

Even if they don’t fence it off or build on it, Keegan objects to what he calls the “creeping privatisation” of public space and points to the experience of London.

“If people really knew to what extent what they perceive to be public space is actually private, they would be shocked. Especially along the Thames embankment in London,” he says.

Right to Protest

Keegan worries that the privatisation of the space could mean that people won’t be allowed to protest there anymore.

“Government will not take the side of the citizen over the property owner, that is for sure,” he said. “The fact that a popular protest spot in the city could now be built on would be a bonus to government.”

(There is a plan to open up a new public space right nearby: the proposed redesigned of College Green would include a large plaza. But there has been opposition to that plan, and there have been delays.)

Some Londoners have been complaining for some time, about the mass privatisation of public space there. According to geographer Bradley L Garrett, protest aren’t allowed outside the mayor’s office, because that space is private property, for example.

And there’s a fear that something similar could happen to Dame Street Plaza in Dublin.

In February last year, thousands attended water-charges protests that started from the plaza. It was also home to the Occupy movement in 2011.

On Friday, a conglomeration of groups including, among others, the Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, abortion rights campaigners and Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit, gathered at the plaza to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump.

Protester Philip Kenny said he was firmly opposed to what he saw as the privatisation of the plaza.

“The government obviously doesn’t care about public space. We have no town square in the whole of Dublin, and now they have sold off the one plaza we have,” said Kenny.

“Dublin has already become too expensive for ordinary people to live in and now even the ground you a stand on is being commodified,” he says.

His friend, Dan Madigan, says the plaza should not have been included in the sale of the Central Bank building to Hines and Peterson Group.

But the bank is moving, and the plaza has been sold. So what will happen to the giant golden ball?

The sculpture, Crann an Oir or Tree of Gold, will remain in its place in the plaza, McDonnell says. “The decision was arrived at after careful discussion with the wider arts and architectural community,” he says.



Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

Reader responses

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at 25 January 2017 at 13:13

Shame – would have been a great spot for a decent central Dublin library at last rather than the run down (and lacking in books) ilac library, maybe even on just two lower floors. Or a decent Dublin modern gallery – IMMA is dead. Dedicated Book of Kells museum? – or a literary museum…the list is endless.

If it shifts from public space, another issue would taking photographs in the area – this is a creeping problem in privatised ‘public’ areas of London, and I’ve noticed it happening in front of certain buildings in Dublin as well – with security guards running out to say you can’t take a photograph as the area in front of the building is private – even though there is no fencing or clear demarcation in may cases between the ‘private’ land space and public footpaths.

Ben Hemmens
at 25 January 2017 at 17:33

The railings have to go. They were a terible sin against the building anyway.

at 25 January 2017 at 17:48

@dave: The Central Library’s due to move to Parnell Square from the Ilac Centre any decade now, so that’s a non-starter (plus, exactly what this city doesn’t need is more amenities being moved Southside). If you could get the Book of Kells out of Trinity’s hands you’d have an almighty war to keep it in Dublin at all; Kells feels a quite understandable right to it. And we have a literary museum – it’s on Parnell Square.
None of which is to say it wouldn’t have been much better for the plaza to have been unambiguously made public; ideally the _whole_ plaza, including removal of the railings.

Perry Share
at 25 January 2017 at 20:33

This is certainly a worrying development. Clearly a decision was made to include the plaza in the sale, and presumably a value was attached to it over and above the building itself. The purchasers will ultimately want to realise that value and that will entail restricting public access in some way, So the ‘intentions’ and ‘expects’ are pretty meaningless, albeit probably well-intentioned. It is reported that the council unanimously backed a motion calling for it to do ‘everything it could to try to ensure that the space remains open to the public’. It would be interesting to know why the CB ignored that democratic expression of the people of Dublin and what written response they gave to the council in response to it.

at 7 February 2017 at 14:03

If Owen Keegan and co felt so strongly about this, why wasn’t it stipulated in the DCC Development Plan issued last year?

Lois Kapila
at 7 February 2017 at 15:45

@Seán: Hi Seán, it was Andrew Keegan, the councillor, rather than Owen Keegan. I don’t know to be honest whether it would have been possible to put something in relation to this in the development plan.

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