27 Jan 2022

Gardai called to Offaly abbey as charity accuses OPW of trespassing

Gardai called to Offaly abbey as charity accuses OPW of trespassing

Durrow Abbey House, Tullamore, when it was being assessed by the OPW last week

THE founder of the charity which has leased Durrow Abbey from the Office of Public Works (OPW) called gardai to the premises last Wednesday.

Elizabeth Garrahy, director of the Arts for Peace Foundation, said she made the call because she believed the OPW had trespassed on the property.

Ms Garrahy was speaking to the Tullamore Tribune after Offaly Fianna Fail TD Barry Cowen announced publicly that OPW personnel had repossessed the house and moved to carry out an assessment there.

Deputy Cowen said: “In the meantime the OPW relayed to me they were on sound legal ground to do so, arising out of their contention of the lease not being honoured.”

Ms Garrahy said Deputy Cowen was making comments at the same time as the Arts for Peace Foundation was involved in a High Court action against the OPW.

She said that Deputy Cowen knew about the OPW entry to Durrow before the Arts for Peace Foundation did and said it was noteworthy that the TD “asserted in his press release that he and the members of the Durrow High Cross Committee have been in long term direct communication with OPW, when OPW has consistently refused to meet the charity who are the tenants”.

Ms Garrahy asked if Deputy Cowen was speaking for the OPW and said: “If the OPW have a contention that the lease is not being honoured, they can exercise that contention in the High Court case which has been issued against them.”

She said the Arts for Peace Foundation was taking legal advice in relation to the statement Deputy Cowen had published on his Facebook page and which he also released through the Fianna Fail press office.

When the Tribune visited the Durrow Abbey site last Thursday, a man who described himself as a contractor was working at the house but he could not comment on his activities.

A Garda Siochana spokesperson said on Friday that gardai received a report of an incident which occurred at Durrow Abbey on Wednesday, May 19.

Gardai attended the scene and no offences were disclosed, the spokesperson added.

Last week's incident is the latest development in a long running disagreement between the OPW and the Arts for Peace Foundation which stems in part from a dispute over planned works on the house in 2010.

In information supplied to the Charities Regulator, the Arts for Peace Foundation said it had been unable to trade or provide childrens' programmes due to the ongoing dispute with OPW regarding their failure to carry out works at Durrow Abbey and other breaches of lease by OPW.

“The charity issued High Court proceedings against the OPW in 2016. In 2020 having refused mediation again, the OPW responded by yet more wasting of tax payers money in vexatiously issuing a Section 14 Notice to the charity to rescind the lease of Durrow on the grounds that the charity had failed to carry out works to Durrow Abbey. These are the same works the OPW had contracted to do at Durrow Abbey in 2010, but have so far failed to do,” Arts for Peace said.

Arts for Peace, which had the late John Hume, the Nobel peace prize winner as a patron, leased Durrow Abbey House and adjacent land with a view to establishing it as a centre for international peace promotion and for its development as a respite and education centre for children and young people who had come through conflict.

The State purchased Durrow Abbey House and about 80 acres of land for over €3m in 2003.

The OPW funded the restoration of the old church on the site and the transfer of the Durrow High Cross inside to prevent further weathering.

Founded in 2004, Arts for Peace agreed a 99-year peppercorn (nominal fee) lease of the house and 68 acres of adjacent land from the OPW.

It has provided arts, peace, recreation and therapy programmes for children affected by conflict at home and abroad.

Ms Garrahy said the charity has worked with hundreds of children between 2004 and 2015, it had a seven-year programme in Limerick, and ran international summer schools for children annually including children from Ireland, Palestine, Israel, Jordan.

“In 2012 the partnership programme between Arts for Peace Foundation and the international youth initiative Seeds of Peace, whose advisory board includes President Bill Clinton had to be held in a boarding school because Durrow was unusable. The Seeds of Peace organisation had intended to permanently base itself at Durrow with Arts for Peace,” she said.

When Arts for Peace hosted 10 children from Palestine and 10 from Moyross, Limerick, at the Defence Forces army camp in the Curragh in 2007, the children met Mr Hume and defence minister Willie O'Dea and also travelled to Durrow for a tree planting ceremony.

Arts for Peace was also involved in a programme for Irish and Welsh children in Glamorgan, Wales in 2009.

While Durrow Abbey has not been used for arts and peace programmes in recent years, it was the location of a rave on December 31, 2018.

One of the DJs involved in the dance event said it was organised across six stages, indoors and out, and he estimated the attendance at about 900.

There was significant disquiet locally that Durrow Abbey would be used for such an event.

Ms Garrahy said at the time the rave was a “private event, not run by us” and full garda permission and licensing had been obtained.

She said similar events would not be held there again “because of the fuss that was made” locally about the New Year's Eve rave.

Cllr Declan Harvey, chair of Tullamore Municipal District at the time, described the rave as a “disgusting” event to take place at Durrow Abbey and the adjoining “sacred ground”.

“I'm not impressed at all,” said Cllr Harvey.

Ms Garrahy said this week that the young people involved in the rave volunteered to do gardening works in the abbey for the week before the event.

“They worked in the grounds of the abbey for two weeks free of charge,” she said.

The OPW said last week it could not make any comment on Deputy Cowen's statement because matters relating to Durrow Abbey are “sub-judice”.

The dispute between the OPW and Arts for Peace has been raised several times in the Oireachtas and Finance Committee chair Deputy John McGuinness was told in 2015 by the then minister of state at the Department of Public Expenditure, Simon Harris, that the lease to Arts and Peace includes an obligation on the tenant to “insure and keep the house in good repair”.

Minister Harris was responding to a query from Deputy McGuinness about what “was happening relative to the visit of the Office of Public Works to Durrow Abbey and the threat to break locks to gain entry”.

Deputy McGuinness also sought information on a “grant awarded but unpaid” and efforts made to reconcile matters over the previous five years.

Minister Harris said the OPW wrote to Arts for Peace about its intention to enter the property and then visited it on November 16, 2015, with a view to preparing a report on its condition.

“The Commissioners of Public Works have for a number of years engaged with the charity to resolve issues pertaining to this property. There have been a number of meetings and significant correspondence in an attempt to resolve matters,” said Minister Harris.

“The Commissioners had agreed to provide funding (€250,000), for works to the fabric of the building, subject to standard governance and financial criteria being applied in the drawing down of funding. The AFP (Arts for Peace) charity have not commenced works on the property in line with their stated objective.”

In September 2016 Deputy McGuinness revealed that a meeting between officials of the Department of Public Expenditure and Arts for Peace was being arranged.

“I sent some proposals in regard to mediation in respect of the project and I hope they will be considered,” Deputy McGuinness told minister of state Sean Canney.

Deputy McGuinness then said in February 2018 that a resolution had not been found to “resolve the current impasse” between the OPW and Arts for Peace despite an attempt to do so.

“I am deeply disappointed that effort was not brought over the line. My feeling is that while there was reluctance on both sides to find a resolution, the greater reluctance was on the side of the OPW,” said Deputy McGuinness.

Ms Garrahy said there was “no reluctance on the part of the charity, which had sought mediation for five years”.

By then Arts for Peace had issued High Court proceedings against the OPW. The then minister of state, Kevin 'Boxer' Moran, said he had to be careful about what he said as he did “not want to end up in a court case”.

In December 2018 Deputy McGuinness raised Durrow Abbey again with Minister Moran and said he wished to have a special meeting with the minister, his predecessor Deputy Canney, and the OPW.

“I want to put on record that I attended meetings with the OPW and officials and it was my understanding that we were discussing the surrender of the lease of Durrow Abbey back to the State for a figure. At one stage, at a meeting with the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, and officials, a figure of €600,000 was mentioned,” said Deputy McGuinness.

“There are a number of issues that need to be sorted out but they can only be addressed by the provision of the full documentation to this committee. Then we can examine exactly what is happening and understand the position from both sides of the argument.”

Minister Moran said he could not provide information to Deputy McGuinness because of the High Court case.

“It would be wrong for me or anybody to start investigating this matter when legal action is being pursued. It would be unfair for me to make any more statements on this matter until the outcome of those legal proceedings is known. That is only right and fair,” said Minister Moran.

Deputy McGuinness replied: “I assure the Minister of State he has not heard the end of this matter. I also assure him that the commitments given by the Office of Public Works, OPW, the then Minister of State, Deputy Canney, and two other Ministers, will be well ventilated and it will not be a pretty sight for the OPW.”

He said he had “every intention of pursuing this matter to the very end because I believe the person in question, or project in question, was misled”.

Minister Moran repeated that he could not say anything else: “I have met Offaly County Council and various other groups regarding this matter. I am happy with what I have said and I am making no further comment.”

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