Legal battle looming over science centre.

CONTROVERSIAL plans for Ireland’s first science museum – drawn up by a charitable trust fronted by U2 singer Bono’s wife, Ali Hewson – are set for a bitter European court battle.

It could lead to the Irish Government being heavily fined over the way its departments – including the Office of Public Works – handled the 20-year-old project.

This comes as it emerges that the final cost of the interactive centre could be an astonishing €100m, compared with an initial estimate of little more than €10m. The so-called Exploration Station isn’t due to open its doors until 2010, but the Irish Children’s Museum Ltd (ICM) – which is tasked with running it on a 4.5-acre site at Heuston Gate, in Dublin’s Kilmainham – has received funding of around €800,000 over eight years.

Of this, more than €600,000 has been spent on annual ‘administrative expenses’ which have rocketed 3000pc since 1999 and more than doubled from €139,345 in 2005 to €298,569 in 2006. Interestingly, despite the money spent so far on ‘promotion’ and ‘project management’ – the interactive science project doesn’t have its own working website.

Discovery, a registered charity also known as the Dublin Interactive Science Centre, which was set up to establish a national science museum, has raised concerns about how the Heuston Gate science project was awarded to the ICM. Discovery’s directors, who tried to open a science museum on a Dublin Docklands site, have lodged a variety of Freedom of Information requests.

One is due to be investigated by the information commissioner early next year, while aspects of another have already been referred to the attorney general.

A request for a European Commission investigation into whether public procurement legislation was breached is to be lodged after advice from a firm of Dublin lawyers acting for Discovery.

If the European Commission decides there is a case against the way various governmental departments awarded the contract, the matter could end up in the European Court of Justice.

Discovery believes that the Irish Children’s Museum – whose directors also include Late Late Show presenter Pat Kenny’s wife, Kathy – benefited from a ‘sweetheart deal’ that was agreed with no public consultation.

Almost all its requests for details explaining how the deal – involving the Office of Public Works and the Office of Science and Technology – was drawn up with the ICM board have proved fruitless.

Rose Kevany, co-founder and director of Discovery, said last night: ‘Our bid for a stand-alone science museum is effectively dead.

‘We accept that. What we cannot walk away from is the manner in which our project was killed off, nor can we ignore the level of secrecy surrounding the dealings which led to the Government backing the Irish Children’s Museum for the project.

‘The Government should be open to scrutiny when so much taxpayers’ money is being tied up in a project that not only could have been up and running by now but would have been largely self-financing had it been located – as was originally intended – in an existing Docklands building.’

Discovery’s initial bid to create Ireland’s first national science museum was launched in 1987 and based around a commitment by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA) in its founding Master Project Agreement to establish a museum in the e120m CHQ building – formerly the Stack A building – in the Irish Financial Services Centre.

The late Charles Haughey and tycoon Dermot Desmond were behind the introduction of a levy that IFSC businesses would pay once a museum opened.

Around half the CHQ building was to have been provided to house the museum rent free. It could have been ready to open between 1995 and 1997.

But the building – restored by taxpayers’ money – is now occupied by a number of private businesses which located there after a string of failed business deals between DDDA officials and private companies.