NAMA hotels get Global Irish Economic Forum 2011 delegates ‘block-booking’

IT WAS established in 2009 as a way of helping figure out how Ireland could get through the economic downturn.

Deemed so successful, many of the same delegates who attended the first one joined attendees for this year’s Global Irish Economic Forum.

But last night, it emerged that most of them stayed in hotels run by NAMA – the agency set up to deal with the very individuals who helped cause the economic mess in the first place.

Taxpayers had been left with the impression that the high-flying members of the diaspora attending the forum at Dublin Castle were paying for their own flights and accommodation.

However, the hotel bill for delegates is likely to amount to just over €30,000 – all chargeable to the taxpayer.

Traditional hotels in the Ballsbridge area struggling to beat the recession were ignored when the Government block-booked the rooms for its guests.

The forum was established in 2009 as a way of helping figure out how Ireland could get through the economic downturn.

That initial 2009 meeting was considered a big success. Last weekend’s meeting was the second gathering and was attended by many who had been there in 2009.

Organisers of the event at the Department of Foreign Affairs said that the Burlington Hotel, which developer Mr McNamara bought for €288million at the height of the boom, and the Berkeley Court, which Mr Dunne paid €375million for, were both used as the only official hotels for this year’s forum. They were chosen for ‘price, locality and availability’.

More than 300 delegates attended this year’s forum, but last night the Department of Foreign Affairs insisted that ‘more than half’ the delegates had paid for their own accommodation.

They could not provide a list of who stayed where, however.

One of those who did avail of the free hospitality, however, was comedian Dara Ó Briain – who was so impressed that he tweeted about it – describing his hotel as ‘one of Nama’s finest’.

Although €30,000 may seem small change to the likes of Mr Dunne and Mr McNamara, the sum would have been a huge lifeline to other, non-Nama hotels in Ballsbridge.

They include Landsdowne Road’s Ariel House, winners of the 2012 Georgina Campbell Guest House of the Year award.

General manager of the 37-room hotel Deirdre McDonald said last night: ‘We would have been delighted to have had the chance to quote for a block booking to do with the forum.

‘But we were never approached, despite the fact that we regularly take corporate bookings for the Aviva Stadium, the RDS and even the Convention Centre in Dublin’s city centre.’

A spokesman for the Herbert Park Hotel – also situated in Ballsbridge – confirmed that ‘as far as we were aware, no approach had been made’.

The 153-room hotel is also regularly used by organisers of events held at venues such as the RDS and Aviva Stadium.

The Herbert Park spokesman added: ‘If we had been approached, we would have offered a competitive rate.’

Neither of the two hotels are in Nama, which administers loans taken out by Mr Dunne and Mr McNamara that are secured against both the Burlington Hotel and the Berkeley Court.

Paul Gallagher, president of the Irish Hotels Federation and general manager of Dublin’s Buswells Hotel, said last night: ‘It’s very important in this economic climate that there should be a level playing field when it comes to choosing hotel accommodation for events like last week’s forum.

‘I don’t think it is right that other hotels are not getting the same treatment, and there should be a more open policy by the Government when it comes to large events that require block bookings.

‘The use of two Nama hotels in these circumstances further undermines and weakens viable hotels in favour of non-viable hotels.

‘Viable businesses are struggling to pay their way and not relying on being propped up by the taxpayer, either directly or otherwise.’

He said the federation would be taking the matter up with Tourism Minister Leo Varadkar.

The rates offered by both the Nama hotels used as accommodation for delegates are believed to have been between €70 and €100 per head.

Over two nights, the estimated amount of business put the two D4 hotels’ way was at least €60,000. Not all of this will be paid by the taxpayer, as in the region of half the delegates paid their own way.

Also, not all the delegates or speakers will have stayed at either the Berkeley Court or Burlington Hotels over the two nights that accommodation was arranged for them. But those who stayed could avail of a series of coaches laid on to take them to and from Dublin Castle, where most of the forum-related events were held.

Of the 330 delegates who attended, speakers included Taoiseach Enda Kenny, ex-president Bill Clinton, the European Commission’s Secretary General Catherine Day and Goldman Sachs International chairman Peter Sutherland.

Celebrity guests included Bono, author Colm Toibin, and actor Gabriel Byrne. Dara Ó Briain tweeted about his accommodation shortly after attending the forum.

He said: ‘I was not paid to attend. We stayed in one of Nama’s finest for free, but I paid my own way over.’

When asked on Twitter by one of his followers about the cost of food laid on for delegates, he replied: ‘No idea. It was delicious, though.

‘And the Nama hotel I stayed in was a sight too. Crashed a debs on the second night.’

Minister for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton is to raise the matter with her Government colleagues, according to sources close to the Dublin South East TD. The two Nama hotels are situated in her constituency.

She was unavailable for comment last night, but a source said ‘she was unaware about and uninvolved in the planning and running of the forum’.

The source added: ‘Other hotels should be supported and she is likely to raise the matter with her colleagues.’

The headline ‘act’ at the forum was undoubtedly former U.S. President Bill Clinton. But although his speech on the final day had top billing, the forum wasn’t the only reason why he was in Dublin last week.

When asked about the arrangements made for his participation in the two-day event, the Department of Foreign Affairs said that he had come to the capital for a variety of reasons.

They were unaware of any fees paid by the Government in relation to the forum to either him or any corporate entity in which he has any material interest.

While most delegates stayed at the two Ballsbridge-based Nama hotels, the department confirmed that he stayed at the more upmarket Shelbourne Hotel on St Stephen’s Green – but could not elaborate on what else he was up to in Ireland.

But it has emerged that he spent time in the company of fellow forum speaker Bono.

The U2 singer hosted an event at his house on Saturday night and Sunday. It is not known if Mr Clinton attended on the Saturday but he was at the singer’s Killiney home on Sunday.

His security men were seen in and around the house, and Bono was spotted hugging film director Neil Jordan at his front gate about 5.30pm.

Bono and Bill are expected to meet again this Saturday, with the singer reportedly among a number of stars due to appear at The Clinton Foundation’s tenth birthday celebration in the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles.