Protests at Shelbourne Park over Harold’s Cross closure

Above: The lively and well-attended meeting in Thurles on Sunday 2nd April.
Photo by Yvonne Harrington.

The bunny has stopped running at Shelbourne Greyhound Stadium and for those who made reservations, there are no dogs racing but for the ones shown on televisions inside.

For the last eight weeks, a nationwide boycott of the stadium is now in place by greyhound breeders and trainers in response to Bord na gCon’s (BnaC) decision to close Harold’s Cross with the intention of selling the land to pay off its debts of €22m.

Since the immediate closure of Harold’s Cross on February 13th of this year, there has been no dog racing at Shelbourne and protesters have been picketing on each of the four race nights per week that BnaC hoped to hold there in order to transfer the racing from Harold’s Cross.

BnaC were advised to sell the Harold’s Cross land by the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and Marine after a study into the industry was carried out by Indecon Consultants, commissioned by the Dept of Agriculture, when alarm bells started ringing on the increase in debt that BnaC has accrued.

The circumstances that have resulted in BnaC closing Harolds Cross and building up a debt of €22m have outraged the Dublin Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association (DGOBA) and their countrywide counterparts. Their representatives have been picketing outside the track on South Lotts Road every race night since Harold’s Cross was closed to the public.

NewsFour had the opportunity to speak with these protestors, who included Alan Redmond, the director of Harold’s Cross: “Harold’s Cross is owned by the Dublin Greyhound Sports Association and BnaC have no authority to close it down. It was down to a vote and the chairman, Jim O’Dwyer, had the casting vote to bring it to five votes to four [in favour of closing it].”

The story of how the debt accrued and led to the closing of Harold’s Cross goes back to decisions regarding Limerick greyhound racing. In 2008, BnaC sought to move greyhound racing operations from the Markets Field to the former horse racing track at Greenpark. According to a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General since, the project approval was given the go-ahead without the benefit of a capital project appraisal.

Before the Greenpark site was agreed, BnaC purchased a 16-acre site in Meelick, Co Clare in 2005. The total cost came to €1.3m, which included costs incurred for planning and professionals. However, the project was terminated because they could not provide proper public access to the proposed stadium. This site is still owned by BnaC.

The 11.5-acre site at Greenpark in Limerick was bought for €3.4m in 2008 and the development and design of the stadium on the site brought the bill €2m over its allocated budget of €17.8m. The exact breakdown of development costs at Greenpark are yet to be established.

An appeal has been put forward to the Office of the Information Commissioner to see if it is information free to the public but what is claimed by some protesters is that there were unwritten agreements or ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ between the sellers of Greenpark, The Limerick Racecourse Company, and BnaC for work that involved raising the marsh to allow proper drainage. This agreement broke down and BnaC had to pay for this work too.

BnaC hoped to recoup this money by the sale of assets but so far they have only being able to make €1.5m from the sale of its old greyhound track, The Market Field, which was sold to Limerick FC and a sale agreed on its HQ office space in Limerick city.

BnaC stated that the reason for the investment in the stadium at Limerick was because of the high number of greyhound owners in that county and that the nearby new Cork greyhound stadium profits indicated it to be worth building.

In 2008 the CEO Adrian Neilan and BnaC chairman, Dick O’Sullivan, sat in front of the Dáil’s public spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee, and had to answer to controversy relating to a scathing report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, about how they managed public money. By 2010 BnaC had spent €23m on this project.

The same Comptroller and Auditor General’s report stated: “Had better analysis and more soundly based assumptions been used, it is likely that the analysis would have indicated that the development of the Limerick stadium was, at best, a marginal commercial proposition.”

The Limerick track has fallen short of its projected profits and has left BnaC in a precarious financial position. This led to the decision to sell off Harold’s Cross stadium, although this stadium was turning an annual profit. The knock-on effects have resulted in DGOBA maintaining their protest outside Shelbourne Park until Harold’s Cross is reopened.

Attempts to resolve the situation have come at a slow pace, according to DGOBA. In the fifth week of the boycott, DGOBA was invited to meet with Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Andrew Doyle, to discuss if anything could be done to help both sides meet some agreement.

On the outcome of this meeting, DGOBA Secretary, Mick O‘Keefe told NewsFour: “They listened and that’s it, they’ve done nothing for us, we are still going to protest until Harold’s Cross is opened up again.”

Recently, mediator Kieran Mulvey, the State’s previous senior industrial relations troubleshooter, was brought in to allow both sides to talk. “It was us in one room and the Irish Greyhound Board in the other, we gave them a proposal of how Harold’s Cross, a profit-making stadium, could be saved and they were given 24 hours to look over it and they came back with the proposal of giving us two nights a week in Shelbourne which we are not happy with,” said O’Keefe.

Speaking with the manager of Shelbourne Greyhound Stadium, Patrick Flynn, on how the picket is impacting the local track, he said, “We’re caught in the middle of everything, we’ve lost some highly regarded staff already and we can’t actually guarantee our part-time staff if there are shifts available at the moment, but we are still honouring our reservations.”

The most recent development took place at a meeting in Thurles on Sunday 2nd April of greyhound breeders and trainers who are seeking the reopening of Harold’s Cross, in addition to voting no confidence in the Board and in BnaC chairman Phil Meaney.

By Paul Carton