People who know Michael Stone - or Mick, as he is known to those close to him - say he has sounded shell-shocked over Paschal Donohoe’s election posters controversy.
For a very private individual who takes great pride in working hard, below the radar, being at the centre of a political and media storm is not somewhere where the 54-year-old Dubliner likes to be.
This is behind his decision to stand down from two public roles, as chairman of the North East Inner City Programme Implementation Board and as a board member of the Land Development Agency, after admitting that he helped his friend, Paschal Donohoe, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, erected posters in a second general election, in 2020.
Stone said in a statement on Tuesday morning that he did not want the controversy to be “a distraction” from the “very important” work of the two bodies.
Politicians, officials, should be fined for failing to comply with disclosure obligations, ethics review finds
“I think he is feeling pretty sore. I think he just feels that no good deed goes unpunished,” said one person who knows him and has worked closely with him. “He just feels like people are talking about him and he likes to fly below the radar. I think he is finding it pretty difficult.”
Donohoe admitted omitting a sum of €1,057 from his 2016 general election expenses covering the use of a van provided by a company run by Stone and the payment of six workers to erect election posters in the Fine Gael Minister’s Dublin Central constituency in the election.
In Stone’s statement on Tuesday, he said he had mistakenly told Donohoe - in December and again last week- that he had not provided the politician with help on postering in the 2020 general election only to later discover that he had when he “re-checked” the matter.
He apologised to Donohoe and confirmed that he, through a member of the Fine Gael team in Dublin Central, personally paid for six people to poster at a cost of €972 and for supplying some of the individuals with vans for the postering work at a commercial value of €434.20.
“I deeply regret any embarrassment that I have caused Paschal for my mistaken recollection in relation to 2020 and for what I thought was modest help for hardworking honest politician,” said Stone.
The sums involved must seem like pocket change to the successful businessman. He owns The Design Group, a mechanical and electrical engineering business he founded in 1992. The “mech-and-elec” people are the ones who come in to fit out a property once built.
The business recorded a turnover of €175 million and a profit of almost €18 million in the year to the end of March last, according to its latest accounts. It ended the year with cash of €36 million. The group pocketed a one-off gain of €15 million during the year, selling the remaining 50 per cent of its facilities management division to Sisk, a joint venture partner since 2019.
The Design Group employs more than 700 people and works on projects in Ireland, the UK, Africa, Europe and North America.
Among its projects are the refit of the Shelbourne Hotel, the Technology University Dublin campus at Grangegorman in Donohoe’s own constituency, work on Dublin Castle prior to Ireland’s EU presidency in 2013 and the Qantas lounge at Heathrow Airport in London.
The company’s work on commercial properties, data centres and life sciences facilities and for bluechip clients ranging from Amazon to Microsoft to Hilton means that the Dublin 11-registered business has performed exceptionally well in recent years.
The success of the group is a long way from Stone’s humble beginnings, growing up on Aughrim Street in Dublin. The proud inner-city Dubliner started working as an apprentice at the ESB while still a teenager. He was identified by the semi-state as a high-flier who was given the electrical training that has stood to him when it came time to setting up his own business.
That decision came when he was 24. He has admitted that if had stayed another couple of years at the ESB, it would have become a job for life. Instead he wanted to break out on his own.
“But the opportunity was there and I’m very ambitious. I love work. A semi-state body was probably a bit restrictive for me. I wanted that feeling of being my own boss. I had just got married and not long afterwards my first child was born. If I had left it until after that I would been too afraid,” he said.
The Design Group’s expansion internationally before the 2008 property crash meant that it weathered the economic storm that took out many other companies in the construction sector.
The reach of his company brought profile and standing for Stone in the industry. He served as president of the Electrical Contractors’ Association and of the Mechanical Engineering & Building Services Contractors Association before stepping up to become president of the powerful lobby group, the Construction Industry Federation, between 2014 and 2016.
Dogged work ethic
Commercial success has brought personal wealth. Last year, he paid €4.6 million for a house on Killiney Hill designed by Irish architect Jack O’Hare, an apprentice of the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The home has panoramic views of Killiney Bay and is set on more than an acre of gardens amid some of the country’s most expensive postcodes.
Outside of work, he is a lifelong GAA fan. Stone played senior inter-county hurling for Dublin and is a member of Eoghan Rua GAA club, now amalgamated with Oliver Plunketts.
Friends talk about Stone’s impressive levels of energy and focus, and how has brought the dogged work ethic that made his business such a success into the two public roles.
As chairman of the North East Inner City Programme Implementation Board, he oversaw the area’s social and economic regeneration, a project close to his heart given his roots in the area.
“Mick Stone is a massive loss for Dublin’s north east inner city,” said Feargal O’Rourke, managing partner at PWC Ireland and a member of the board.
“As a member, I have seen first hand his role on the Inner City group and he has done more in recent years for this area than anyone else in the country. He is very hands on and has put hundreds of hours in to improve the area and the lot of the people living there, without any personal agenda or compensation. He will simply be impossible to replace.”
Stone joined the board of the State’s Land Development Authority in 2019 in an appointment made by the then minister for housing Eoghan Murphy. He received no fees for his role on the inner-city programme and has waived his yearly fee of €15,759 from the LDA.
In a sign of Stone’s diligence, one colleague at the LDA remembers him video-calling into a meeting of the board while he was on a business trip to Mexico at about 4am local time.
Above and beyond
“He goes way above and beyond and in that sense he really does have the public service ethos and is very committed to both housing and inner-city development,” he said.
Stone is said to have been particularly proud of the LDA’s first big housing development, a project of 600 social and affordable homes on State land at Shanganagh, south of Shankill, providing much needed homes for the south Dublin and north Wicklow area.
One colleague, speaking before Stone’s resignation, expressed concern at his potential departure from the LDA and the loss of “a genuine expert who has a deep understanding of how projects all fit together.”
“What I would be concerned about is that he would just disappear into the background,” said the source who puts his help in Donohoe election postering down to his willingness to help a friend and politician he respected. “I am sure it never cost him a thought, throwing up a few posters.”