Paddy Murdiff, a long-time community activist in Dublin’s north inner city, lists off the projects that businessman Michael Stone oversaw during his five years chairing a State-backed board.
“Mick Stone is probably the best person to happen to this community. He was very effective. It is a big loss for us,” said Murdiff of the businessman’s work in the inner city.
Others connected with Dublin North East Inner City (NEIC) programme and have knowledge of Stone’s chairmanship of the implementation board agree, even after his resignation this week.
The founder of multinational engineering business, The Designer Group, resigned from the NEIC implementation board and the board of the Land Development Agency (LDA).
He did so after admitting to inadvertently misleading Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe over undisclosed help he gave putting up election posters for the 2020 general election.
“Mick didn’t waste time. He was there to get a job done and everything he did was for the interest of the area,” said another local activist. “I deal with people all the time who talk about philanthropy. He put his time where his mouth was.”
[ Profile: Michael Stone, the private man behind the public headlines ]
For Murdiff, the one that stands out was the renovation of Lourdes Day Care Centre on Sean McDermott Street which provides a place for older people to meet and enjoy a hot meal.
It was one of the first places that Stone visited after he became chairman of the implementation board set up in 2016 at the initiative of the then taoiseach Enda Kenny.
The then Fine Gael leader had attended the funeral of a local man mistakenly murdered during a gangland feud and was profoundly affected by the tragic scenes he witnessed after the killing.
The inner city regeneration effort worked over recent years because of Stone’s drive, the backing of Donohoe, a TD for the area and a Government Minister, and Martin Fraser, who was, until last year, the State’s top civil servant.
Expense allowances, threats to politicians, home truths
Since 2016, the Government has invested more than €38 million through the NEIC to improve the lives of people living and working in the district. In Government circles, Stone is remembered for breaking down barriers to get things done.
“Most of the things that you will see in the NEIC annual reports are down to Mick. He was the main fellah driving this. It wouldn’t have happened without him,” said one source.
In the controversy over Donohoe’s election posters, Stone is said to be “bewildered” with all the media attention. He has been the biggest casualty of the affair, one lamented by those who worked closely with him.
As they view it, he was a successful experienced businessman giving time freely and free of charge to two important State agencies tackling two huge problems in Irish society: poverty and housing.
His resignation from the boards have left some concerned at the “chill effect” this might have on others, discouraging successful, private individuals from volunteering in public service.
“If we had a few more Michael Stones who came out and gave back to their areas, I would be delighted,” said Fine Gael TD Michael Ring, a former minister for community development.
“We need business people getting involved in politics, in social life, in disadvantaged areas. We need their advice and their expertise, and you need a different voice than civil servants. We need business people in this country to create jobs. Business is not a bad word,” he said.
At the LDA, people valued Stone’s considerable experience in the area of engineering and construction when it came to the agency’s big housing projects. “He was providing an insight into the construction industry that very few people who serve on boards are willing or able to do,” said one source.
The source said that on occasions when the LDA was engaging construction companies, Stone absented his company from the procurement process to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
“He is very scrupulous about avoiding any conflict of interest,” said the source.
A senior Government official expressed concern that prominent people in the private sector “would run a mile” from high-profile public service roles in light of what has happened to Stone. “This is yet another example of a big witch-hunt around something about nothing,” he said.
“It is becoming very dangerous to provide a public service to the best of your ability, even for free. It is a profound public policy problem. There seems to be nothing between zero and public crucifixion,” said the source.
[ What does Michael Stone’s apology mean for Paschal Donohoe? ]
The NEIC initiative was considered a successful template with talk of it being applied in other deprived parts of Dublin city. The resignation of Stone and the departure of Fraser to the Irish Ambassador’s job in London is viewed as an impediment to the future of the project.
“It is very sad and kind of tragic for that area. It is going to be hard to replicate that,” said one former Government official who had first-hand knowledge of how the NEIC worked.
Local community activist Murdiff is unsure of who they might find to replace Stone.
“It will be detrimental to the area unless they get somebody like him. I think he was one in a million. He did what he had to do and he was genuinely for the area, and that was the big part of it,” he said.
To those in working in the inner city, the cost of Stone’s departure to the initiative he chaired far outweighs the mistakes that led to his resignation this week.
“All he did was put up those bleeding posters,” said Murdiff.