This conversation happened in Galway, Ireland, where a “ring road” was being built to relieve traffic congestion. My friend seemed fairly resigned at this point that the road was going through his ancestral home. Now, he was trying to focus on the simple task of getting the highest assessed value of his property from the government. Other families forced to sell, according to news coverage, remained more vocal against it.
“The wants of the many outweigh the needs of the few” is an old, uncomfortable adage that has tended to remain true in modern society. When it comes to building a throughway, rail line or airport, it is still not pretty to see families displaced or farms split in half, but it is generally accepted that in most cases it is a necessary evil. Eminent domain, shorthand for the law that allows private property to be taken for public use on account of the greater good, dates back to the Fifth Amendment. The trouble with this old law, as may have been foreseen, is what constitutes a greater good. It’s one thing to be forced off your land for an airport. It’s another if it’s going to be given to a private corporation.
An Irish farmer recently found himself in the middle of a landmark case addressing this issue. Thomas Reid was raising beef near Leixlip on the farm passed down through his family when he suddenly had the Intel Corporation as a neighbor. In the last few decades, Ireland offered a low corporate tax rate, attracting many multinationals, including Google, Facebook and Twitter. Intel, known for making computer parts such as chips and processors, had deemed that they wanted to expand in Thomas Reid’s direction. What followed was captured in the documentary The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid.
Reid was likely considered an easy target for a compulsory purchase order (CPO), the Irish equivalent of the American eminent domain clause. He was poor, quiet and alone. His house and farm had fallen derelict, and most of his machinery was rusting in a hedge. He was more or less living hand-to-mouth. The documentary shows the inside of his home, in which firewood was stacked in the living room and most space was taken up by old newspapers and other clutter. He owned no TV or many other modern amenities.
After Reid declined an offer from Intel to buy his farm, he was soon visited by the Industrial Development Agency (IDA), the body in Ireland responsible for attracting foreign direct investment. They are not supposed to work on behalf of any one company, but instead find land that would be suitable for general business growth. Representatives from the IDA told Reid his property was ideal and he was being selfish by not selling, preventing hundreds of jobs from entering the area. When Reid refused, things became nasty.
Reid, a soft-spoken and inobtrusive loner, found himself the victim of psychological warfare. Suddenly he was talked about on the radio as holding back Ireland’s progress and preventing valuable employment in the region. Sometimes reports called him selfish; others insinuated he was insane. He jammed shut his letter box after receiving numerous mail that was hateful or threatening and was consistently visited by “official-looking” men in suits who told him he had no choice but to sell. There was one rumor he was offered as much as 10 million euros for his 70-acre farm. In the end, there was little room for the truth, which was that regardless of how much Thomas Reid was offered, he valued farming on his family’s land more than money. When the pressure campaign didn’t work, he was given a CPO by the IDA and told he was legally obligated to sell his property.
Reid lost his first court battle with the IDA but then took it to the High Court, the Irish equivalent of the Supreme Court. In the end, he won – but only on a technicality. Because Intel approached Reid before the IDA, the High Court ruled that the IDA was not seeking the land without bias but had already intended on giving it to Intel. It was only a procedural miscue that saved David from Goliath, and not the formal decision that private property should not be seized for the benefit of a corporation.
In the U.S., the breadth of the powers of bodies claiming eminent domain was alarmingly cemented in the 2005 court case Kelo v. City of New London. Susette Kelo and her neighbors in New London, Connecticut, refused to sell their apartments to the local government. Therefore, the City of New London condemned the property and forced them to sell to the New London Development Corporation, even though the property was obviously not “blighted.” Kelo claimed eminent domain was not upheld because the property was going to a private enterprise and not public use. However, the court ruled 5-4 against her, stating that the economic development gained from the transfer would benefit the community, creating a precedent that favored corporations over individuals.
I would feel rather jaded if my house was torn down to create a road. I think my friend in Galway does still find it difficult and is doing his best to hide it. It’s a complicated situation, and I’m not sure what I think about the new ring road. However, what does seem clearer is the danger behind how eminent domain and compulsory purchase orders have evolved.
Many individuals haven’t been as fortunate as Thomas Reid, and more people will be put into unwanted circumstances as other companies look for opportunities to expand. It will become increasingly important to put pressure on local and national governments to prioritize the property owner over the interests of corporations.
Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. His website is Ryan Dennis.