Belton, Paddy (1926–87), politician and businessman, was born Patrick Fitzgibbon Belton on 26 June 1926 at 5 Mount Street Crescent, Dublin, the third of four sons of Patrick Belton (qv) and his wife Mary (née Fitzgibbon). His father, a colourful right-wing populist, was a dáil deputy and local councillor who developed extensive farming interests in Co. Dublin and engaged in the building, retail and pub trades. Paddy grew up on farms in Beaumont, Dublin, and then in Killiney, Co. Dublin, attending Scoil Mhuire in Marino and Belvedere College, Great Denmark Street. Dedicated to rugby, less so to studying, he was captain, hooker and place-kicker for the Belvedere schools team that lost the 1944 Leinster senior cup final, and also played for the Leinster schools team.
Finishing school, he joined Old Belvedere rugby club where he found himself in an unequal contest with Irish international Karl Mullen (qv) for the hooker's spot on the senior team. He switched to prop, winning two Leinster senior cup medals in that position (1951–2), before resuming as hooker when Mullen moved to England (1953–6). He captained Old Belvedere in 1953/4 and retired from senior rugby in 1957. His brother Jack (1914–63) played senior rugby for Old Belvedere and Leinster, making several appearances for Ireland in unofficial internationals. Paddy was also a member of Howth and Royal Dublin golf clubs.
After farming his family's 600 acres at Killiney (1945–8), he became a small-scale builder, and co-owned with Jack a pub established by their father in Donnycarney, Dublin. In 1956 he followed normal practice by building a pub in Beaumont and then seeking a licence, a process requiring money, connections and courage. He met Elizabeth Cassidy, a flight attendant from Raglan Road, Dublin, on the pub's opening night. By the time they married (October 1957), building a second pub had pushed him into debt, forcing its premature opening. Trade suffered and financial trouble beckoned, until Elizabeth retrieved matters by serving hot-plate dinners. As Dublin expanded, Belton built, or bought and renovated, pubs located near new suburban housing estates, benefiting from 'rural' regulations prohibiting other pubs within a one-mile radius.
Having electioneered for Fine Gael since childhood, he stood for the party in the Dublin North-East by-election (30 May 1963) prompted by the death of his brother Jack, the sitting Fine Gael deputy since 1948. (Another brother, Richard (1913–74), was a senator and local councillor for Fine Gael.) With the Belton dynasty well established in the area, and the Fianna Fáil candidate handicapped by the government's unpopular new turnover tax, Belton won decisively, and held his seat in three subsequent general elections, thus serving a sixteen-year tenure (1963–77), despite neglecting his constituents. In 1965 his cousin Luke Belton (1918–2006) was elected a Fine Gael deputy for Dublin North Central; continuing in the dáil until 1981, Luke managed one of Paddy's pubs and often appeared at constituency events on his behalf.
Meeting a burgeoning demand for women-friendly lounge bars, Paddy Belton thrived off a sustained boom in alcohol consumption; the regular additions to his pub chain became ever larger and better endowed with facilities. He was active in the Licensed Vintners Association, serving as chairman (1964/5), and stood out in a sector dominated by staid family operations accustomed to a static market. His brothers' families accrued a one-third share of his business from supplying money or property, including valuable land at Glenageary, Co. Dublin, for his construction and sale of 150 houses in 1966.
At its mid-1970s peak, the Belton Group was Dublin's biggest pub chain, operating seventeen licensed premises, many with an off-licence; most were owned wholly, some were leased or held in partnership. Employing over 300 workers, his empire further encompassed several newsagents and a supermarket, shopping arcade and small building outfit, as well as interests in property, wine shops, drink distributors and the Murphy's brewery. In 1969, he built a sprawling bungalow residence overlooking Dublin from Howth Hill. The Beltons threw glamorous parties there and assiduously attended prestigious social events.
Bluff and garrulous, Belton partook enthusiastically in the cross-party conviviality of the dáil members' bar, and revelled in his tycoon image, which he accentuated by chain-smoking cigars, becoming heavily overweight, and challenging political adversaries to extravagant bets on election outcomes. His dáil contributions mainly involved heckling Fianna Fáil speakers or working himself into an incoherent state of apoplexy. During the May 1970 arms crisis, he and Fianna Fáil minister Kevin Boland (qv) were restrained from coming to blows in the dáil chamber.
When backbench and media pressure forced the Fine Gael leadership into grudgingly endorsing radical economic policies in 1964, Belton presented himself as sympathetic, but never convinced ardent proponents of the newly adopted 'just society' programme. His non-doctrinaire conservatism chimed with that of Fine Gael leader Liam Cosgrave (1920–2017), who made him his labour spokesman in December 1967. Showing little interest in technical details, Belton regurgitated the progressive policies devised by backroom experts and unsuccessfully courted the trade unions by advocating worker participation in company management. It helped that he paid his fully unionised bar staff above the market rate and readily conceded wage demands, being part of a powerful Dublin pub cartel capable of passing costs on to customers.
An underperforming Belton was dropped from the party front bench in April 1972, and that December joined seven other Fine Gael deputies and senators in refusing to vote confidence in Cosgrave's leadership. Thus, he had no hope of ministerial office in the Fine Gael–Labour coalition elected in 1973. A loyal internal critic of that government's socialistic economic policies, he was frequently typecast as a reactionary, despite making a courageous and heartfelt speech in 1974 in favour of legalising the sale of contraceptives to unmarried adults.
Borrowing heavily, he bought two prime Dublin city-centre properties (1973–4): the Central Hotel, which was refurbished, but remained a consistent loss-maker until its closure in 1982; and a site on Merrion Row, which was redeveloped into office space and leased providentially by the National Museum in 1976 after lying empty for two years. He had also pieced together a site for a shopping arcade off Moore Street when the mid-1970s recession almost bankrupted him. During 1976–7, he kept afloat by selling personal assets, three pubs and all his commercial sites.
Elected to Dublin city council in 1974, he should have become lord mayor in 1976, but was thwarted by his council colleague Luke Belton, who, resentful at being overshadowed, unexpectedly withdrew his support. (They reconciled and remained political allies.) With the Fine Gael group on the city council dividing into conservative and liberal factions, Belton and other right-wingers routinely made common cause with Fianna Fáil in voting through contentious building and motorway schemes. This reflected his publicly expressed view that the inner city needed to be depopulated for commercial redevelopment.
Preferring weak general-election running mates, he drove out potentially formidable internal constituency challengers and suppressed local party activism. This undid him in the 1977 general election when the shambolic state of Fine Gael in his Dublin (Artane) constituency combined with unhelpful boundary revisions and the government's unpopularity to produce his surprise defeat. Conversely, the Belton Group's finances were restored by an economic recovery, and he maintained his profile by serving as president of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce for 1977 and being elected lord mayor of Dublin in mid 1978. He moved into the lord mayor's residence, where he proved an extraordinarily generous host, digging deep into his pockets after quickly exhausting the entertainment allowance.
His one-year term coincided with a national outcry over Dublin Corporation's intended construction of civic offices at Wood Quay, the site of the most important viking archaeological discovery yet made in Ireland. Heading a right-wing, north-Dublin clique averse to the liberal turn taken by Fine Gael under the new leadership of Garret FitzGerald (qv), Belton defied his party's line and public opinion by vociferously championing the corporation's unyielding stance. Many city council meetings broke up in acrimony, as his gruff, dictatorial chairmanship heightened the ill will over Wood Quay and assorted planning controversies.
Sensationally losing his seat, while still mayor, in the 1979 local elections to a young female party rival, he was beaten soundly in the 1981 general election and quit politics upon failing to secure the party nomination for the February 1982 general election. His demise was part of a wider rout of many traditional Fine Gael dynasties by the party's liberal leadership, although the election to the dáil of his niece Avril Doyle in November 1982 showed that family pedigree still mattered.
Stymied by inflexible work practices and beset by stricter price controls and crippling excises, his pubs sustained heavy losses during a prolonged trade recession from 1979. In 1981 he started using his city-centre gastro-pub as a nightclub, the Pink Elephant, which became an ultra-fashionable nightspot. Emboldened, he expensively converted half his venues into disco bars that offered free admission while charging more for drink. His pioneering of the disco bar in Dublin provided a temporary impetus to trade, but entailed higher overheads and relying on fickle youngsters.
Haemorrhaging cash on a healthy £10 million annual turnover, the Belton Group accumulated debts of over £6 million and was dependent latterly on credit extensions from lenders, suppliers and the tax authorities. He failed to appreciate the seriousness of the situation, having become detached from the business during 1982–3 following the murder of his brother Robert and the tragic death of his daughter Mary. Distraught and in poor health, he spent time with his remaining three daughters and two sons.
In summer 1986 he sold three drinking premises to appease Revenue, which was demanding a significant reduction in VAT arrears of £4 million. News of this tax bill alarmed his creditors who, after fruitless negotiations for a financial restructuring or a Guinness takeover, pitched the Belton Group into liquidation that December. Forced by personal guarantees to sell his house and pension, he moved to London, where he was attempting to start over in the drinks trade when he died on 22 May 1987. He was buried in St. Fintan's cemetery, Sutton, Co. Dublin.