A defamation case currently under way in the High Court has exposed some of the tensions that have been apparent for many years between members of Wicklow County Council and its former county manager, Eddie Sheehy. Sheehy, who retired last year, spent several days in the witness box defending himself from a claim that he defamed Councillor Tommy Cullen and former councillor, Barry Nevin, in a press release issued by Wicklow County Council in April 2013. The council is also a defendant in the action.
The action arose from a claim in the press release that, in 2011, the councillors had made “unfounded and misconceived” allegations in relation to the compulsory purchase (CPO) of lands close to the Three Trouts stream, at Charlesland in Greystones. These allegations were contained in a letter from the councillors and councillor Jimmy O’Shaughnessy, to then environment minister, Phil Hogan, who authorised an ‘Independent Review of the Compulsory Acquisition of land at Charlesland, county Wicklow’ by Seamus Woulfe SC. As a result of the review the department delayed the sanctioning of a €3m loan to the council to allow it to purchase the land under CPO.
The press release was issued by the council under the headline:
‘WOULFE REPORT REJECTS COUNCILLORS’ ALLEGATIONS REGARDING THREE TROUTS CPO’
It went on to quote from the report it received on that day, Tuesday 23 April 2013, and stated that “Woulfe rejects the very serious allegations which were made by Councillors Cullen, Nevin and O’Shaughnessy”.
The press release said that Woulfe concluded that “almost all of the concerns” raised by the three councillors “are not well founded or are misconceived”. It said that Woulfe had concluded that “there was no deviation by the council from the relevant legal requirements and administrative requirements or practices”.
The press release then went on to state that “the delay in sanctioning the loan to purchase this site (caused by the need to carry out this Independent Review of the unfounded and misconceived allegations of Councillors Cullen, Nevin and O’Shaughnessy) has resulted in a loss to the Council of circa €200,000 in respect of interest foregone and administrative costs. This is in addition to the costs of the Independent Review commissioned by the Minister”.
Although the defamation claim was first rejected in the Circuit Court two years ago the decision has been appealed by the two councillors and hearings opened in the High Court before Judge Marie Baker in mid-April. Although the action revolves around the claim by the councillors that they were defamed in the press release, the context of the case brings in the wider issue, as reported in Village over recent years, of the zoning and development of lands at Charlesland by well-known developers, Sean Mulryan and Sean Dunne through their company Zapi Ltd, from the early 2000s. As Judge Baker said during the early hearings last month Zapi is “in the ether” of the case.
Under cross-examination, Sheehy claimed that the lands at Three Trouts were earmarked and purchased for social housing from a landowner at Charlesland. Barrister for the councillors, Mark Harty, submitted that the lands were known and acknowledged as a flood plain and were unsuitable for housing. He also asked whether Woulfe had been made aware of this fact when he carried out his independent review.
Sheehy claimed that Woulfe was given all relevant information while Harty indicated that the reference to its being a flood plain was never mentioned in his investigation report. Harty also asked why the council needed the land at Three Trouts for social housing when it already had sufficient zoned land for this purpose. Sheehy confirmed that the council already possessed 32 acres of land intended for social housing in the Greystones area, including 22 acres close to Charlesland, but said these were ear-marked as collateral for the harbour development in the town.
Councillor Cullen has told the court that several councillors had raised questions about the CPO and the land valuation during meetings in 2011 and that the issue was widely covered in the media; and his lawyers have submitted that it was “incorrect to place or attribute responsibility for the Woulfe investigation” on the three councillors.
Cullen has defended correspondence he exchanged during October 2011 with senior executives of the council and his decision in early November 2011 to raise issues with the department and the minister, in relation to the land purchase. His barrister claimed that the correspondence opened in court contradicted evidence by Sheehy that there had been no such contact between the elected member and council executives on the issue during October 2011.
Former Secretary General of the Department of the Environment, Geraldine Tallon, was also called as a witness, along with Des O’Brien, director of services at Wicklow County Council and senior executive, Lorraine Gallagher. Former Labour Party TD and councillor Anne Ferris also appeared in court and confirmed that she, along with Fine Gael TD, Simon Harrishad raised the issue of the purchase of lands at Three Trouts at the Public Accounts Committee, in 2011.
The Department first approved a loan of €5m to Wicklow County Council in July 2009, for the purpose of land acquisition at Three Trouts. It did not draw down the money, as the CPO negotiations with the landowner were not completed until March 2011. The land remains idle and no social housing has been built in Greystones on it or on any other lands for many years.
The Three Trouts site is adjacent to a landlocked part of the larger Charlesland scheme developed by Zapi and containing 1400 homes.
The plans to extend the development collapsed with the financial crash in 2009. Landowner, the late John Nolan, from whom the lands were compulsorily acquired, objected to the CPO and controversially claimed at a hearing of An Bord Pleanála that its real purpose was to facilitate the developers of the Charlesland site.
Among those attending the High Court hearings, which have moved between three different rooms in the Four Courts over three weeks, are former Wicklow county manager, Blaise Treacy (a former advisor to Mulryan’s company Ballymore Homes) and Fianna Fáil councillor, Pat Vance, a key player in the planning process for Charlesland. There has been little or no media attention given to the case despite the high reputational stakes for all involved. The hearing continues.