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Done gall

We’re still waiting for the official report on dodgy planning in Donegal

Former County Manager of Donegal, Michael McLoone, is continuing with his High Court proceedings for defamation against Village. In 2014 the magazine printed allegations which it claims were both true and contained in an affidavit opened in court proceedings, by former Donegal senior planner, Gerard Convie, an employee of Donegal County Council for 24 years.

McLoone claims he has been massively defamed. Meanwhile Convie’s allegations are being assessed by a senior counsel appointed by the Department of the Environment.

Convie has consistently, in court and elsewhere, claimed that during his tenure there was bullying and intimidation within the council – of planners who sought to make decisions based exclusively on the planning merits of particular applications. He claims one councillor constantly referred to him as a “wee shit from the North”.

In the opened affidavit, Convie alleges McLoone:

1. Recommended permissions that breached the Donegal County Development Plan to an extent that was almost systemic

2. Submitted planning applications to Donegal County Council on behalf of friends and associates

3. Dealt with planning applications from submission to decision, including some from friends, family and associates

4. Ignored the recommendations of planners

5. Destroyed the recommendations of other planners

6. Submitted fraudulent correspondence to the planning department

7. Forged signatures

8. Improperly interfered as described in a number of planning applications

9. Was close to a number of leading architects and developers in Donegal, including the head of the largest ‘architectural’ practice in Donegal, with whom he holidayed but the relationship with whom was undeclared.

Convie made a number of complaints dating from 2006. He had a list of 20 “suspect cases” in the County. As he later reverted to private practice he claimed to have discovered many more, perhaps hundreds, “a cesspit”.

In 2006 he complained to the Standards in Public Office Commission (which ruled the complaints out of time). That same year the Council sued Convie for his allegations, but dropped the proceedings after a fractious four years, without any damages or costs award. In another case McLoone won damages from a local newspaper which had printed some of the allegations but which did not fight the case in a full hearing.

Following complaints from Convie after the Greens got into government Environment Minister, John Gormley, announced ‘planning reviews’ in 2010, not of corruption but of bad practice – in seven local authorities including Donegal. Convie’s case studies comprised all the material for the review in Donegal. But when the new Fine Gael and Labour government took over they very quickly dropped the independent inquiries. A lazy 2012 internal review by the Department of the Environment stated of Donegal – according to Minister Jan O’Sullivan in the Dáil, that: “… the complainant [Convie] has failed at any stage to produce evidence of wrong-doing in Donegal Council’s planning department”.

Convie felt this left him in an invidious position and he successfully sued. In the High Court Order, all the conclusions by the Minister were withdrawn and an apology issued. Counsel on behalf of the current Donegal County Manager, Seamus Neeley, objected to the decision as it did not know why the case had been settled, though Convie’s barrister noted that the Council was a notice party that had played no active part in the case.

There appear to have been no ramifications for the civil servants who concluded that Convie’s complaint did not constitute “evidence”, less still for the ‘progressive’ Minister who accepted the conclusions.

The government was forced to reinstate the planning enquiries and found maladministration but not any sort of corruption in the cases outside Donegal.

After the ‘RTÉ Investigates’ programme which apparently uncovered examples of corruption in planning last year, the government sheepishly announced a package of ‘radical’ planning measures which included the belated publication of the independent review which uncovered considerable evidence of malpractice throughout the planning system and includes 29 recommendations to improve “standards of transparency, consistency and accountability” which the Department says it will implement.

The Convie file was referred to the Attorney General for direction and in the end senior counsel, Rory Mulcahy SC, was appointed to look into it.

Convie by all accounts engaged with Mulcahy over the issues which were the subject of the complaints, but has now withdrawn from the process. Mulcahy has spoken to the Council and informed Convie that he would be seeking to interview other relevant parties. He is around half way through the exercise.

In February this year Alan Kelly, the then Minister for the Environment, claimed, “this independent process underway remains the priority of the Minister, his Department and his officials”.

However, though in general content with the process – which being non-statutory is precariously ‘open-ended’, Convie has some particular concerns. He considers the Minister changed the terms of reference for Mulcahy by re-inserting a confidentiality clause, which unlike an earlier version omitted to state that the provision would continue in force “notwithstanding the termination of this contract by either party for any reason”.

In the end the Minister partially reinstated the term relating to the confidentiality of his work.
Moreover Convie wants the process to embrace An Bord Pleanála to which he claims improper representations were made. He claims that in the 1990s he bid on a site in Magheraroarty, Co Donegal, never trying to hide anything. His bid was accepted by the owner but on reflection Convie says he felt it was far too much land which his family could not afford. He was approached by a builder in Donegal, Patrick J Doherty, and was delighted when he agreed to take the land and Convie bought a site from him.

This posed potential conflicts of interest for Convie. However at all stages of the multifarious transactions, Convie made the necessary declarations of involvement in the land.

Doherty made a pre-planning application to determine the attitude of the planning office to the development of the site. As the relevant planning official was on leave [and Convie was dealing with his work as well as his own] he says he asked another official, Jim Harley, to deal with it, citing his involvement but Harley stated that he didn’t have the time and didn’t know where the site was. Convie agreed to go to the site with him and they met so that he could determine the development of the site. He wrote to Doherty stating that there was no objection in principle to housing on the site.

Convie claims he had advised that he should not be determinate regarding the number of houses but that that was information that would have been available to anyone acquainted with the policies and objectives in the County Development Plan. Eventually Doherty made a planning application for the development of the site. The relevant planner had now returned from leave and he dealt with it recommending outline planning permission.

As well as declaring his interest on the ‘Register of Interest’, Convie notated the file acknowledging his involvement in the lands and the recommendation to grant went to Liam Kelly, the assistant county manager with responsibility for planning matters. He asked Convie’s boss, the County Engineer, to look at it given Convie’s declarations and he obtained a further report from the relevant planner, who again reiterated his recommendation. A decision to grant outline planning permission ensued from Donegal County Council. The decision was appealed to An Bord Pleanála by locals in Magheraroarty and refused. Convie is still surprised by this as he considers the application complied with the Development Plan and had been approved by all those involved in the planning process. Convie claims the decision made him look bad as it allowed the interpretation that the Council’s decisions had improperly favoured him.

Shortly after the decision Convie was suspended by Donegal County Council and dismissed at the behest of the Minister though he later got this overturned by the High Court.

Convie, right, with Michael Smith, left, and An Taisce’s Ian Lumley at a 2015 press conference

Documents seen by Village (below and over- leaf) show that there were discussions between McLoone’s Deputy County Manager, Liam Kelly, and An Bord Pleanála about the appeal. An agenda for a 1999 Council meeting shows McLoone was kept abreast of these discussions. Convie claims these were improper and, in his view, unlawful under the 1983 Planning Act. He told Village that The Bord has also confirmed to him that any discussion between any parties to an appeal may be unlawful. Convie believes Donegal County Council’s decision was in compliance with the County Development Plan and the Bord Pleanála decision issued despite the application having been recommended for permission by everyone involved in the Council planning process.

In a recent letter to Minister Coveney Convie writes: “One of the issues raised [by me earlier], was in respect of An Bord Pleanala and I had set out why Mr Mulcahy must also investigate the issue I reported to you involving An Bord Pleanala and Donegal County Council in so far as it relates to the administration of planning in Co. Donegal and in respect of the particular planning matter I referred to your Department [being one of the number of irregularities I have reported].

Your predecessor [Alan Kelly] had decreed that this matter would not be investigated by Mr. Mulcahy and stated that the matter was one for An Bord Pleanala. So, I wrote a number of times to Dr Kelly, Chairperson of An Bord Pleanala, requesting her to contact your Department and setting out that I had sent your Department documentary evidence which I believe may demonstrate unlawful activity in the dealing with a particular planning application which was central to my leaving my job in Donegal County Council”.

Convie claimed that:
“By her responses, Dr. Kelly appears to be unconcerned about the matter and has indicated that any further correspondence to her about the matter will not be answered”.

More generally, Convie wants the review to be as wide-ranging as possible and considers that his Case Studies are merely used as illustrations of what has been going on: “It is not the Case Studies per se which must be examined, but the entire administration of planning in the county [as illustrated by the Case Studies.] In my opinion, the actions and acts of every officer and official who have played any part in the irregularities complained of, and who may have played any part in any cover-up, must be examined by Mr Mulcahy in this current process. Otherwise, you will never have a complete picture”.

In March Convie sought further clari cation from the Minister. This letter was not acknowledged or answered. He wrote again to the new Minister [Simon Coveney TD] on 20th. May 2016 and, again, his letter was not even acknowledged and no response given.

He lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman and, again, has not received an acknowledgement to his letter dated 30 June 2016.

Meanwhile Convie has written to Shane Ross making further allegations – in particular that the way he handled a valuable procurement process suggests he is un t to be chair of Donegal Airport:
“The facts of the matter are that the then County Manager, Mr Michael McLoone, awarded a multi-million pound contract to an associate of his to carry out administrative work for Donegal [County Council] without any proper procurement procedures being applied. That person who was awarded the contract, a Mr. Cang, even had to set up a company to carry out the work and it seems that the only company asset was himself. It is not known who else bene ted from the award of this multi-million pound contract”.

Convie notes that Mr McLoone is the current chair of Donegal Airport and that Ross is the Minister responsible for giving it hundreds of thousands of euro of public money under the Regional Airports Programme. “I believe there are very serious questions to be asked about the governance of Mr McLoone and his adherence to strict corporate codes of conduct given his record in Donegal County Council”.

Convie has been writing to Ross about Donegal since 2010. With no response. He has received no reply from the Minister about the airport. It is not the only issue awaiting explanation in Donegal.

We wrote to the solicitors for Michael McLoone, copying them with the above article.

We said: “In the interests of fairness and accuracy we are seeking a response and comments from your client, Mr Michael McLoone, and are willing to print such response and comments, comprehensively – within the reasonable constraints of space limitations”.

This is the emailed reply.

Michael Smith