SIPOC and the High Court find against Dublin City Council mayor Oisín Quinn on his ethical breaches
In 2011 Councillor Oisín Quinn – senior counsel; nephew of Education Minister, Ruairí, son of tycoon, Lochlann; and now Dublin’s mayor – threatened to sue Village and even drafted the apology for us! This was after we published a relatively benign article in the magazine about his promotion of high-rise in Dublin City. In the course of lengthy correspondence, and meetings, with Quinn’s solicitor it became clear to us that the case to answer was his not ours.
Quinn proposed, and voted on, resolutions that substantially affected his valuable property interest in an office block on Mount St, an area where established heights are up for grabs – where several other dismal 1970s blocks like the Quinn block have recently been rebuilt at increased heights. He proposed “Dublin2 minus the Georgian Squares” should be open to a height of six office storeys which is the equivalent of nine residential storeys. This is a dramatic increase on the four-storey Georgian height of Dublin. He also successfully supported mid-rise buildings up to 50m in nine areas of the city and buildings over 50m in four locations of the inner city.
His proposal and vote seemed improper to Independent Councillor Cieran Perry and Village editor Michael Smith though Quinn and several tiers of officials in the Council led by then Manager John Tierney seemed to think it okay to declare an interest, and then nonsensically to go on to vote on proposals that might increase the interest’s value. The Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPOC) confirmed Quinn had breached the ethics acts in four ways, though they were concededly minor and “inadvertent”. In late January the High Court upheld that SIPOC decision as “eminently reasonable”.
We do not see what a Labour councillor was doing promoting high-rise (as opposed to high density) for the human-scale Dublin centre in the teeth of so much opposition from his constituents. Interestingly, during the SIPO hearing it was clear that the most important submissions, as far as Councillor Quinn was concerned, of the hundreds that he received mostly from the public, were relatively professional submissions made by the Chamber of Commerce, KPMG and a planning consultant. He chose not to refer to the massive opposition from the communities the Labour Party purports to represent.
Judge John Hedigan in the High Court ruled forcefully against both the City Council and its mayor. He noted that, during the case, Quinn had introduced evidence from a council planning officer seeking to demonstrate he was no more likely to benefit from an amending of building heights after the city plan was changed than before but, apart from the “doubtful relevance” of this evidence, it was not open to the court to consider it as the case was a judicial review of the commission’s decision and not an appeal.
The commission found Quinn’s interest in the property was not so remote that it cannot be reasonably regarded as likely to influence his vote, the judge said.
The City Council had consistently purported to be exercised by the danger of paralysis, “that so many councillors would have to disclose and withdraw because of the wide effect of SIPOC’s determination that the Council would be unable to perform its functions”. The judge slaughtered this argument: “No evidence has been adduced to support this proposition…the evidence supports the opposite conclusion”. He noted that only two of even councillor Quinn’s motions could be (and were) challenged and that in the making of eight other local authority development plans recently not a single councillor had felt obliged to declare and withdraw.
The City Council seems not to have digested these central facts. Indeed, the new City Manager, Owen Keegan, unprofessionally told the Council in early February “any councillor who asks my advice or the law agent’s advice in the future – you’re on your own”.
Furthermore, the Judge ruled “reasonably regarded” refers to perception rather than objective reality and it was “classically a matter of judgment” as to whether it was so. The commission was an expert tribunal. In making its finding against Councillor Quinn, it was “hard to imagine” a body more qualified than the commission.
It would have been preferable if the judge had looked more closely at the decision rather than the decision-making body and also if he had addressed the issue of why the reasons given by SIPOC were so paltry, but his judgment is unassailable.
The judge also found the Council had no legal standing to bring the court action as it was not a party to the commission’s inquiry and raised serious doubts as to Quinn’s own standing to take the case but decided somewhat unpersuasively that since so much effort had gone into the case he might as well decide it anyway.
At the time of hearing, in the eleven years since the instigation of SIPOC this was one of only three decisions that went against someone in public office, albeit for a minor infringement.
The issue arises as to why City Management led by John Tierney, now controversially fronting Irish Water, took the expensive High Court case, for which they had no standing, why they seem bent on an irresponsible Supreme Court appeal, and why they seem to have underwritten Councillor Quinn’s involvement – as well as why they were indulgent of ethical delinquencies and indeed why they are facilitating high-rise when Dubliners do not want it. •