Editorial, Village, April 2014
Gerard Convie is a whistleblower, but you won’t have heard of him. Over the last few years Village has helped a number of other whistleblowers whose cases are to varying degrees unassailable but have not been championed by the media or pursued by the authorities: Jonathan Sugarman on Unicredit Bank, Noel Wardick on the Red Cross, Paul Clinton on Treasury Holdings and Dublin City Council, Séamus Kirk on planning appeals withdrawn after a 1m payout in Louth, Colm Murphy on solicitor fraud and Law Society ‘skulduggery’.
As Frank McBrearty, the whistleblower whose attempted framing for the murder of Richie Barron led to the instigation of the Morris Tribunal, told Village this week: “without whistleblowers you can’t expose corruption”.
But the lack of official interest in these brave citizens, or action on their allegations, bespeaks an overwhelming cynicism veiled only by the correlative rush to be publicly perceived as welcoming of whistleblowers such as the gardai who revealed the penalty-points scandal. As one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, so one man’s whistleblower is another’s deluded obsessive. You only really become a whisleblower once your whistle has been heard by the ‘political correspondents’ and the party spokespersons. When you are at your most vulnerable they won’t seek you out or even answer your letters.
Convie worked in Donegal County Council as a senior planner for nearly 24 years. He claims it was well known in Donegal and beyond that he would not capitulate to the “goings-on in planning” by certain councillors and senior officials in Co Donegal. He tried to control one-off housing, produced the first design guide, and used to appeal to An Bord Pleanála on his own behalf and at his own expense all decisions to grant planning permission via the infamous S4 motions. This was controversial. He claims one councilor constantly referred to him as a ”wee shit from the North”.
Convie has claimed, in an affidavit opened in court, 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.
In the affidavit, Convie alleges another planner:
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
4) ignored the recommendations of other 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.
His affidavit also refers to irregularities perpetrated by named officials at the highest level in the Council as well as named senior county councilors. The Minister and Donegal County Council made no defence of any averment in Convie’s Affidavit.
Convie had a list of more than 20 “suspect cases” in the County. As he reverted to private practice he claimed that there must be many more, perhaps hundreds, “a cesspit”. His complaints to various Ministers for the Environment and to the Standards in Public Office Commission went nowhere.
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 stated: “The department’s rigorous analysis finds that the allegations do not relate to systemic corruption in the planning system…Nonetheless, they raise serious matters, ranging from maladministration to inconsistency in application of planning policy or non-adherence to forward plans, such as development plans”. As regards Donegal, the Department, extraordinarily and scandalously, decided – 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, in the absence of any defense of him by from any source, he successfully sued. In the High Court Order all the conclusions by the Minister were withdrawn, including reports on the matters prepared for the Minister by Donegal County Council.
The government has been forced to reinstate the planning enquiries. But it will be important to see the ramifications for the civil servants who concluded that Convie’s complaint did not constitute “evidence”, and for the Minister who accepted the conclusions. While some of the council officials who are named in the irregularities in Convie’s Affidavit have retired, some remain in the Council’s employ and have seen their careers soar.
The Convie file has been referred to the Attorney General for direction and she has now reported back to the Minister. The Department will report its review before the summer. Meanwhile a taint hangs over the administration of planning in Donegal, and a whistleblower twists in the wind.
As Village was going to print, things were finally heating up in Donegal County Council. The Director of Housing and Corporate Services told Village the Council would be responding to Convie’s reported allegations, shortly, and Ethics Officer, Paul McGill, said the matter was being examined by management. As regards County Councillors, the current mayor of Donegal, independent Ian McGarvey, while making it clear he did not wish to be involved in anything ‘scurrilous’, said he would refer the issue to the county secretary. Independent Donegal County Councillor Frank Mc Brearty noted it was difficult for current councillors to ascertain the truth of such matters because of difficulties getting files – even last year when he was mayor. While complimentary of the current incumbent, McBrearty felt ethics registrars should be independent of the Council. He said lessons should be learnt from the planning tribunal. As with the Garda, these include that government must ensure an independent investigation, providing for natural justice. He notes of Donegal, “because the County is so isolated, allegations seem to take longer to be investigated, and then are not investigated independently. The political will is not there”.
Since the Departmental review is about maladministration, not impropriety, it is legitimate and imperative for Donegal County Council to probe the allegations, now. So far it has refused to carry out any investigation into any of Convie’s complaints. Meanwhile Minister O’Sullivan has serious questions to answer. While the media pontificate about whistleblowing in the gardai, and in the abstract, in Donegal the whistle blows into a gale.