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Blowing the Whistle on Donegal ’til you burst

By Michael Smith.

As Frank McBrearty, the whistleblower whose attempted framing for the murder of Richie Barron led to the instigation of the Morris Tribunal, told Village: “without whistleblowers you can’t expose corruption.”

Gerard Convie makes a convincing whistleblower. He worked in Donegal County Council as a senior planner for nearly 24 years and says 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.

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. He claims one councilor constantly referred to him as a ”wee shit from the North”.

In the affidavit, Convie alleges Jim Harley, who was Acting Director of Planning up to 2006: recommended permissions that breached the Donegal County Development Plan to an extent that was almost systemic; submitted planning applications to Donegal County Council on behalf of friends and associates; dealt with planning applications from submission to decision; ignored and sometimes destroyed the recommendations of other planners; submitted fraudulent correspondence to the planning department; and forged signatures.

His affidavit also refers to irregularities perpetrated by named officials at the highest level in the Council as well as named senior county councilors.

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 for years got 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”.

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 defence of him by from any source, he successfully sued. In the resulting High Court Order all the conclusions by the Minister were withdrawn, including reports on the matters prepared for the Minister by Donegal County Council, even if the County Council makes an issue of the fact it did not itself withdraw them.

The County Council is in the compromising position of defending reports that its mother department did not consider defensible.

Meanwhile, the government has been forced to reinstate the planning enquiries, though the focus is again very limited, to “compliance with plans”, and the nature of pre-planning discussions. 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 Minister O’Sullivan, who accepted the conclusions.

On February 6, the Department of the Environment told Village: “In relation to the position of Donegal Co Co the Department has also sought the advice of the Attorney General before deciding on a course of action. This advice is expected in the coming weeks.”

But as of early June a letter from the Department stated that “the Minister is awaiting additional advice from the Attorney General’s office regarding the most appropriate legislative basis for an examination of the planning issues raised in this case. In relation to the independent report into the other 6 planning authorities it is expected that this will be concluded soon.”

As for the Council, in April, Donegal’s Director of Housing and Corporate Services, Liam Ward, told Village it would be responding to Convie’s reported allegations.

In an email to me of 17 May, Liam Ward queried why documentation produced by the Council in 2002 and 2010 was not referred to in Village articles on this matter. But the documentation clearly was not deemed credible by the Department of the Environment when it conceded Convie’s case.

In reply to Village’s call for the Council to investigate impropriety, as opposed to ‘compliance’ which is the focus of the Department of the Environment’s ‘review’, he considered that “apart from that given the nature of the allegations, the Council’s stated position thereon, the history of proceedings and all that has occurred in the past fifteen years it would not be appropriate for the Council to carry out an investigation into matters that it is itself in part the subject of. Further Mr. Convie made the allegations to the Minister and not the Council.”

Village plans a press conference to outline progress on this issue on Tuesday 8 July. Details to follow on www.village.ie.
(Picture: The Rosses, Donegal – courtesy Wikipedia; no impropriety implied)