By Michael Smith.
Michael McLoone, former County Manager in Donegal, is suing me. He wants damages, punitive damages, aggravated damages and an order prohibiting the further publication of unspecified statements the subject of the proceedings. We’re not worried. The proceedings relate to material the substance of which is privileged because it refers to affidavits opened in court, and the proceedings and earlier correspondence so far have failed to suggest specific inaccuracies in the allegations made about Donegal planning in Village.
The proceedings concern the substance of evidence given in the High Court by Gerard Convie, who strangely this time remains unburdened by such proceedings though he has received them in the past, from Mr McLoone. Mr Convie worked in Donegal County Council as a senior planner for 24 years and has claimed, in an affidavit opened in court, that during his tenure in the Council there was bullying and intimidation of planners who sought to make decisions based exclusively on the planning merits of particular applications.
In the affidavit, Convie also refers to irregularities perpetrated by named officials at the highest level in the Council including former Manager McLoone, as well as named County Councillors. Convie had a list of more than 20 “suspect cases” in the County but his complaints to various Ministers for the Environment and to the Standards in Public Office Commission for years got nowhere. Local media have been reticent about covering the matter. A recent interview of Convie on Highland Radio was recorded but, with no explanation, never broadcast.
After the Greens got into government, Environment Minister, John Gormley (now contributing editor to Village), 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/Labour government took over it 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 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, leaving the Council in the compromising position that it – in correspondence with Village – now appears to be defending reports that its mother department did not consider defensible.
The government was – of course – forced to reinstate the planning enquiries but it is a scandal that the Department of the Environment ever said Convie had failed to produce evidence of wrongdoing. Though at considerable public expense this view was eventually repudiated, how it arose must be investigated – and officials and Ministers O’Sullivan and her boss, the now Eurobound Phil Hogan, held to account.
The syndrome of blind antagonism to whistleblowers is directly analogous to the view the Department of Justice took on the respective credibilities of the Garda and its whistleblowers in the recent imbroglio that led to the demise of that Department’s Minister.
As to the reviews, in February 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.”. On 8 August the Department stated that “we have just received further advice on the Donegal planning review from the AG’s Office in the last week which is currently being considered”.
In June Village was told “In relation to the independent report into the other six planning authorities it is expected that this will be concluded soon”. Indeed Frank Connolly reports elsewhere in this edition that there is a chance the review may be extended to Wicklow.
Now the Attorney General has reported, the Department must stop prevaricating and announce a proper review by a barrister into impropriety in Donegal planning under the 2000 Planning and Development Act (s255).
Ideally the Garda would investigate planning and corruption issues but their record over the Planning Tribunal and in Donegal more generally hardly inspires confidence. The deficit must be addressed by a change of culture, and training and financing.
Crucially, in the event it is serious about dealing with planning corruption for the future, the government must introduce the planning regulator it has in principle agreed to. Minister Jan O’Sullivan, when an environment minister, described instigation of the regulator as a “milestone”, and promised legislation for it by this summer.
The regulator was probably the most important recommendation of the Mahon Tribunal report. But it is important the regulator should regulate. The Tribunal recommended that it should have wide powers to investigate “systemic problems in the planning system, including possible corruption” and that it “should also keep the planning system under review … to ensure that corruption risks are identified and corrected as they arise and that the planning and development system is functioning optimally”.
The regulator must be instigated urgently and must have investigative and regulatory powers. Unfortunately the Labour Party has been touting a vision of a regulator whose decisions are subject to a veto by the Minister: not so much a Regulator as an advisor. The whole history of Irish planning, well understood by the Labour Party, suggests this would be a recipe for farce. The new Minister, Alan Kelly, has an opportunity to reclaim ground for his Party in a sphere a where its record is good.
Meanwhile at the other end of the political spectrum it is a former Attorney General, (and indeed Minister for Justice) Michael McDowell, who is named in the defamation summons as senior counsel for Mr McLoone. Of course no impropriety would ever be imputed to Mr McDowell, or any of his brethren, and it would be unfair to expect him, wearing his advocate’s wig, to be circumspect in dealing with such affairs, just because of the PDs’ record in facilitating banking and building laxity. Nevertheless it is disappointing since he had (unpaid and generously) been engaged by Village in the preliminary stages of an effort earlier in the year to pursue Unicredit Bank in a private prosecution for failure to meet its capital ratios. The case was to be grounded in allegations extensively aired in Village by whistleblower, Jonathan Sugarman, but Mr Sugarman lost his job arising from the malpractice and is, like so many whistleblowers, beleaguered and financially stricken. He seems unlikely to pursue the prosecution. In any event, Mr McDowell’s advices to Village, we must now assume, will not be forthcoming. •
Michael Smith is editor of Village.