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Nobody really cares. Department of Environment’s revived post-Mahon planning ‘enquiry’ likely to be box-ticking, again. John Gormley Aug 2013 Village

Npbody Cares about corruption
Npbody Cares about corruption

’In a democracy the voters have a right to make stupid and irresponsible decisions, the right to vote for gombeens and bribetakers who will ignore development plans and rezone every blade of grass in the country’
‘The Greens ,while in power, initiated the enquiries; Fine Gael and Labour put a halt to them – for the most spurious of reasons. And they got away with it’

On the day that the Mahon tribunal found that Frank Dunlop had made corrupt payments to certain politicians Twitter was in a frenzy – with the news that Pat Kenny was departing RTE for Newstalk. Maybe the general public were suffering from a serious bout of Tribunal fatigue, or maybe the showbiz/human interest element of the Kenny story was irresistible, but could there be a deeper, more uncomfortable truth in evidence here? Is it possible that the Irish are just not that pushed about corruption? Are they really that bothered about the poor planning that has blighted this country for decades? Could they really give a toss about the over zonings that fuelled the property bubble?

It’s not popular to say so, but my twenty years as a public representative tell me that the above topics are not ones which exercise the public mind when it comes to elections. You need look no further than the last local elections when some of those councillors who received corrupt payments were re-elected. And no doubt at next year’s local elections the electorate will once again reward corrupt politicians while ignoring many of the candidates who have never taken a bribe.

So, it’s down to the voters, the people, and for whatever historical reasons we have a tolerance – even a sneaking regard – for the rogue in our society. Some may see this as an endearing quality – we understand human frailty and don’t get too hung up on the letter of the law. At the heart of this is a more uncomfortable truth. We’re really not that pushed about corruption. We don’t see bribery or white collar crime in the same league as the common or garden thief. Frank Dunlop is a witty, entertaining, intelligent guy, who just happens to be corrupt and a perjurer.

You see, those who crusade on the planning/corruption issue are not the norm in this country. People like Michael Smith, Colm MacEochaidh, Elaine Byrne or Trevor Sargent are exceptions – ‘odd bods and misfits’ who are quickly marginalised and neutralised. It was Trevor Sargent who first brought the problem to public attention when he stood up in the Council Chamber waving a developer’s cheque and asking if anyone else in the Council had received one. The omerta code had been broken and the reaction was swift. Trevor was surrounded by councillors and physically attacked. Councillor Don Lydon , who was subsequently found to have accepted bribes, got Trevor in a very expert headlock. Those who witnessed the events of that night say that Dr Lydon, who was a psychologist by profession, really missed his real calling in life and should have been a cage fighter. Don had Trevor in very professional headlock, depriving my colleague of oxygen and demanding the return of the cheques. As Trevor’s face turned blue.

I recently sat beside Don at a dinner for past members of the Oireachtas. We had quite a pleasant and civil conversation, and he asked me to pass on his warmest regards to Trevor. He was very fond of Trevor, he said. I couldn’t help but wonder afterwards what he would have done to Trevor that night had he actually disliked him.

Don, like the others in the corruption trial, now finds himself in an unusual situation. A Tribunal of Enquiry has found that he took bribes, whereas in the courts he has essentially been acquitted on the same charges. I’m sure on a human level the past few years have been an ordeal for him, but contrast his treatment with that of Gerard Convie, the Donegal planner. Mr Convie was the whistleblower in Donegal County Council, who alerted the Department of Environment to serious planning irregularities in the region. Not only had Mr Convie been dismissed, but when the new Fine Gael and Labour government took over they very quickly dropped the independent inquiries which I had initiated as Minister for the Environment. Mr Convie took the matter to the courts where his good name was vindicated, and the new government was forced to reinstate the planning enquiries.

Again, keen observers of these matters will note that a clear pattern of public and media indifference emerges. The news that the independent planning enquiries were to be dropped in the first place was greeted with barely a whimper in the newspapers and broadcast media. Try to imagine – if you can – the howls of outrage and indignation of certain columnists if Fianna Fail had pulled such a stunt. But it gets worse. Incredibly, the day after the Convie case an editorial appeared in the Irish Independent, complimenting the government on their announcement of the independent planning enquiries, completely ignoring the fact that this government had dropped the enquiries in the first place!

If there was any finger of blame, it was pointed, unjustifiably, at the Department for the Environment. It’s true that government departments try, generally, to avoid unnecessary hassle or extra work and expense, but the decision to stop the independent enquiries was a political one, pure and simple. The Greens ,while in power, initiated the enquiries; Fine Gael and Labour put a halt to them – for the most spurious of reasons. And they got away with it. Given the distinct lack of enthusiasm already displayed by the new government for these planning enquiries, don’t get your hopes up. I expect nothing more than a perfunctory ticking of boxes. No heads will roll; no ground-breaking changes will be made to our planning laws. One of the changes being demanded by An Taisce –and a key recommendation of the Mahon Tribunal – is for the creation of a planning regulator with sufficient powers to put errant politicians in their place. I support it, while also recognising that there’s something just a little undemocratic about the concept. Which is probably why those most disillusioned with democratic politics in this country are shouting loudest for the ‘Regulator’ legislation. In a democracy the voters have a right to make stupid and irresponsible decisions, the right to vote for gombeens and bribetakers who will ignore development plans and rezone every blade of grass in the country. As Minister for the Environment, I intervened on a number of occasions to overturn the decisions of councillors in various parts of the country. I did not do this lightly, but only after thorough consultation. I recall meeting with a delegation of conservationists, which contained some well-known Fine Gael supporters, to discuss the merits of such an intervention. I made the obvious point that I wouldn’t have had to intervene had the voters not chosen to elect Fine Gael in such numbers to our councils.

So, it’s down to the voters, the people, and for whatever historical reasons we have a tolerance – even a sneaking regard – for the rogue in our society. Some may see this as an endearing quality – we understand human frailty and don’t get too hung up on the letter of the law.

But our disregard for planning laws has had devastating long-term consequences: traffic congestion, ribbon development, septic tank pollution of groundwater and lakes, inadequate infrastructure and ghost estates, inflated house prices and the property bust.

But let’s not talk about that. Let’s get back to the real issue – Pat Kenny going to Newstalk.