By Frank Connolly.
Pressure is mounting on the environment minister, Alan Kelly, to carry out a thorough investigation into the administration of local government in Wicklow following the mysterious disappearance, in early September, from his in-tray of a file containing fresh allegations over zoning and planning matters, and the illegal dumping of waste, in the county.
Beleaguered Council management are busy fighting a rearguard action against a number of Councillors and local and national media outlets, including Village, which have highlighted a range of embarrassing issues which require further investigation.
The call, first reported in Village in September, by junior finance minister and Wicklow TD, Simon Harris for an inquiry into “the administration of local government” in his home county has been followed by a series of fresh allegations of official wrong-doing over the past two decades.
The litany of complaints include the manner in which senior county officials and some Councillors facilitated the huge Charlesland housing development by Nama poster boys, Sean Dunne and Sean Mulryan, in Greystones in the early 2000s. In particular, fresh questions have been posed to the minister over the controversial compulsory land acquisition of lands at Three Trout Stream close to the 1,500 residential scheme in late 2003 which the management said was for social housing but which landowners and others believed was intended to help with road access to an undeveloped site at Charlesland. Councillors critical of the €3 million purchase of the three-acre site also point to its unsuitability for housing as the land is on a flood plain.
The missing file also raises serious questions about a €27 million road contract agreed between the Council and Zapi, the company formed by Dunne and Mulryan, in July 2003, in which senior officials agreed to use their powers to use compulsory purchase orders to acquire lands required for the scheme and a planned €1.5 million retail development. That the key figure behind the claims is a prominent auctioneer who acted for Dunne and Mulryan before falling out with the latter over €4 million he claims he is owed, and a former Fianna Fáil activist and fundraiser makes them all the more potentially explosive. Whistleblower Gabriel Dooley, as reported in Village in June, has written an extensive letter containing serious allegations concerning senior officials and some Councillors to the elected members of Wicklow County Council and has been met with a wall of silence from those whom he has implicated in some serious allegations.
The missing file also included references to the extraordinary role played by the Council in the long running controversy over the dumping of over a million tonnes of commercial, domestic and medical waste at various sites in west Wicklow. It refers to an alleged conflict of interest involving an ‘Authorised Officer’ of the Council who set up his own company to remediate one of the largest illegal waste sites at Whitestown in west Wicklow and to cash in on a potential €25 million from the clean-up.
A High Court action in 2009 heard that the authorised officer and environmental consultant, Donal O’Laoire, had discussed his effort to set up the consortium with County Manager Eddie Sheehy and Head of Services, Michael Nicholson, before the venture collapsed when the landowner refused to sell or lease him the Whitestown land. The action was suddenly halted in late 2011 just as pretty sensational claims were about to be made by lawyers acting for the so called illegal dumpers including details of how the Council itself was involved in the illicit waste disposal activity. The case was taken initially by Council management against a number of alleged dumpers from whom it was seeking damages which could pay the multi-million costs of remediation. The indefinite adjournment of the action followed an intervention in November 2011 by the Department of the Environment which intervened at the eleventh hour with a promise to underwrite the clean-up costs estimated during the case at between €25 and €50 million.
The new minister must decide whether to set up an inquiry into the mess in Wicklow including this decision to intervene in the court action which was made by senior officials of his department and his immediate predecessor and newly installed EU commissioner, Phil Hogan. He will also discover that it is not the first time a sensitive file has gone missing from the Department as was pointed out by former Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly (now also ensconced in Europe),who was probing how the copy of a licence for illegal waste disposal at another site in Ballybeg in west Wicklow went awol from the department some years ago.
Kelly’s problem is that he may have to ask some awkward questions of some of his senior officials concerning their apparently close relationship with senior Council management over the years. •