Dodgy Donegal. Environment Department ‘reviews’ evidence of former senior county planner, Gerard Convie.

by Michael Smith, Village. 9 December, 2015, 12:11 am

  Featured image is of housing in Donegal: no impropriety and none imputed.

Featured image is of housing in Donegal: no impropriety and none imputed.

Michael McLoone is Chairman of B&B Ireland and of Donegal Airport, and of the Prison Service group under Haddington Road, and was, until recently, on the board of Enterprise Ireland and was formerly CEO of Beaumont Hospital in Dublin, and chairman of the Blood Transfusion Board. His brother, Peter, was a globe-trotting CEO of Fás. Another brother, Paul, was chairman of Donegal Tourism. But the focus in this article is on Michael McLoone in his controversion Manager of Donegal County Council (1994-2010).

A senior Planner in Donegal County Council, Gerry Convie, was subject to an investigation by his new boss within a week of McLoone taking up the position of Manager in 1994. Ultimately, following a further investigation instigated in 1998, Convie was suspended by Manager McLoone in 1999 for allegedly not following procedures in relation to his purchase of a parcel of land at Magheraroarty, near Bloody Foreland. Convie sued, asserting he had placed his interest on the public register, such as it was, and in all relevant planning applications and had not improperly influenced any planning application. The Department of the Environment, under Noel Dempsey, backed McLoone.

In the end, McLoone and Convie signed an out-of-Court agreement that he had merely made an “error of judgement”, and benefited from a financial settlement. He then resigned. In 2001, Jim Harley became Senior Planner. Later McLoone told councillors that Convie was involved in wrongdoing contrary to the signed Agreement and contrary to his later remarks before the High Court. After this, Convie entered private practice and, as a result of some of the matters he saw in that capacity, made a number of complaints to the Minister. As he reverted to private practice, he claims to have discovered many improprieties in the planning system in Donegal, “a cesspit”.

Ultimately he complained regarding 20 Case Studies to various Ministers for the Environment and to the Standards in Public Office Commission (which ruled most of the complaints not within its remit) to no avail. In 2006 the Council sued Convie for alleged breach of the Agreement, but dropped the proceedings after a fractious four years, without any damages or costs award, but with huge cost to the County.
The current County Manager, Séamus Neely, has enthusiastically expressed his support for the actions and statements of Mr McLoone in all these matters and goes so far as to state that there is nothing wrong with the type of relationships which Jim Harley cultivated and has expressed support for the treatment of Convie by Mr McLoone.

Convie worked in Donegal County Council as a planner for 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 councilors 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 pushed through via the infamous S4 motions.

Since he left the Council, he has consistently claimed that 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 was pilloried in the local media. Indeed, he claims one councilor constantly referred to him as a ”wee shit from the North”. Michael McLoone attributes the fractiousness to differences of personality and says Convie is motivated by revenge.

Jim Harley rose from junior planning positions to become Donegal County Council’s Senior Planner, while also often Acting as Director of Planning, within a period of two years after Convie’s departure, until he resigned in 2006. Senior planners make recommendations to the County Manager who usually would be expected to follow them.

In an affidavit that has been opened in court, Convie alleges Harley:

1) recommended permissions for members of his family, his friends and associates that breached the relevant Development Plans – the democratic, legal, planning constitution – 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 submitted by himself from submission to decision and in express time;

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 and used inappropriate influence as described in a number of planning applications;

9) was improperly close to a number of leading architects and developers in Donegal, including having a family relationship with the head of the largest ‘architectural’ practice in Donegal, with whom he holidayed but the relationship with whom was never declared.

In the affidavit opened in court, Convie alleges:

  • Jim Harley inappropriately manipulated planning applications at Ballyliffin in Inishowen to promote planning permissions for associates of his on lands where permission had previously been refused and there had been no change in policy or in the development plan.

  • A next-door neighbour of Jim Harley submitted an outline planning application for a site he owned in an area of exceptionally high amenity between the road and sea at Malin Head, for which previous applications for other people had been unsuccessful. Jim Harley dealt with the planning application, while Convie was on leave, recommending granting permission, and did not make a declaration of interest. Later, the neighbour made an application for full permission pursuant to the outline permission. Jim Harley submitted the application and, according to Convie, forged the name “K O’Donnell” on the plans. In the end, another planner in the Council, in record time, recommended allowing permission and this was endorsed by Convie as it was predicated on the outline permission. Later Harley submitted an application for his own holiday house within these overall lands, with a declaration of interest. The problem was the failure to declare his interest in applications that were not in his name. A third party complained about the neighbour’s house, when it was built. Harley dealt with the complaint, saying – counterfactually – that it was in accordance with the permission. This complainant has also made complaints about Harley to the Minister. Subsequently the neighbour obtained permission for two more houses close by. Harley again submitted the application. A planner recommended refusal but Harley scribbled out the recommendation and granted permission, while Convie was away, with no reports from any other official, except one from the roads engineer noting there was an invalidating lack of a public notice. Despite demands from another senior planning official and An Taisce, and queries from TV3 and the Irish Times, Michael Mc Loone never investigated Harley’s involvements at Malin Head.

  • A senior official in Donegal County Council persuaded the National Roads Authority to withdraw its planning appeal of a shopping centre in Dungloe, following representations from Jim Harley who resigned from the Council in May 2006 and was by June 2006 representing the developers of the shopping centre.

  • Jim Harley manipulated the planning process for lands in Malin Head which had been zoned the highest category of landscape in the county so his brother and sister-in-law got planning permission, though others had been refused and planning officials recommended refusal. For the later application by the couple, Harley, along with McLoone, made appropriate declarations and said they would not deal with those applications.

  • Former Fianna Fáil Councillor, Noel McGinley, got planning permission, on the recommendation of Jim Harley, for a massive high-rise retail and housing development in Letterkenny contrary to the Letterkenny and Environs Plan and despite 20 questions asked of McGinley by another planning official going unanswered.

  • Michael McLoone ensured that an unauthorised, dangerously sited filling station outside Ballyshannon, belonging to friends of his, was permitted to continue without planning permission and contrary to the County Development Plan for five years along a National Primary Road, despite objections from all other relevant senior personnel in the County and, since the site straddles the border, the RUC, over the course of a remarkable seven or eight attempts to gain retrospective permission for the illegal development. In the end, Mr McLoone [outside his area of authority] contrived the erection of speed limits that conduced to retention of the garage, though the National Roads Authority reversed this action and removed the speed limits following complaints from a third party. Calls on the then Minister Noel Dempsey, for immediate action, went unheeded. Several other illegal border petrol stations had been promptly closed by Council action but McLoone only took action in this case when the matter generated controversy in the press.

  • Convie claims that Jim Harley told him that Michael McLoone told Harley, one time when they were playing golf together, that he wanted a planning application by someone he has publicly admitted is a friend of his in South Donegal to get planning permission, though a previous application for the same person had been refused on grounds of visual amenity. Convie claims, and the file shows, that he was then bypassed in the processing of the new planning application. Even though the friend’s home is only a few miles from the new house he claimed it was to be a “holiday” home, not for onward sale. Afterwards the house was sold several times.

  • Fine Gael councillor Bernard McGuinness got permission to build four houses outside Culdaff only, according to Gerry Convie’s affidavit, after Michael McLoone’s personal assistant improperly leant on him and others, to grant permission, and despite the site being outside the draft proposed limit of development for the village and despite being advised that planning permission would not be forthcoming. The limit was later moved, to the approval of Convie. Michael McLoone told councillors he had had no role in the permission.

  • An associate of Michael McLoone who is also the brother-in-law of Jim Harley had the water supply to his new house unprecedentedly paid for by Donegal County Council at a cost of £26,000, against the advice of the Sanitary Services Officer. In the relevant planning permission, there was a development charge levied in respect of the water supply. According to Convie, the scrapping of development charges for his friends and associates is cause for concern and investigation.

  • Convie claims that “there must be dozens, possibly hundreds of other such cases” besides the 20 Case Studies presented to the Minister.

The Convie file was 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 [of 2014].

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 which John Gormley had initiated. A lazy 2012 internal review, which has been labelled a whitewash by the former Minister, 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, concluded, according to Minister Jan O’Sullivan in the Dáil: ‘’ … the complainant [i.e. Convie] has failed at any stage to produce evidence of wrong-doing in Donegal Council’s planning department”.

Mr Convie felt this left him in an invidious position and he successfully sued. In the High Court Order, all the conclusions by the Minister were withdrawn.

After he won his High Court case [in 2013], the Department conceded that his allegations were never really investigated, acknowledged his seriously held concerns relating to planning matters in Donegal, regretted any adverse comment on his motivation and any negative impact on his right to a good name, professional integrity or reputation, paid him compensation and covered all his legal costs.

The new government was forced to reinstate the planning enquiries in the other six local planning authorities. But beyond this, it will be important to see the ramifications for the civil servants who concluded that Convie’s complaints did not constitute “evidence”, who have so defamed him, and – in an era where attention to ethics in planning is universally regarded as an imperative requiring scrupulous care – for the Minister, Jan O’Sullivan, who accepted the conclusions and placed them before Dáil Eireann.

McLoone successfully sued the Donegal Democrat which had called him “corrupt”. Convie claims he advised them not to use that word as no one ever suggested money changed hands inappropriately which he felt, at the time, was determinant. The Democrat put up no defence.

McLoone consistently distanced himself from the alleged irregularities on the basis that they “happened on Convie’s watch” and has referred to “highly personalized and unwarranted remarks about individual members of the Council’s planning staff…[which] may amount to actionable defamation” but Convie claims the allegations are more specific and less easily denied or obfuscated than that.

The current County Manager, Séamus Neely, has enthusiastically expressed his support for the actions and statements of Mr McLoone in all these matters and goes so far as to state that there is nothing wrong with the type of relationships which Jim Harley cultivated and has expressed support for the treatment of Convie by McLoone.

Though several key planning staff – including McLoone and senior planners Convie and Harley – no longer work in the County Council, the review is underway.

The Department of the Environment told Village “clarification of legal issues has delayed the original time-frame … in relation to the position of Donegal County Council the Department has sought the advice of the Attorney General before deciding on a course of action. This advice is expected in the coming weeks”. And all the while Convie awaits the consequences of his long-delayed vindication.