Talk of Tribunals

Transparency is a fundamental principle in combating corruption which is a disease that flourishes in the shade”.

That was Justice Mahon in the Mahon Tribunal final report published in 2012.  The Tribunal into “Certain Planning Matters and Payments” as it was called, began in 1997.  The final report came out 15 years later. I followed the tribunal religiously from the days when Justice Flood was chairman, all the way through to its conclusion. I remember listening to the RTE Radio enactments at night cycling on an exercise bike in the sunroom of our home in the Skerries Rock estate. I had two young babies at the time. Michael had sold his internet company and we had just bought our land. We were hoping to build a home on the Rush Road, not far from where I grew up.

Home

The Tribunal was compulsive listening. On one occasion and when James Gogarty was giving evidence, we went into Dublin Castle to see the proceedings in action. Mr Gogarty was a brave man. When he died in 2005 Justice Flood attended his funeral which I thought said a lot. I hoped, as most did at the time, that despite the huge amount of public money spent on the tribunal, that Ireland would be the better for it and that the end result would result in a more transparent and equitable planning system.

Unfortunately, corruption is still thriving in the shadows. If there is another tribunal I am offering our story as proof that the planning system is as opaque as it ever was. When he wrote his recommendations, Justice Mahon knew well that it is not possible to completely eliminate corruption. He spoke of emerging gaps in transparency and the need for constant review. He stressed that the example should come from the top.

“the corrupt and the corruptible will inevitably gravitate to the weakest link in the chain of anti-corruption measures”….“corruption at the top tends to repeat itself throughout the whole governance system”.

I have seen it first-hand, how corruption coming from the top creates a tribe of ‘enablers’. Within that tribe, in my opinion, there are three main types of enablers: the Complicit, the Willfully Blind and the Indifferent.

The Complicit are actively involved in corruption but in a bubble, cut-off from reality and with little accountability – some of them are just following orders, some are happy with the rewards and some are afraid of retribution if they were to speak out. When there is a group of people who are aware of what is going on, leaks start to emerge. Comments make their way back to us. To quote a few; “it wasn’t me. I didn’t do it!”, “I’m not the one that was the bad bastard”, “they’ll never get planning because my ..…  is very high up in planning and knows their every move”, “it wasn’t as simple as that”,it was one of the ones that wasn’t going through”.

The Willfully Blind are aware but turning a blind eye in the belief that protecting the institution is more important than the truth. From experience the Willfully Blind tend to take one of two approaches in the hope that the issue gets buried: they either just ignore your correspondence completely or if presented with facts that cannot be refuted, they ignore them and proclaim that “the file is now closed”, “we have nothing further to add on the matter”.

The Indifferent are just that; indifferent. They just don’t want to know and would prefer to remain ignorant of the situation. Anything for an easy life.  Barack Obama said recently that the “biggest threat to democracy is indifference”.

This is what we have experienced in our dealings with the planning system, particularly since the latest refusal by An Bord Pleanala in 2017. There is a lot more that could be said about the system of course, but that’s for another time. I will say that the majority of people in the system are good people who carry out their duties in the public interest. It is unfortunate for us and for the town that personal interests came into play in our case.

Justice Mahon also spoke about conflicts of interest.  

“Conflicts of Interest are a root cause of corruption”.

 We can see clearly how a conflict has stopped our planning, not just for Holmpatrick Cove but since we bought the land 20 years ago. The land is and always was appropriate for development. The evidence-based studies confirm this as does the support from the community- all the sports clubs, the Skerries Community Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the Tidy Town’s Committee, were amongst many others who wrote in support of its development. There was a small handful of neighbouring objectors who provided the white noise required. Some of them close to the source of the conflict.  As I have said before, there are too many incidents, co-incidences and circumstantial connections pointing to one conclusion- that our planning was interfered with. We are far from alone in this assertion.

I wrote to Justice Mahon recently (a fan letter!) and he gave me some good advice. I am thinking about how best to use it. His and Justice Flood’s planning tribunal began the year my eldest daughter was born, in 1997. She’s 23 now. She has four younger siblings. We are living in her fourth home since then. When I was following the Tribunal hearings all those years ago never did I think that we would be impacted by planning corruption to the extent that we would lose our home and livelihood in the process. We will move on of course. On to our next home. If there is one thing our experience has taught us, it is resilience.

Last Christmas we showed a public representative our information. He is very sympathetic, and we believe will make a difference.  We showed him the timelines, the links between parties, the decisions taken. We told our story. We all joked about the fact that there was a tribunal in it. On seeing what we put in front of him his response was “if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it is a duck!”. Well, all I can say is – that duck is still quacking……!  

T(h)reading Water

A few days ago we went for a drive. An escape. We are limited to Dublin of course with the lockdown so we decided to drive south along the coast.  It was a beautiful sunny day and when we hit Malahide Michael suggested that we go for a swim in the Forty Foot in Sandycove. It was unplanned so we stopped off at Dunnes stores in Cornelscourt and picked up some togs and towels. My grandfather Barney, used to swim at the Forty Foot every day in the Summer after he retired to Dalkey. That was back in the days when it was a male only swimming place. No togs needed in those times! Apart from a look at the Forty Foot on a cold Winter’s day, I had never swum there. I was very taken by the place. It was magical with the sun shining on the water and heads bobbing in the sea.  It was like an outdoor Lido. It was lunchtime and it was obvious that office workers, amongst others, were having a lunchtime swim. Everyone was cheerfully soaking up the last of the late summer sunshine. We had a lovely swim.

Skerries Frosties- Holmpatrick Cove Swim

Skerries is a swimming town, which is no surprise really given that it has water on three sides. I come from a swimming family. My father taught generations of Skerries children to swim. First in the sea some time around 1960. They used a long pole with a hoop at the end at the Springboards.  Later on in 1968 Skerries Swimming Club moved to Gormanston College swimming pool, which is about 15k away from Skerries. When we were very young we used to go there in Charlie Fanning’s minibus. That was before we got the old Renault 12. My father brought myself and my siblings down every Saturday morning for our swimming lessons.

Gormanston was a great tradition. My father taught the littlest, who would swim a width and have to get out of the pool to run around again. You worked your way up the widths as you got better.  From Mr Ryan to Mr McGloughlin to Mr Maloney, Mr Sexton and then you would hit Mr Carmichael. Now, Mr Carmichael was a man dedicated to teaching swimming, but his children skills were lacking to say the least! He was terrifying- God rest him. He used to shout at the kids and blow his whistle. My siblings and I were lucky because we had our father as a bit of a cushion. There was a great motivation to get through this width quickly as you would be moved up to the sanctuary of the next session, where you got to swim lengths.

When my eldest children were young we had the same routine. We went to Gormanston every Saturday morning to swimming. My father had moved on from teaching the young kids.  After 37 years and a couple of operations he figured that if he didn’t give it up when my youngest brother finished, he might have to see his grandchildren out. So he wisely quit while he was ahead. When we brought our children my niece Ciara (on the Branagan side) was shepherding the little ones through the first width. It went from Ciara to Conor, to Barry, to David to Peter. Same process but a new generation of children who, as a sign of the times, now called their teachers by their first names! 

Gormanston was great. Lovely Art Deco architecture. We all have great memories going there. The Galas. The echos and smell of chlorine as we ran through the entrance. The conker (chestnut) trees in the grounds. The day Mr Carmichael fell in the pool. (There was a rumour going around that he couldn’t actually swim!) The struggle to get there on time and the disappearing goggles that drove me insane. (I always thought a good title for a parenting book would be Gumshields and Goggles!).  But the roof fell in on the swimming pool and it was closed down about seven years ago. My youngest didn’t get beyond widths to lengths, which was such a pity; the difference between an able swimmer and a great swimmer.

Skerries Swimming Club also has a series of sea races during the Summer. They date back as far as the 1920s. They had petered out but were revived by Leonard McGloughlin and friends in 1941. They have wonderful old trophies and names such as The Island Swim, The Round the Head Swim, The South Strand Swim. We had many a trophy on our mantlepiece growing up, gathering spools of thread, keys and general trinkets.  We even borrowed the Rose Bowl trophy for our youngest’s Christening! The sea races are still going strong today. Mr Carmichael used to run the races with Leonard in the early days. (nowadays it’s Barry Sexton and David McGloughlin). To Mr Carmichael’s credit he gave up endless hours voluntarily to Skerries Swimming Club and ran a tight ship. Nobody dared question the handicap he gave them. And if you didn’t go around the last buoy at the end of the race there was hell to pay! I remember, way back when I was heavily pregnant with my first child, myself and my friend Carol (who was heavily pregnant with her last child!) decided to do the swim from The Captains to the back of the harbour. Poor Mr Carmichael didn’t know where to look at the sight of the two quite heavily pregnant women.  A bad jellyfish sting put a hold on my sea racing career (not when I was pregnant thankfully) but I reckon after twenty years it might be time to make a come -back.

Over the years the town has tried to lobby for a swimming pool.  There was the Ballast Pit proposal that lots of us contributed to, but it got pulled from Skerries to Balbriggan. (we got our money back). But unfortunately a pool didn’t even get built in Balbriggan. And there was the pool we were going to build at Holmpatrick Cove. It would have been similar in size to the pool in Gormanston which had served us all well over the years before it was closed down. One of the few objectors said the pool wasn’t big enough, that it should be an Olympic sized pool. I love your thinking mate- but get real! He also said we didn’t need a hotel in Skerries or a “dead-end walkway”. I think that was more to do with the airstrip and hangar he uses which was built on the coast without planning permission. An airstrip that cuts across the coastal walkway. Anyway, I’m sure he is happy now as he gets to fly his little airplane totally uninterrupted. These days he has taken to giving a little victory flight over the bungalow we live in. I must let him know when we leave so he can return to his old route over Shenick Island, (the island with the Special Protection Area (SPA)- the European Directive to not disturb the birds!).

Speaking of swimming and Skerries, every Summer (except for this one of course due to Covid) we have Water Safety Week. It is a national initiative and like Skerries Swimming Club, it is all done on a voluntary basis. Watersafety week in Skerries has the biggest turnout nationally and there are waiting lists to get in. In 2019 I think about 400 kids took part. (I’m open to correction as it was probably even more than that). If you look at the South Strand on Watersafety week (or sometimes the North strand depending on which way the wind is blowing) there is a tented village set up for the week as the various classes go on.  Parents often down tools to spend a week on the beach and the picnics are legendary. I never quite got my act together on the baking front, but I was lucky that my friend Debbie is a great baker and she took pity on my kids over the years. The pay-off was the barbeque we had at the end of the week in our front garden. That was always a good night!

Watersafety week makes for hardy kids. They get put through the mill come rain or shine, staying in the water for up to half an hour. For the more senior swimmers at the Springboards, that can be twice a day as well as the Lifesaving theory classes on the grass. The supermarkets run out of hot chocolate that week! All the kids come away with great life skills and a lot of respect for the sea. This knowledge has helped two of my children and my niece and nephew, out of sticky situations in the past.

From hardy kids to hardy adults. We have a cold-water swimming group in Skerries called the Frosties. As you can probably guess, they swim all year round. Only the odd hurricane would deter them from their daily swim. I couldn’t contemplate doing that and you will never see me in the water for the annual Christmas swim. I’ll leave that to Michael and the kids who, along with the Branagan family, go in for their swim outside the old family home on the South Strand, before the customary Christmas drinks.

When Holmpatrick Cove was refused by An Bord Pleanala two walks to the site took place as a show of support for the development. The planning board had said that Holmpatrick Cove was rural and distant from the town. To show what a load of rubbish that was the Frosties decided to swim from the Springboards to Holmpatrick. Only in Skerries….God, I love this town!

When we came home from our trip to the Forty Foot the tide was in that evening and we felt we should round the day off with a swim in the Springboards. It was probably motivated by loyalty to Skerries, having “crossed over to the south side” earlier that day. So, with the sun lower in the sky and still glistening across the water, we had another swim. A great way to finish off a Summer season of sea swimming- two swims in the one day. The problem is that the sun is still shining- not a problem of course- but it’s making me feel guilty. Maybe there’s a few more dips in it before the Winter closes in….


 

Show Ponies and Circling the Wagons

The RDS (Royal Dublin Society) in Ballsbridge plays host to the big shows and events in the country. Trade fairs, the Young Scientist Competition, the Spring Show, the Horse Show, music concerts and much more. It is of course the home of Leinster Rugby too.  I have gone to a few of the Leinster matches but I am happy to leave the tickets to the real Leinster fans in the house. A ticket would be wasted on me as I am a confessed fair-weather supporter, especially if Leinster are playing abroad. Now then I’m interested.

Jessica Springsteen Dublin Horse Show 2016 – Image Erin Gillmore/Noelle Floyd

I have quite a few memories of trips to the RDS. When I was very young I went to the Spring Show with my friend Millie and her Mum. Her Mum allowed us to go around a bit on our own and we were feeling very grown up until we innocently wandered out the main entrance. It was only after we started to cry that they let us back in again! I also have the memories of sitting final college exams in the RDS, another lifetime ago (with Millie again!). And of course there’s the annual Féis Ceoil which I have been to on occasion. It’s quite a serious event. It is a national classical music competition. I will never forget the time I went to wake up my younger daughter to bring her to the Féis. When I pulled back the bed covers to coax her out of bed I let out a scream when I saw a bright orange vision in the bed. Oh my God! Of all days, the Féis Ceoil was not the day to be bright orange. She had decided to apply a liberal amount of fake tan the night before. It was St Patrick’s day as it happens. All she needed was the green and white and she had full Irish flag – green, white and orange! We found a dress with long sleeves in her big sister’s wardrobe and a pair of tights, so we managed to cover up most of it. Even Cif Cream didn’t budge it so I have a great memory of watching her play her violin and all I could see were two bright orange hands. The things you remember!

I particularly remember another time we were in the RDS in the Summer of 2016. Myself and Michael were invited to the Horse Show by our friends as their guests. We had a lovely lunch whiling away the afternoon watching the show jumping. I remember the silliest details such as the fact that Bruce Springsteen’s daughter was one of the jockeys, but beyond that I wasn’t very clued-in to the horses.

But speaking of show ponies one thing I do remember about that afternoon is that a certain individual made a point of approaching us at the table. We knew him well. He had advised us in the past and there never had been any animosity. On this occasion he was advising us again, but this time unsolicited. You see, it had been about five months since we had lodged planning for our development and we were still waiting for news from the local council. He was very familiar with Holmpatrick Cove.  Of course he was, he’d only worked with us on the original submission to the Development Plan. He was our expert advisor at the time. He was hell bent on telling us that he’d been approached by one of the neighbours to put in an objection and he of course didn’t do it. He agreed with Michael who said he couldn’t have anyway because he would have been conflicted. In all it was an odd exchange.

Weird thing was, fast forward six months to February and it was a different story.  We had got the planning from the council and he was now working for ‘the neighbour’. (One of the ones that had lost the court case, had to pay costs, remember “wholly incredible” and all that). He put in an appeal to An Bord Pleanála. So, what had happened in the meantime that made him change his mind? Must have been worthwhile. I noticed he was appointed to a new role giving advice on a national level and that he was speaking on platforms with the big fish/big dogs or whatever you want to call them. He was even more important than he was back at the Horse Show. We were utterly shocked by the about-turn. Here he was (well there was an attempt at a Chinese wall) attacking his own planning advice. Quite the betrayal. We were appalled by the breach of trust.

He is a member of a club, not the Pony Club but an Institute that has rules and a very serious Professional Code of Conduct. From its Golden Years, around the turn of this century, to today, it is a very professional body. It’s motto is “One for all and all for one” no, only joking. It’s something like proud of … not sure…can’t quite remember. It’s obviously a very nice club to be a member of because they have your back, especially if you are very important.

I reported the conflict to the club.  It was very simple. How can you advise us and then attack your own advice a few years later? You can’t of course. It’s in their Code.  He wasn’t happy about the complaint. He was agitated. He turned to someone who he thought might have been able to persuade us to withdraw the complaint.  He told that contact that he wasn’t the one “that was the bad bastard”. I wonder who was…The contact warned us you see. Be very careful, “the system always protects itself”. No truer word. It does. He had told the club he didn’t advise us on our development but then I sent them the old submission. His own handwriting was all over it. An inconvenient truth. Anyway, they circled the wagons. Nothing to see here. Move along and don’t be bothering us. There must have been another code that I missed. A code of silence…for the life of me I still can’t find the section called Omertá Code on their Website. 

Of course, the RDS is a lot quieter these days with the pandemic still going strong. The Féis was cancelled this year. I don’t think my daughter was too upset, to put it mildly!  However, I am happy to report that Leinster were back in form last Saturday. They beat Munster but unfortunately had to play to an empty stadium. If you looked very closely at the TV screen, the real fans from this household were flying the flag, as they are known to do. A welcome bit of normality returned to this uneven world.

Propaganda

Every five years the local council votes on a new plan for their area. It is called the County Development Plan.  There is approximately a two year lead up to this process which is known as the Draft Development Plan. At the end of the two year period the local councillors get to vote in the plan that will shape their area over the next 5 years. The public participate in this process by making proposals to their local council and commenting on submissions made by third parties. The executive planners in the council are the administrators of this democratic process.

Skerries Harbour

In 2010 we made our submission to the Draft Development Plan process for Holmpatrick Cove. In truth we had made a submission in 2009 but it was returned because it was sent in at the wrong stage of the Development Plan process. (It was site-specific and at that stage they were dealing with strategic plans). The 2009 initial proposal was ambitious. A bit too ambitious as we were talking about Heritage Centres and Bird-Watching platforms and I think even an Aquarium!).  We had been to Lahinch, you see, earlier that year. That’s where the idea for Holmpatrick Cove evolved. They had it all there: hotel, swimming pool, aquarium, Heritage Centre down the road. So, we thought well, why not use our site in Skerries? We knew we had a great site. Strange decisions had been made in the Planning Board around our entrance. We knew they were based on vexatious claims so we could deal with that in the future.

The council had supported our plans for Holmpatrick Cove. By this I mean the executive planners who we went to in the first instance. They were going to propose it themselves in their January 2010 Manager’s Report. But that never happened; there was the famous unexplained U-turn. The local councillors did support our plans so, encouraged by them, we put our submission into the Draft Development Plan in May, 2010. At this point the plan was for a hotel, swimming pool, 24 contemporary houses on the residential lands, a park, training spaces and a coastal walkway- Holmpatrick Cove.

The first commentary on our proposal (Manager’s Report) that came out of the council was in September 2010. Another “Screening Report” followed which went on public display.  The executive had changed their tune, to put it mildly.  Holmpatrick Cove was now “highly undesirable” It was rural, distant, it had no public transport, highly sensitive, highly visible, it would damage the birds on island, it would damage air quality and climate. The report implied that the developers couldn’t be trusted, the entrance was sub-standard, there were plenty of hotels in the area, there was already public paths on the land. If what was said was true, Holmpatrick Cove would have been scandalous. But it wasn’t true. Our proposal was unrecognizable. Only possibly a municipal dump could have elicited such strong objection from the executive planners. The report was aimed at the 24 councillors who were to vote on the proposal in March 2011.

In January of 2011 we had our opportunity to respond to these reports. It was a stage in the Draft Plan that also allowed the public to make their views known. We made our submission dealing with the ‘mis-information’ in the Manager’s and Screening Reports. We included our Court Judgment and Order regarding the entrance and past refusals.  All of the submissions made during that stage were accessible on the Council’s public web-site. Except ours. Our submission was redacted/obliterated. They mustn’t have liked it.

The council executives got to reply to the January submissions in their February Manager’s Report.  “There were a large number of submissions received both in support and opposing Amendments 5.11 and 5.12 (collectively addressed as Holmpatrick).” That’s what they said, the Executive in Fingal Co Co. They were referring to Holmpatrick Cove. The truth is there were 19 against Holmpatrick Cove (including a round robin) and 125 in support (including all of the main sports clubs and societies in the town). The bias shown in the opening statement continued throughout the report.  Previous errors we had drawn their attention to were repeated. Holmpatrick Cove was stilll “highly undesirable” for the same five reasons. (they mustn’t have read the Court Judgment because they still mentioned the substandard access and previous refusals). They must have hidden our reply very well because it was completely ignored. It was now February 2011 and a month before the elected councillors would get to vote on the new County Development Plan

The final Development Plan meeting took place on March 23rd 2011. The councillors came armed with the February 2011 Manager’s Report (they were saving on printing).  All 24 councillors were at the meeting and twenty of them spoke. Many of the councillors had bought into it the Manager’s Reports.  Why wouldn’t they? The socialists put in a motion to take Holmpatrick Cove out of the County Development Plan. The socialist councillor remarked at the meeting in March that she “was struck by the Manager’s lengthy and detailed reply. I haven’t seen such an emphatic reply to an objective”. So, she urged her fellow councillors to support her motion to remove Holmpatrick Cove from the Development Plan.

The executive did their best to defend their reports. Some points were obviously troublesome so there was a bit of clarification done only after the councillors’ debate had concluded. Apparently there were some facts in the Manager’s Reports that they couldn’t defend any more…there is a 33 bus that runs past the site….we haven’t I think anywhere in the report indicated numbers of submissions for or against….In relation to the access onto the road …there were a number of Board Pleanala refusals….we gave the factual panning history…the proposer has won a high court case…and that’s quite correct…and it should be said on the record. There seems to be a suggestion that the proposer has reneged on these lands, in ceding these lands….we were just simply answering the obvious question -were the lands in our control? No.…..In relation to hotels …there is a permission for a hotel at Milverton……you have existing hotels in the area, the Bracken Court Hotel…there are hotels in the area. We did make mention that there were local paths across the site….our information is probably incorrect….In relation to the reduction of Open Space lands where we did say 50%……that was a rough estimation on our part…….You can’t say that it’s visible from all areas of Skerries but it is visible. The senior planners tried their best to undermine Holmpatrick Cove- even at one stage displaying an incorrect site plan, the one that had been returned in 2009 with the Heritage Centre and Bird Watching building.  This was done to illustrate to the councillors how much land would be taken up by the development.  It was misleading to say the least. Perhaps an innocent mistake?

But local democracy won on that occasion. The local councillors defended the proposal and managed to persuade enough councillors to trust that they had their community’s best interest at heart.  The vote went in favour of Holmpatrick Cove. Holmpatrick Cove was on a Statutory footing in the 2011-17 Development Plan.

If anyone was to search the public record to read the official minutes of that meeting they would think the councillors who voted for Holmpatrick Cove must have been on some pretty strong substances to have voted the way they did. The public record consists of a Manager’s Report and a record of the way the vote went. But here’s the shocking bit.  When the minutes were published a month later the heading on the minutes said “The following report by the Manager, which had been considered, was CONSIDERED” (to you and I that means that the following report is the one that was debated).  But it wasn’t the report that had been ‘considered’. The report that was debated was substituted by a new, altered even more negative report. For example there were now 11 numbered reasons why Holmpatrick Cove was “highly undesirable.”  The public record is false.   

At the time we asked them why they altered the minutes and got a non-response. Earlier this year we contacted the council again. We provided detail and wanted the public record amended. The official response was “ The Planning History is on the Public Record”. No it’s not.

It is now 2020 and we are mid-way through the 2017-23 Development Plan. Holmpatrick Cove fell between two Development Plans. The council did grant planning permission for Holmpatrick Cove but it was refused by the planning board in 2017. That decision is a re-play of 2010/11.(For example they ignored the Court Judgment and preferred to mention the past refusals due to the substandard entrance etc. etc.). Also, the Statutory Objectives were taken away and exchanged by a ‘Non-Statutory’ Masterplan by the Fingal executive just before the refusal. Oh dear! That didn’t help. But fear not they did leave in one of the three Statutory Objectives- the one about ceding lands to Fingal. Anyway that’s another story and I’m sure there were at least 19 happy people (including the round robin!). Well maybe at least 21. (Must not forget those in the long grass).

The truth is the 2010/11 reports were biased, there were false and exaggerated statements made to further an agenda.  One-sided information was disseminated in a deliberate manner to influence public opinion.  Facts were manipulated and half-truths were presented as fact. The flow of information was controlled and information was withheld from the public. Loaded language was used to produce an emotional rather than a rational response. This is what the senior executives in the council presided over in 2011. Oh! and by the way, I have just outlined the definition of Propaganda.

Two nights ago we went to the Lighthouse Cinema to see The Sound of Music. Our eldest son had bought us all tickets. (He studies film and this was special because it was a 4k restoration of the original film). What a movie! Our youngest had never seen it before which I found hard to believe. Our eldest joked afterwards about the parallels in the end scene when the Von Trapp family are walking over the mountains into Switzerland, leaving everything behind them. They all agreed that they were looking forward to the day that we do the same with the field!


Credit: The Sound of Music- Von Trapp family flee to Switzerland