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……!  

The Dog Fight

This Country Has Gone To The Dogs

There was a dog fight in the field some years ago. It was a turf war. Who was allowed to walk on the land?  Two big dogs told a little border collie that he didn’t have permission to walk on the land and he shouldn’t be there. But the little collie knew he was perfectly entitled to walk in the field as he had been given permission and sure wasn’t he looking forward to having a drink in the bar of the new hotel when it was built. 

Now the two big dogs had also been given permission to walk in the field. They had been doing this for a few years, sure didn’t they as good as own it. Don’t be ridiculous you stupid little dog. We know better than you. There will never be a hotel here. We have a very big dog relative in big dog high office who knows all about fields and is in charge of all of the fields and will never allow it. Where did I hear before about a dog being obeyed in office? Hmm, sounds familiar…..

One Autumn evening when there were haystacks in the field, I thought I would take the younger children up for a run around to wear them out.  They loved climbing up on top of the haystacks.  Now going up to the field was a rare thing for me to do because I didn’t like going up there. It gave me a sick feeling in my stomach.  But occasionally I would make a point of going up on principle. I parked my car at the entrance of the field and let the kids loose on the haystacks. They were happy out. 

I was buttonholed by a dog walker. I was told my car was in the way and that he was walking his two big dogs. I was taken aback. I thought to myself, but don’t I own the field? Wasn’t I entitled to park my car wherever I wanted?  I looked him in the eye and told him I was “walking my children”.  It took a good while for the penny to drop- he backed off “Oh, oh, yes, right” and he skulked away. Honestly, you’d swear some people think they own the place. 

The dogs in the street know what happened to Holmpatrick Cove in planning and development circles. It was a good development. Over the last three years we have met up with practically everyone in the industry in an effort to move forward.  The planning history is too much for them to stomach. Reactions to the refusal include (and I quote) “are you sure there wasn’t an ulterior motive,” “somebody has been shadowing your planning from the get-go,” “they were of a mind to refuse,” “someone’s fingerprints are all over this” etc. etc.

We have joined the dots, but that’s another blog. Back to the dog fight. It was an uneven match. Two big dogs against one little one. There was no let up or calling off of the dogs. The poor little collie lost an eye in the fight. He died not long afterwards. 

The dogs in the street know what happened. And so do the dogs in the field. 

Coffee Culture

I saw him once. The big fish. It was evening time, just coming up to Christmas 2017. I got off the LUAS tram and I went into Arnotts to get a coffee in the Abbey Street coffee shop. He was sitting in the corner, deep in conversation with another man. I got a shock when I saw him in the flesh.

I was coming from the Criminal Courts where I was on jury duty. The trial I was on lasted over two weeks and concluded just before Christmas. It was a trial about child abuse. There’s something very uncomfortable about looking into the minute details of other peoples’ lives. But it’s necessary for justice to prevail.

It was three months after our planning for Holmpatrick Cove had been refused by An Bord Pleanála. We were still reeling at the injustice of a decision that defied logic.  Eight years and our vision wiped away at the eleventh hour by faceless civil servants. The council had given a very strong grant in the January of that year, so we had every good reason to expect a positive outcome. When I walked into the coffee shop that evening it was all very raw. 

There was a free table beside the two men and I sat down whilst waiting for my coffee. He would not have known me, the big fish. I looked like your average mother doing her Christmas shopping. I took out my shopping list and feigned studying it studiously. But I wasn’t thinking about my list. I was catching snippets of the conversation going on beside me. It was about building heights and apartment standards. He was doing most of the talking and the other man was listening intently and nodding in agreement. As a casual observer (maybe not that casual) it was clear to me who was in command. I got up to collect the coffee and they went to leave. I had caught the tail end of their meeting. I mean coffee. He passed by me on my way back to my table and he caught my eye. Was there some flicker of recognition from home perhaps? I’m not sure. But I sure knew who he was and how his world had impacted mine. 

Apropos of coffee. Michael and I make a point of escaping for our coffee every day. It’s a time out. I think in modern parlance they call it ‘self-care’. In Skerries we are very lucky because we have so many great coffee shops and it is safe to say that you would struggle to get a bad coffee anywhere in the town. Before Covid hit we would sit in Goat in The Boat on the harbour or Olive Café. During the lockdown we found Gerry at the station where he does great coffee too. When the regulations eased you could buy your coffee and sit in the station platform at a social distance. It was a great way to catch up with friends. Nowadays we often take Gerry’s coffees to Red Island where we sit in the car and look at the view of the islands and the town. Sometimes we drive down the pier and watch the boats and the action in the harbour. It’s good for the soul. We sold our boat last year. It was great fun for the kids, extended family and friends. It was especially great when Michael took the kids out on the boat and I could enjoy a quiet house. A win-win for all parties!

In this country we have certainly embraced coffee culture. Ireland is a small pond where big fish could lose the run of themselves.  A lot is discussed over cups of coffee between friends:  current or ex colleagues, current or ex committee members, current or ex fellow presidents and members of institutes. Plans are made, deals done and promises made. It could be very advantageous, especially if there’s promotions or board appointments to be filled….Join the dots. We have. 

I wonder if there’s any chance we could get minutes of these coffee meetings under Freedom of Information? Somehow, I suspect there’s as much chance as James Gogarty had when he famously asked if he would get a receipt from Ray Burke during the last planning tribunal. The reply he got was “Will we f**k” If you ask me, it’s all very fishy!

“Sounds Like a Lot of Crap to Me”

It was December 2010 and we were sitting in the Circuit Court at the Four Courts listening to the opposite side’s expert witness give evidence about the boundary. This surveyor was giving a lengthy description about how boundaries can be marked up. He said that often in the past he could use a scrap of paper to mark out a boundary. He recalled being in a pub and going into the toilet to get some of the old- style toilet paper (the one like tracing paper) and using it to agree a boundary. I will never forget it. Justice Joseph Matthews’ removed his glasses and addressed the court. “Sounds like a lot of crap to me”.  It was the one occasion, over the three-day trial, that the tension was broken in the courtroom and there was loud outburst of nervous laughter. I suspect it was only our side and a few independent observers that saw the funny side, but it was funny. Justice Matthews was a wise, soft spoken judge and his remark stood out in such a sombre setting. There was a lot at stake.

Image: https://archiseek.com/2010/1802-the-four-courts-inns-quay-dublin/

We were in court because of a good old-fashioned boundary dispute. Six of the neighbours to the north had suddenly decided that they owned half our entrance after almost twenty years living there.  They were relying on an old Land Registry map that had “a bit of a dip in it”. This was around the time the Holmpatrick Cove proposal had been submitted into the council when they were doing up their new County Development Plan. If it turned out that they did own half the entrance, well then we would have been goosed. Our surveyor had given evidence before hand. He explained very carefully how boundary lines on the map are “not conclusive” evidence of ownership. He explained how much of these boundary lines were drawn up in India using satellite imagery and using the features on the ground as a reference. He had carried out a “Ground Truth Survey” on our behalf and he went into great detail about how this is the most accurate and equitable method of determining boundaries. He said if we all relied only on the lines on the maps we would have people hopping over walls, hedges, over ditches claiming land the far side of well-established boundaries. (Believe me he’s was right. When you own a field they come at you from all angles).

So, Justice Matthews didn’t appear to be buying the less compelling evidence about the toilet paper. When I think about that toilet paper it brings me right back to my days in the Holy Faith Convent in Skerries. That was the standard toilet paper in the early days of the old convent. It even had ceramic dispensers on the wall where the box was inserted for ease of access. It was not very practical to say the least but sometimes we used it in art class to trace with (not surveys granted) but it was more use there than in the school toilets,

If I close my eyes I can bring myself back to that old convent building. I can walk around and I remember every room. It was an imposing building. I remember the old gym hall with the parquet flooring and the large sash windows. We would sit on the old green mats and deconstruct the old rubber beneath the mats. (They got very shabby in the end). I remember the green terrazzo floors in the bathrooms and the locker rooms. I remember the beautifully carved stair-cases. The high ceilings. I remember the corridor with the statue of the Virgin Mary at the end. Sr Imelda’s shop was on the right-hand side going down and the junior and senior infants classes were on the left. At break time Sr Imelda would drag open the concertina shutter. We would all be pressed up against it to get our hands on a Big Time Bar or maybe even a Caffrey’s Snowball. She was a force to be reckoned with, Sr Imelda. She would shout at us all to stand back and God forbid if she caught you running up and down the corridor.

One of my favourite memories was when we were brought up in single file to go to the little chapel. I loved it as much for the journey as the destination. We were now entering ‘Nun Only’ territory as we had to go through the Nun’s area to get upstairs. I loved the view from the corridor upstairs. You could see the two windmills and right up to the back of Dr Healy’s house and the house beside it with the sun-room on an upper floor. It was magical.

The chapel itself was an awesome space. Not that I gave much time to prayer, but I did love the architecture: the beautiful stained-glass window, the high ceilings and the wood carvings. Outside the building I also remember the orchard with the apple trees. There was a little farm and I remember Mr Coleman showing us the hedgehog. There was an ornamental fishpond and a large concrete yard where we played skipping with a big rope. As we got older we moved out to the prefabs in the field. It wasn’t quite the same as being in the main building.

My grandfather had been brought up by the Nuns in this convent. His father died putting decorations on a Christmas tree in 1903. He fell off the ladder. His mother died of ‘a broken heart’ a year later, leaving three orphans: my grandfather aged three and his two older sisters. His father and his two brothers had come up from Tipperary some years before and the three brothers bought a pub each between Drumcondra and Dorset Street. My grandfather’s one is the one with the man and the clock at the top of Dorset Street. It was once called Ryan and Son (my grandfather). The three orphans were left in the care of the Holy Faith Nuns in Skerries where we believe they were well cared for. However, as in most good Irish stories, by the time my grandfather reached 18, his inheritance had been spent by the executors- probably at the bar in the three pubs! In any case at that time he was in the Dublin Fusileers and fighting in the battle of the Somme. He was lucky. He survived his gun-shot wound. By the time the Second World War came along he moved back out to Skerries with my Grandmother and their young children because he was afraid Dublin would be bombed.

My grandmother, Mrs Ryan, taught French and Irish (and even Spanish after school) for many years in the convent. She retired just before I started school. My grandfather’s first cousin, Sr Alophonsus, lived there. She didn’t teach and I’m not quite sure what her role was but I suspect it was in the kitchen due to her large girth. She had a very sweet tooth and I often benefited to the tune of a packet of Toffo or a Caramel bar that she would root out of the pockets in her robes. I was always happy to run into her.

Back to our run-in in the courts. Michael told our story in court. It was easy to tell. It was the truth. The opposite side’s evidence (delivered by the objector in chief to our planning) was described in the written Court Judgment as “wholly incredible”. It was fantasy: “always knew I owned the land the far side of the hedge but it never occurred to me to mention it” in my voluminous objections, “the hole cut in the hedge for us to enter was always there” (you just couldn’t see it) etc. etc.  We won our case. In fact, we made a bit of national history when Justice Matthews ordered that the boundary between us and the six neighbours was to be registered by GPS co-ordinates in the Property Registration Authority. This was a first in Ireland. We now had conclusive evidence that our entrance was not “substandard in width”. We knew this of course. It had been accurately reflected in our planning documents. It was 11.5 meters and the Court Order ruled that our sightlines could not be blocked. The neighbours had to remove the fence they erected in our laneway and put it all back to the way it was.

In the months leading up to the court case there had been a tirade of legal letters and much wasting of police time.  The neighbours would plant the laurels and we would remove them and give them to the police. They would complain to the police of theft only to find that the police had the laurels in the back yard. It was nonsense. I witnessed them planting them one day. They were being advised by the friend across the road and there was great laughter.  They were checking to make sure they blocked the view of the road from our entrance – our sightlines. They didn’t notice me approaching and observing what was going on.

After the court case I got a phone from a dog walker intervening on behalf of one of the families in the court case.  Costs had been awarded against the six parties and the dog walker was wondering if I would do something for them. “Isn’t it unfortunate when families fall out”. Ironically, I found their planning records (the opposite side’s) a few months later. There it was in black and white (or in fact magenta and black as it was on an old microfiche). Our entrance was clearly marked out on their own architectural drawings measuring 12-meters. They should have brought these documents along to court and we all could have avoided costs let alone stress and falling out. Justice Matthews was right. It was all “a lot of crap”.

We sent the Court Judgment and the Court Order to the Planning Appeals Board in 2017 when Holmpatrick Cove was under appeal. We were half expecting an apology because the three previous refusals were all based on the so called “substandard entrance in terms of width” and the resulting traffic hazard. It was the first time we were at the Planning Board since our court case. Funny thing was they didn’t pay any attention. In fact the inspector, in his assessment of the entrance, made no reference to the Court case and preferred to refer to the previous refusals where planning was refused because the entrance was “substandard in width”. The Court Case was an inconvenient truth.

As regards the Holy Faith Convent building. It was knocked down in the 1980s. I lived in one of the homes built where the old convent was. It was a lovely home. But it’s an awful shame that the old convent building was lost.

Holy Faith Convent Skerries – Hugh FitzGerald Ryan

Power

I have been thinking a lot about power lately. We are all familiar with the saying “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. But it’s not as simple as that really. I read a summary of a study in the Journal of Applied Science. It was interesting and it made sense to me. In summary the conclusion was that power doesn’t corrupt, it “heightens pre-existing tendencies”. (A bit like a benign dictatorship and a malevolent dictatorship). As Abraham Lincoln said “if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Think Donald Trump and Jacinda Ardern. Need I say more!

Image: https://www.thecut.com/2018/04/jacinda-ardern-is-furious-about-being-compared-to-trump.html

Michael and I have first hand experience witnessing power at play over the years. Most particularly when we attended meetings with the senior planning executives in our local council offices. Of all the meetings over the years one meeting in particular stands out in our minds, even ten years on. We had been trying to get this meeting for almost four months because we wanted an explanation as to why the council (the senior planning executives) had done a complete U-turn on Holmpatrick Cove. To make a long story short we had put our proposals for Holmpatrick Cove to the executive planners almost a year earlier, in the Summer of 2009. And they liked it. There were meetings and exchanges over a six month period. The final meeting included a site visit where the County Manager and his top planning official said they were going to include the Holmpatrick Cove proposal in the Draft Development Plan. We agreed to send the details: maps, layouts etc. in before Christmas so they could include it in the Manager’s Report in January.

January came and there was no Holmpatrick Cove in the Manager’s Report. Attempts by the local councillors to get answers were met with silence. The shutters had come down. Finally, in late April we were granted an audience. I will never forget it. Myself, Michael (and a planning consultant that we brought along with us), were ushered up in the lift. We were brought to a room where three senior planning executives were sitting at the far side of a large table. To say the atmosphere was tense is an understatement. What we witnessed in that meeting was a demonstration of power in all its glory. Our questions went unanswered. The message was that Holmpatrick Cove was going no-where. They wanted it closed down. They had changed their tune completely. How odd, given that these were the people who we had spoken to and who supported Holmpatrick Cove months before. One of them had even gone so far to say in the field, “sure I’d buy one of the houses myself”.  

Michael and I refer to that meeting as ‘The High Priests’. Which given our experiences in the planning system, is a fair analogy.  It is the modern-day equivalent of the power of the Catholic Church in the last century when bishops and priests called the shots. That power enjoyed by the church is as potent as the power that planning executives in County Councils, in Government Departments and in An Bord Pleanála enjoy. And as for the powers transferred to the new Planning Regulator: now that power is eye watering. 

The planner we had along with us at that ‘High Priests’ meeting did not hang around. You can’t blame him. Planning consultants working in the private sector depend on executive planners’ decisions for their bread and butter. They cannot afford to get on the bad side of them. This is how the system works. Developers too depend on the planners and know only too well where the real power is now, post Mahon Tribunal. As recent as last year we lost a sale because a council planning official told the developer that he was against Holmpatrick Cove and wouldn’t have given planning. (The council had given planning permission). The developer walked, based on this personal opinion. Needless to say if this hadn’t happened we would not be where we are today. That’s pretty powerful stuff really considering the collateral damage. But that’s only one example of damage done to us over the years. For example the twelve months that followed on from the ‘High Priests’ Meeting’ shocked us to the core. But that is another story.

It’s important not to confuse the local councillors with the planning executives. Councillors are elected and if you don’t like them, they will lose their seats. They are accountable. That’s democracy and generally it works. We all know what went on in the ‘bad old days’ but it would be remiss not to say that the vast majority of elected representatives and civil servants in the executive are good hard-working people who carry out their duties in the public interest. We can only hope that the right people end up in power. (I’m thinking of the ‘pre-existing tendency theory’) Here in Skerries and Balbriggan we are lucky with our public representatives, especially the fresh voices in the area. Michael and I are grateful for their support now and in the past. 

So, in conclusion. The big question (and one we and our local councillors never got an answer to) regarding the ‘High Priests’ Meeting’ is, why the change of mind? Why go from supporting to attacking a plan overnight?  We know there were powerful forces working against us. We believe more from the Trump than the Arderne playbook. Quoting from the barrister in the famous Mr Moonlight trial (the one with the slurry pit) “The human condition can only withstand so much co-incidence until it says. That’s not co-incidence. That’s planned.”  Now where would I get a good deal on a box of whistles? I can think of a few places I would like to send some………

The Poker Game

It all started way back with a game of poker. John’s Mum played poker every week with a group of friends and heard that one of her friends was selling her field. John had an idea to buy it. He and his young family lived in America and he wanted to come home to Skerries to build a home. His family had lived in Skerries for generations. He brought Michael up to the field and they both saw the vision. Michael’s family also were centuries in Skerries and he never knew this view of Skerries existed (apart from a glimpse from the top of the 33 bus). The view was closed off to the town. So, the plan at that time was to buy the field and see if they could build two homes and make the rest a public picnic park with a spectacular view. 

John went to the auction but the field was sold to someone else. That sale ultimately fell through and all of a sudden John and Michael owned a lovely field with a view. Ciara and I joined the boys at the field to celebrate, along with two friends, also home from America.   

We were being watched from behind the hedge. Little did we know that a devious and shady force was about to be unleashed into all our lives that would change all of our paths.

John and Ciara went back to America after a couple of years. They saw enough of the the begrudgery and its malignant influence on planning decisions. They didn’t know at the time but they must have foreseen,( just as in the game of poker), that the cards were marked by the dealer from the very beginning. Wikipedia tells us that cheating in poker can be done in many ways, “including collusion, sleight-of hand (such as bottom dealing or stacking the deck”). The same appears to apply to planning. John and Ciara thankfully have made a great life for their family back in America. 

Michael and I stayed. The field was sold last week by a receiver.