Six-year government stasis on Donegal planning corruption report borders on farcical

Even if the issue of Mulcahy report seems like one more for political anoraks, planning issues have been a thorn in the side of Irish public life for decades.

THEY GROW UP so fast, those government reports. One day they’re being commissioned, barely a gleam in a minister’s eye. 

Before you know it, years have passed, and it’s time to look back. Assess their impact, make sure all the time, money and effort was worth something. 

In theory, that’s how it should work. But theory and practice have diverged wildly when it comes to the Mulcahy report, which was commissioned to examine alleged planning corruption in Donegal.

After being completed in July 2017, it remains unpublished. 

The slightly strained birthday comparison is of relevance because Patrick Costello, a Green Party TD, has taken to celebrating the report’s ‘birthday’ every year in a kind of a ‘what else can I do here’ attempt to push for its release.

With planning issues having cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of euros in tribunals, reports and investigations over the years, one would assume the government would be eager to deal with any allegations in the space quickly.

However, the Mulcahy report has now sat on the desk of two housing ministers, including incumbent Darragh O’Brien, for a combined six years.

So, what is going on? First, some background.

The Mulcahy report stems from allegations made by Gerard Convie, formerly a senior planner in Donegal County Council during the 1980s and 1990s.

He claimed in the early 2000s there were a variety of serious problems, ranging to alleged potential corruption, in the council’s planning department. He compiled a list of 20 sample cases which was passed on to the government.

An internal review concluded there were no serious issues at the local authority and questioned Convie’s motives in making the allegations.

Convie challenged the findings, taking a case to the High Court. This resulted in the review being overturned and withdrawn, with an apology made to Convie in 2013.

In 2015 the government commissioned Rory Mulcahy, a High Court judge who was a senior counsel at the time, to conduct another review into Convie’s allegations.

Mulcahy submitted his report in June 2017, which is when the action – or lack thereof – starts.

Not much happened for several months, before the government looked for advice from the attorney general in late 2017.

The advice from a “comprehensive” set of queries was received in July 2018. At the time, the Department of Housing said the minister would “consider the matter further”.

The then-Fianna Fáil housing spokesman, Darragh O’Brien, called for an update from then-Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy in the interests of transparency.

Several years passed, and O’Brien replaced Murphy in the housing portfolio following the 2020 general election. Since then, tumbleweeds.

This is despite consistent calls for the report’s release from opposition politicians, groups such as Transparency International, some government members, such as Costello, and O’Brien’s own previous push for transparency. 

Both the Department and Minister O’Brien have indicated they are reluctant to publish the report, normally citing “privacy” concerns.

This is a view which was upheld by the Information Commissioner when this reporter made a Freedom of Information request for the report’s release in 2020. While the FOI request was for a copy of the report with the personal information redacted, the commissioner’s office said that this would only apply to “particular sentences or occasional paragraphs”. The Information Commissioner also indicated it did not want to be in a position of telling a minister what to do.

The argument is the Mulcahy report was a “scoping review” and did not make determinations about the truth of what happened at Donegal County Council. Because individuals are named in the report and their reputations could be damaged, their privacy should take precedence.

This is despite figures such as Costello pointing out that the right to privacy should not serve as a shield to potential wrongdoing.

The Department has now taken to issuing some variation of a stock response saying the report is being “considered” when questioned, with its statements barely changing since 2018.

It is reasonable to say it does not take years to decide on whether a completed report should be published or not. 

For context, the final report from the Mother and Baby Home Commission, which ran to some 3,000 pages and concerns one of the most controversial issues in Irish public life of the last 50 years, was submitted to the government on 30 October 2020.

It was published on 12 January 2021, a turnaround time of under four months.

At this point, it’s fair to question if the report will ever see the light of day. 

Merits of publishing versus not

The current stasis favours no one. If the allegations are false, it is unfair to leave them hanging over Donegal County Council indefinitely.

If they are true, they have to be dealt with to ensure the planning system is working as it should be. Holding any individuals to account for wrongdoing, already so often a difficult task in Ireland, will be made all the harder if the people involved in any incidents have long since retired.

If the Mulcahy report suggested wrongdoing by named individuals, but could not back this up with firm evidence and cannot be published, then that decision should just be made.

It would be far from ideal. Convie’s complaints at least merited investigating. The Mulcahy report proving to be unpublishable would mean there would have to be a decision around what to do next about his allegations.

It would raise the prospect of calls for yet another review, around 20 years after Convie’s allegations first came to light. This would be unwelcome for the government, risking re-igniting an issue which currently has little public attention.

It would also raise questions about the point of the review in the first place. The Department has emphasised many times the Mulcahy report was just a ‘scoping review’ which did not aim to get to the truth of the matter.

Obvious question – Why?

The nature of Comvie’s allegations were known from the offset. It would have been clear that even a cursory investigation would have resulted in claims being made against named individuals.

So why commission a ‘scoping exercise’ if it would throw up such serious privacy concerns?

It seems now the government doesn’t really know what to do with the Mulcahy report. It clearly has deep misgivings about publishing it, but it also doesn’t want to be seen to scrap it.

So instead, there’s nothing.

While this may suit a cautious government, it doesn’t suit the public.

Planning issues

Even if the issue of Mulcahy report seems like one more for political anoraks, planning issues have been a thorn in the side of Irish public life for decades. 

Some €150 million was spent on the Mahon tribunal alone, which examined suspect payments to politicians and local authority officials in connection with rezonings in Dublin in the 1980s and 1990s.

Earlier this year Paul Hyde, the former deputy chair of An Bord Pleanála, was sentenced to two months in jail after failing to fully declare his interests in several properties.

These problems are expensive (for the taxpayer) to deal with, corrode trust in planning and unfortunately, are far from something which has been fully consigned to the past.

Allegations of planning corruption should be taken seriously. They should not be left to gather dust.

The government should have made a final call on the Mulcahy report years ago. Any further delays would be farcical – it’s decision time.

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