Planning for the pay day

Several early revelations about suspected planning corruption were ignored and recommendations quietly buried before the Mahon Tribunal began its work, Michael Clifford reports

RAY Burke was bang to rights. Journalist Joe McAnthony had investigated the planning process and how some councillors were using it to enrich themselves. It was June 1974, a time of great innocence in the world of planning.

Burke, as a member of Dublin County Council, had seconded a motion to rezone lands at Mountgarry, near Swords, from agricultural to industrial. The lands increased in value by around £400,000 as a result of the rezoning. According to a document published by the paper, Burke had received £15,000 when the land was sold on. The councillor — who was also a newly-elected TD — had engineered the rezoning of land of which he was a beneficiary.

Crucially, the professional planners were totally opposed to the rezoning. There were problems with drainage, access, and crucially, proximity to the flight paths near Dublin airport. No matter. The councillors went ahead with the rezoning. There was progress to be made. As Burke himself told a local newspaper about the rezoning, “I would be delighted to see as many jobs coming to the north county area as possible.”

Until the Sunday Independent’s Joe McAnthony pieced together the full story, few were aware that Burke was also in line for a major payday. McAnthony had located documents in the Companies Registration Office linking Burke to the payment of £15,000 from a company owned by two builders, Tom Brennan and Joe McGowan.

For those with an intimate knowledge of planning, Burke was at the centre of a system that stank to high heaven. The story splashed the front page on Jun 23 with the opening line. “After months of investigation, the Sunday Independent now believes there are grounds for a public inquiry into whether local authority representatives should declare their financial interests in matters coming before the councils on which they sit.”

There was an immediate furore. Politically, it was deemed necessary to put out the fire immediately. The taoiseach Jack Lynch assigned his newly appointed press officer to deal with the matter. The press officer was a young eager beaver by the name of Frank Dunlop. This was to be his first involvement in planning in the Dublin area. In time, the matter of planning in Dublin would garner Dunlop a fortune, and eventually lead to his jailing.

Throughout the furore in 1974, Burke retained the confidence of his leader Jack Lynch. The imperative for Lynch appears to have been to put out the fires of scandal rather than find out whether anything really lay behind the story. It wouldn’t be the last time that Burke would be able to call on his party leader for support. Twenty-four years later Bertie Ahern was quick to defend his old mucker.

Burke had a perfect explanation for the entry in the books. When he wasn’t tending to the constituents of north Dublin as a local TD, he was operating as an auctioneer. He had a professional relationship with Brennan and McGowan, and the payment was in respect of fees which were due to him.

The defence offered by Burke — and accepted in the political arena — demonstrated the potential that existed for corruption at the time. Nobody thought it unusual that a man filling the roles of councillor and TD could also operate as an auctioneer.

Even if this excuse for the fifteen grand was accepted, it effectively meant Burke could vote for the rezoning of land in his former capacity, and then make money out of selling the houses constructed on the rezoned land. The basic concept of a glaring conflict of interest was not given a second thought.

The furore over McAnthony’s story required that the matter be properly investigated. There would, however, be no public inquiry. That would have to wait another 23 years, and take place in a different Ireland, when the smell emanating from Burke just wouldn’t go away.

Instead, a Garda probe was initiated. McAnthony was one of the first to be interviewed. Years later he would recall that the detective who visited him said that he didn’t believe anything would result from the investigation. He was right about that. It concluded without any recommendation of a prosecution. Burke resumed the upward trajectory of his political career, unstained by what was filed away as a baseless allegation. Just for good measure, the company records showing the offending payment were later altered, the payment deleted.

The fortunes of the reporter who broke the story went in the opposite direction. Following his Burke story, and another which demonstrated how the Irish Sweepstakes had been manipulated to benefit a few individuals, McAnthony was forced to immigrate to Canada. Ireland was not ready to look in the mirror and admit that corruption was indeed a fact of public life.

The scandal of Burke’s £15,000 payment from a construction company thus ran into the sand. It would be over two decades before McAnthony would be completely vindicated, Burke exposed as a deeply corrupt politician who eventually was jailed for tax evasion.

In the intervening years, Burke would go on to be one of the country’s leading politicians. Planning corruption would become endemic and would largely be regarded as an activity that could be undertaken with impunity. All may have been so much different if the organs of state and society had the capacity and willingness to follow up on McAnthony’s story.

DESIGNATION MOVE

The potential for planning corruption in the Republic of Ireland was greatly enhanced, oddly enough, by the law. The cornerstone planning law for the state was enacted in 1963. This act decreed planning to be undertaken for the “common good”. It also, however, bestowed on county and city councillors the power to designate land as suitable for a particular use. For instance, the most common redesignations is for agricultural land to be rezoned as residential or industrial.

Ideally, rezoned land would meet the proper planning guidelines. But if councillors deemed it appropriate to rezone, then those vital issues become irrelevant.

It didn’t matter that such land might not be suitably serviced for a new use. There may not be road access or an adequate sewage system in place. Neither did it matter that there may not be any discernible requirement to rezone a piece of land to facilitate ordered development. Land could be rezoned for housing, even though population or residential trends suggested there was no need at all for it. Thus, rezoning, instead of acting as a tool to facilitate the development of the State, was often used as nothing more than a means of enrichment for landowners.

Effectively, councillors could make overnight millionaires of landowners, turning muck into gold at the stroke of a pen. In such a system, corruption lucked in the shadows, waiting to pounce at the right opportunity.

By the late 1960s the flaws in the system were becoming obvious. Landowners naturally lobbied to receive favourable rezoning in development plans. When their interests were deemed by officials not to coincide with “the common good”, they lobbied politicians for change. Very often, this lobbying was successful. Thus planning was not done on the basis of the professional interpretation of the common good, but on the politician’s interpretation of it. The vulnerability of politicians in this type of relationship is obvious.

A landowner would apply to have a plot rezoned under a development plan. Thereafter it would be perfectly legitimate to lobby county councillors as to the validity of the application.

For those in the know, there was another route. Identify a councillor who was willing to take money for his troubles, and get him or her onside with a brown envelope. More often than not more than one envelope was required. Sometimes, the envelope was a political donation and treated as such by the councillor. There was, however, little regulation of political donations. One man’s political donation, might be another’s donation to the annual family holiday. And for some, the size of the donation was in a different world from an legitimate political costs that were accrued.

In 1971, the government commissioned a report to look into the method of rezoning land, with a particular view as to how it might be better achieved for the common good.

The Committee On The Price Of Building Land was chaired by a High Court judge, John Kenny. The committee reported in 1974. One of its major recommendations was that rezoned land should be valued at the agricultural price plus 25%. This, it was felt, would dampen down the frenzy for land speculation and lead to a greater incentive to proper planning.

As with multiple other reports down the years, the fate of Kenny rested on the political will to implement it. In 1974, a coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour was in situ, led by Fine Gael taoiseach Liam Cosgrave.

According to one account of what transpired at cabinet, the Kenny report was presented by the local government minister Jim Tully, who was a member of the minority coalition partner, Labour.

The finance minister, Richie Ryan, was reported as saying he opposed the implementation of Kenny. Cosgrave said he also was opposed to it. None of the other voices around the table made any serious case for implementing the report. Tully, who was effectively the report’s sponsor, didn’t advocate for its implementation. Noted socialists such as Labour leader Brendan Corish and Justin Keating remained silent. As did self-proclaimed social democrats like Conor Cruise O’Brien and Garret FitzGerald. In an interview with the Sunday Tribune in 2006, FitzGerald couldn’t put his finger on why Kenny wasn’t implemented.

“I’m still not clear in recollection as to why it wasn’t tackled when we were in,” he said. “I remember some discussion as to the arguments but I can’t recall the outcome.”

With no serious advocate for the report, it was shelved, effectively buried. With it died any prospect of reshaping the planning process in a progressive way. As long as rezoning had the potential to yield massive profits, then rezoning would remain the focus of the process for all the interested players, including the politicians.

It could well be that the cabinet didn’t realise the chance that was being offered by Kenny. Far more likely is that there simply wasn’t the stomach to take on powerful sectional interests such as landowners and developers.

HITTING THE JACKPOT

The system persisted, and little changed over the following 20 years. In the early 1990s, a new development plan for the greater Dublin area was formulated. This, in terms of rezoning, in terms of hitting the jackpot, presented the potential to make overnight millionaires for dozens of landowners.

The plan was the source of much dispute over the years of the early nineties, and many of the rezoning decisions were highly controversial. Through it all, vast fortunes were made and at the centre of the whole affair was a player par excellence when it came to swaying the decisions of councillors.

Frank Dunlop knew his way around politics. In 1974, he had been appointed to the new role of government press secretary. He was just 26, and had worked in RTÉ for the previous two years. One of his first tasks in the new job was to deal with the fallout from the Joe McAnthony story. Thus, Dunlop began a career of spinning.

For the following 12 years, he worked in government. After Jack Lynch resigned in 1979, his services were retained by the new leader, Charlie Haughey. Then, when Fine Gael assumed power, they also kept him on.

By 1986, he had a powerful insight into how government worked and had amassed a bulging contacts book of politicians and party supporters from both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. It was time to put his experience to lucrative use in the private sector.

He joined leading Dublin PR firm, Murray Consultants, but within a few years set up his own PR and lobbying firm, Frank Dunlop & Associates. By then, the economy was emerging from years of recession. A development plan for Dublin City and county was in gestation. It was a good time to be a lobbyist of Dunlop’s calibre.

Dunlop has admitted that he was involved in extensive bribery in the formulation of the country development plan in the early 1990s.

He was retained in a professional capacity by landowners in relation to 18 different amendments to the plan, proposing rezoning. He says he kept a large stash of cash with which to bribe councillors for their votes. He made a distinction between bribes and so-called legitimate political donations, the former of which he paid in cash, the latter by cheque.

“It wasn’t rocket science,” Dunlop told the planning tribunal in 2005. “Some (councillors) proffered their support for signing motions (to rezone) in return for cash. The motion was the ticket to the ball. If you weren’t at the ball you couldn’t dance.”

Dunlop always maintained that the system of bribes was in place before he entered the business. He said that his friend Liam Lawlor informed him early on that he would have to “pay to play”.

All of the councillors who were named by Dunlop as being in receipt of bribes have denied it. Two of the named councillors are deceased.

Some of his projects were of enormous size. For instance, a plan to rezone 107 acres in Carrigmines in south county Dublin. The lands were bought by a shadowy outfit called Jackson Way which had links to Liam Lawlor. Dunlop was retained to lobby, and in doing so he claims to have issued a number of bribes to various councillors. Just 17 acres were rezoned but that move increased the value of the lands from €8m to €61m. Dunlop asked the developers for fifty grand as his cut for getting councillors on side by any means necessary.

In the end, he settled for twenty-five.

The Criminal Assets Bureau became involved over a decade later and froze the assets. But the example shows the fortunes that were to be made by the stroke of a pen from sitting county councillors.

In July 1993, the rezoning frenzy had reached fever pitch and was the subject of consistent rumours. The Irish Times ran a series of articles that detailed how unnamed developers had handed over large sums of cash for votes.

In the aftermath of the reports, the environment minister, Michael Smith, made a speech decrying what appeared to be afoot.

“The stage has now been reached where zoning has become a debased currency in the Co Dublin area, where even desirable changes in zoning are being tarred with the same brush as those which arise on the promptings of landowners or developers.”

It was as if the national politicians were declaring themselves helpless in preventing their local colleagues from effectively corrupting the planning system. The song remained the same as it had done over the previous 20 years. Despite the smell, the government was unwilling to overhaul the system.

Two years later, a pair of environmental activists, Michael Smith and Colm MacEochaidh, undertook a project that would finally blow the lid on planning corruption.

They organised for an advert to be placed in The Irish Times under the heading, “£10,000 Reward Fund”. The add offered the money for “information leading to the conviction on indictment of a person or persons for offences relating to land rezoning in the Republic of Ireland”.

That ad ultimately led to the setting up of the planning tribunal, under chairman Fergus Flood.

CORRUPT PAYMENT

The planning tribunal became an excavation of corruption going back nearly 30 years. In 2002, Flood reported that Burke had received corrupt payments in 1989. He ruled that the acquisition of Burke’s house in 1974 from the builders Brennan and McGowen also amounted to a corrupt payment.

The tribunal also uncovered serious tax evasion by a number of people in both politics and business. In 2005, Burke was jailed for six months for tax evasion. The following year, Mick Bailey, whom Flood ruled had made a corrupt payment to Burke, and his brother Tom, made a settlement of €22m with the Revenue Commissioners.

Liam Lawlor was jailed three times by the High Court for contempt over his failure to co-operate with the inquiry. In 2005, when he was still entangled with the tribunal, he was killed in a car crash in Moscow.

In 2008, Dunlop became the first person to be jailed for corruption arising from evidence first adduced at the tribunal. The former city and county manager George Redmond had been jailed for corruption, but the conviction was set aside on appeal.

Dunlop pleaded guilty to sample charges of paying councilors bribes in the early 1990s. All of the councilors concerned denied they received bribes, although some admit that they did get “political donations” from the lobbyist.

The political system was also obliged to act on what was unfolding in Dublin Castle. New laws on political donations were enacted, although enough loopholes persist to ensure that transparency of political funding is still a long way off.

Ironically, despite all the exposure of corruption done by the tribunal, it would in time become a matter of serious public concern. The tribunal model is designed to investigate a matter of “urgent public interest”. The planning tribunal entered the record books by persisting for over 13 years. Whatever urgency there was in 1997, it had long disappeared as the inquiry persisted over the following 14 years.

One overall question about the inquiry does persist; would we now know what we know about how the planning system was corrupted down through the decades if an extensive inquiry hadn’t been established?

We would know next to nothing about what went on. Everything would have been put down to vicious rumour and begrudgery of those who prospered.

There might never have been a need for a public inquiry if things had been different in 1974 when McAnthony’s story was published. If the State had the capacity and willingness to property investigate what was afoot, the history of planning in the late twentieth century could have been entirely different.

How different, for instance, might the government have treated the Kenny Report that year if Burke had been exposed as corrupt and the flaws and dangers of the planning system as it existed had been further explored?

Joe McAnthony is in no doubt as to what flowed from his exposé. In 2008, he gave an interview to the Irish Left Review website in which he highlighted the impunity that ruled at the time.

“What puzzled me about the Burke case was that I had found the document in the company’s office that damned him. And still nothing was done. Just as the detective who came to interview me predicted.

“Certainly, if I had stayed with the Sunday Independent, I would have stayed on his tail, and on those who made contributions to his phantom political fund.

“I put down the welter of corruption in Irish politics to Burke’s escape from retribution after that exposure in 1974. It gave everybody in the game a licence to steal.”

McAnthony’s is an analysis with which it is difficult to find fault. It would appear that he was a man before his time. The State as it was then run preferred to wallow in denial than to face up to some uncomfortable realities about how powerful elements conducted themselves.

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