Did we really need Prime Time's sting to show us there was endemic corruption in Ireland?

WE DIDN’T need Prime Time’s sting operation to tell us there was endemic corruption in our planning processes in this country. We only had to look at our destroyed landscapes and our ghost estates, writes Victoria White.
Did we really need Prime Time's sting to show us there was endemic corruption in Ireland?

You could put them down to simple ignorance and stupidity, both of which have played a part. But we’ve known for a long time that there’s more to it than that. We have seen, heard and funded the Mahon Tribunal. Investigative journalists from Joe MacAnthony to Frank Mc Donald have focussed sternly on planning corruption across national broadsheets.

Prime Time itself addressed this very issue in a 2007 programme called ‘The Pressure Zone’ in which the star performer was, yet again, Fine Gael councillor for Clones, Hugh McElvaney. He seemed to think nothing of houses being built on stilts in a rezoned flood plain. The flood plain was rezoned, by 19 votes to 18, against the strong advice of the planners. It made a pretty scene on Prime Time with swans swimming around in it.

Newly appointed Green Party environment minister John Gormley caused a storm by intervening with the limited powers he had under the 2000 Planning Act to stem excessive rezoning in Mayo and Monaghan. “They went buckin’ mad” as one former councillor told me. Hugh McElvaney complained to Prime Time: “He’s only in a wet week and he came in and robbed us.” Gormley is, explains McElvaney, “anti-development” whereas he is, “pro-development, irrespective of where it is”. The comment makes a good case for Gormley’s 2010 Planning Act stating that planning decisions must be consistent with the Government’s spatial strategy.

The 2007 Prime Time had also shown an inexplicable overturning of the planner’s advice by councillors represented on the programme by Fine Gael’s Tom Burkery, in Pukane, Co Tipperary. To his credit, Fine Gael’s John Deasy went to the gardaí over an inexplicable decision in Ballygeoghean, Co Waterford, and was panned for this efforts.

Planning matters. How we shape our built environment shapes the lives of generations. Poor planning locks in social isolation and alienation, rural crime and polluting lifestyles. It condemns future tax-payers to the maintenance of costly infrastructure. Poor planning is theft committed by one generation against the ones which follow.

It’s true that as a society we have a very poor awareness of the importance of planning. But it’s not just that we’re uneducated. We know there’s poor practice among our Councillors and we tolerate it.

It is eight years since the Prime Time ‘Pressure Zone’ programme featured McElvaney commenting that he and his fellow councillors were all lobbied about rezoning. Asked about standards on ethics, he said they filled in forms “ad nauseam” disclosing their assets and promising to abide by the rules. Asked if they took it seriously, he said, “It’s filling a form. It doesn’t affect us.” Are we really surprised that Monday’s Prime Time showed 40% of forms did not represent full disclosure of assets? Eight years ago ‘Pressure Zone’ showed a majority of councillors’ disclosure forms going unstamped with any date in many councils from Cork to Dún Laoghaire. They found 28% of forms which were stamped had arrived late. They found many incomplete statements of assets and associations.

This disgrace reflects as much on council staff as on councillors. Such a lax regime was bound to breed poor compliance. The forms should be completed online and should be freely available to the electorate. Prime Time’s laudable investigation into the real assets of councillors as against declared assets should have been performed by a beefed-up Standards in Public Office staff and subsequently, by the gardaí.

Instead nothing happened. Except that’s not true. Plenty happened. The people of Clones rewarded Hugh McElvaney for his star turn on Prime Time with local seats by comfortable margins in 2009 and 2014. The Fine Gael party offered McElvaney no censure of any kind. In fact, he was made Fine Gael chief whip for Co Monaghan. In this capacity, as one former councillor pointed out to me, he was Arts Minister Heather Humphreys’s boss when she was a councillor and she voted with him on those controversial decisions.

Fine Gael is, in case anyone needs reminding, the party which leads the current Government, the one which vowed to clean up politics. Fine Gael is likely to lead the next government. And yet it took Nina telling fibs on behalf of RTÉ to smoke out any response from Fine Gael and McElvaney’s departure from the party.

The enquiries into suspected planning irregularities in Monaghan, Waterford, Carlow, Dublin, and Donegal which were ordered by John Gormley were immediately dropped by his successor Phil Hogan. Phil Hogan was given responsibility for cleaning up local government. The same man had told the Moriarty Tribunal that a meeting between himself, Mark Fitzgerald, Denis O’Brien, and the late Jim Mitchell in the run-up to the awarding of the mobile phone licence to Esat Digiphone, which Fitzgerald says he attended in October 1995, never took place. Judge Moriarty commented that it was “difficult to conceive in the extreme” why Fitzgerald would have made it up.

It was we the people who handed power and privilege to the fast buck merchants during the last boom and if we are not careful we will do the same as the recovery takes hold. A powerful weapon against corrupt decisions, the windfall tax garnering 80% of the profit on rezoned land to the State which was enacted by the previous government was dropped like a hot potato last year by the Coalition. It must be revived. We also need a well-resourced public sector standards commissioner with powers to initiate investigations before receiving a complaint and the fact that this will not now happen before the general election should be thrown back at the Government parties.

As a journalist, I am deeply uncomfortable with “sting” operations such as Monday’s Prime Time. I have never recorded anyone without them knowing. I have never even gone on the record when requested not to. Journalists’ ethics codes stress that “undercover” should only be used as a strategy when no other strategy is possible.

Whereas this corruption hid in plain sight because it was tolerated by us and many of the politicians we elect. It is not the exclusive preserve of any party but seems particularly endemic in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, though it is an open question if that is simply because they hold the most seats.

Whether it was worth sending out a Nordic blonde in kinky ankle boots to falsely impugning the wind industry on behalf of the national broadcaster will remain debatable until we see action from the political system. And until we, the voting public, begin to reject dishonesty in politicians Prime Time will stand accused of turning corruption into enjoyable TV to little good effect.

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