Department of the Environment apologises and pays €25,000 damages to former planner

Findings over ’irregular planning decisions’ claim overturned

The Four Courts. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

The Four Courts. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Fri, Jun 14, 2013, 17:25

The Department of the Environment has agreed to a High Court order overturning its own findings of no evidence of wrongdoing in the planning department of Donegal County Council on dates mostly in the 1990s.

It has also apologised to the former senior planner who made those claims and will pay him €25,000 damages.

The apology was read in court today to Gerard Convie, a senior planner with Donegal County Council until he resigned in 2007, arising from findings in the Department’s report put before the Dáil in June 2012 dimissing allegations by him of irregular planning decisions within the council.

The department has also agreed to pay Mr Convie €25,000 damages, plus costs.

Under the settlement, the report’s findings relating to Donegal are quashed.

The department also acknowledged the “sincerely held concerns” of Mr Convie in relation to planning matters in Donegal and regretted any adverse comment on his motivation and any negative impact on his good name, professional integrity or reputation.

The quashing of the findings, apology and damages are all part of a final settlement of proceedings brought by Mr Convie against the department, with the Council as a notice party, arising from the report.

Mr Convie claimed former minister for the environment John Gormley had agreed to set up an independent inquiry into claims by Mr Convie and others of planning irregularities in Donegal and several other councils but that decision was not proceeded with after the new Government took office.

He claimed the department instead embarked on an internal inquiry which, he alleged, was totally inadequate, “deeply disturbing” and failed to address his complaints in any meaningful way.

The report’s Donegal findings also wrongly implied he had an ulterior motive and agenda in making those claims and proceeded on that basis, he claimed.

He claimed the department had effectively accepted the council’s denials of irregularities without any real investigation. The council had inadequately addressed 30 per cent of his complaints and had not addressed the others at all, he alleged.

The department conducted no proper examination of 20 case studies provided by him which, he claimed, provided evidence of irregularities.

Among the issues he wanted investigated was an outline planning application to build a house on Malin Head in which the applicant for permission indicated he owned the site on which an official then applied, within weeks, for planning permission, he said.

Mr Convie said he had settled judicial review proceedings brought over the council’s 1999 decision to remove him from his post.

In that settlement, Mr Convie accepted he made an error of judgment in relation to a planning matter while the Council acknowleged there was no allegation of corruption against him.

The department’s report had concluded his claims of irregularities were contrived and manufactured to discredit the council’s planning department when any examination of the relevant planning files would have produced evidence to support his claims, he said.

His submissions to the department’s inquiry contained documents from council officials and other members of the public who could not be considered to have had a fraught relationship with the council and were honest and concerned persons, he added.

The terms of settlement were read today by Conleth Bradley SC, for Mr Convie, before Mr Justice John Hedigan who said he was “very glad” Mr Convie’s good name, integrity and professional reputation had been vindicated.

Mr Bradley said the case related to concerns raised by Mr Convie concerning planning irregularities in Donegal which had led to the report with which Mr Convie took serious issue.

The settlement also involves an agreement by Mr Convie not to bring any legal proceedings against the department, the Minister or the Minister of State at the Department arising from the report or the findings relating to him (Mr Convie) in that report.

After the terms of settlement were read, heated exchanges erupted when Marcus Dowling, for the council, said it had not been consulted about the settlement and was not a party to it.

While it was not disputing it, the council wanted to reserve its position as it did not know why the case had settled as some grounds of Mr Convie’s claim related to the council and others to the procedures adopted by the Minister, he said.

Mr Bradley said the Council was a notice party who played no active part in the case and it was not appropriate for it to make statements.

Mr Justice Hedigan told Mr Dowling it was not appropriate for him to make statements and told counsel to stop.