The lengthy and frequently bitter court battle about rights of way through the Lissadell estate in Co Sligo is almost over, but it's unlikely ever to be forgotten in that county. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that Sligo County Council must pay 75 per cent of legal costs incurred by the owners of Lissadell, barristers Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy, in addition to the council's own costs. The total is estimated to be at least €5.25 million.
After last week’s court order, Sligo county manager Ciaran Hayes, who has been in the job less than four months, issued this two-sentence statement.
“While the existence of a public right of way has been established over a portion of the lands, I wish to express my disappointment at today’s Supreme Court decision, which brings to an end a difficult chapter in Sligo.
“At this time, my only other public comment is to express my desire that Lissadell house and lands would continue for the benefit of current and future generations of people in Sligo and the northwest region.”
This week, sitting in the council’s riverside offices, Hayes revealed that, although the statement is very brief, he had spent a long time carefully thinking about each word.
The reasons are obvious: relations between the council and the Walsh-Cassidy family couldn’t be worse as a result of the court case and Lissadell, an historic estate has, in the past, been a tourism asset to the county.
The council is in huge debt, even before taking into consideration the Lissadell court costs. In this newspaper earlier in the year, Frank McDonald wrote, "If Sligo County Council was a property developer, it would almost certainly be in Nama now. The council has accumulated a staggering debt of €94 million, at least some of it incurred by purchasing land at top-dollar prices during boom years."
When pressed this week on how much debt the council is in, and if it is the €94 million reported in the Irish Times , Hayes said: "Don't believe everything you read in the papers."
However, when asked about the substantial land-banks bought by the council in the boom, he said he did not know what acreage they amounted to. He also admitted that “Sligo most certainly has difficulty with its debt”.
So how will they pay the additional multi-million euro bill from the Lissadell case? “We are obligated to protect the public interest, so it shouldn’t be the local authority alone who pay the cost,” Hayes maintains, saying they are in negotiations with the Department of Environment about their debts.
His reference to the “public interest” alludes to the fact that the court case was based on whether or not public rights of way existed through Lissadell.
According to Jim McGarry, who has been a councillor for 29 years, the journey to the High Court, and then the Supreme Court, began in December 2008 at a routine council meeting when councillor Joe Leonard tabled a motion that public rights of way at Lissadell be included in the county’s development plan.
“On the morning of the motion, a lot of people were caught off-guard and didn’t see the dangers of supporting that motion,” McGarry said this week.
“It had been way down the agenda, but it was bumped up to be the first thing heard. It is entirely unusual that a motion of such significance would be jumped up the agenda and dealt with in that hasty fashion. There were members of the Lissadell Action Group in the council chambers that day to support councillor Leonard.
“My contention is that councillor Leonard had it well planned out and told them in advance and that it was going to be done that day.”
Joe Leonard, who has also spent 29 years as a councillor, will not be running for re-election this year. Had he informed members of the Lissadell Action Group (local people campaigning for rights of way through the estate) of his motion in advance?“Of course I did,” he says. “They were members of the community and they had a right to be in the public gallery. I wanted the motion heard first so they could be off and about their business and wouldn’t have to wait around.”
Did he table the motion about rights of way as a result of his own concerns or on behalf of lobbying members of the public? “I did it as a result of lobbying. I was raising the concerns of the local community as expressed to me. I was doing my job as a public representative.”
“The court case is Joe Leonard’s fault, and all the elected representatives who supported that motion, and the former county manager, Hubert Kerins,” says Jim McGarry, who objected to the motion on that day. He says he was the only councillor to object.
“Members of the council should have had legal advice before they voted on that motion. To me, it was a lose-lose situation from day one.”
Did Leonard seek legal advice before tabling his motion in December 2008? “No,” he says, sounding surprised. “Should I have?”
“As far as I know, no county development plan ever had rights of way written into it before about privately owned land,” McGarry says.
He says he consistently sought access to the legal opinion that former county manager Hubert Kerins received about the issue, but that neither he nor the other councillors saw this.
“We were assured that the council had a prima facie case, but we never saw that legal advice.”
Last Monday, at Sligo's monthly council meeting, it was agreed the Lissadell case and its outcome will be discussed in full for the first time at a meeting on 28th April, as legal proceedings have now ended.
It is likely to be a heated meeting. Ciaran Hayes said he will be providing the now infamous “prima facie” legal opinion to the council, and attempting to answer whatever questions come his way that day, given that he was not the manager when the case was initiated.
“I’ll be there on the 28th,” Leonard confirms. So will McGarry and, with elections close by, presumably every other councillor will also be in attendance.
“Everyone is on the canvas at the moment and Lissadell and the costs are a huge issue on the doorsteps,” says McGarry, who is himself running for election again.
“People are afraid that there may be a rise in local taxes to pay for the bill and they are also wondering if Lissadell will ever open to the public again.”
It is McGarry’s view that “Joe Leonard owes the people of Sligo an apology for his recklessness in bringing the motion before the council.”
“I certainly don’t owe anyone an apology for doing the right thing,” is Leonard’s response. “I did what I had to do as a responsible public representative. I have no regrets about what I did. I would do it again in the morning.”
Meanwhile, local people report that smoke was seen coming from the Lissadell chimneys last Saturday night, which hadn’t been seen for some time, three days after the court ruling on costs.