The price of corruption

Communities throughout the Republic are continuing to suffer due to a rampant culture of corruption within the political and business classes, reports Patrick Dolan.

AS MICK Finnegan surveys the Clonburris site where the west Dublin community of Clondalkin-Lucan was meant to have its town centre he is clear that the real victims of the corruption of the Republic’s planning system are yet to see any justice.

“The corruption of the planning process left this community without its heart, a town centre, and the facilities such as a library, a social centre and theatre which are needed for people to live a full life. This is the real cost of the failure to put a halt to the activities of corrupt politicians, and this community and others are still suffering for it.”

For new residents of many areas of Clondalkin, in the 1980s life was bleak and isolated. People had a roof over their heads but little else. Most had been moved by Dublin Corporation from areas such as Ballyfermot and the inner city. People got on with their lives as best they could. Shopping was done either in the small local shops which were expensive or by walking or getting a taxi to Ballyfermot – very few families had cars. Social amenities beyond local pubs were practically non-existent.

It wasn’t meant to have been like that. In 1967, the Irish Government commissioned Myles Wright report was published. The report recommended that the three new towns of Clondalkin-Lucan, Tallaght and Blanchardstown should be developed to accommodate Dublin’s expanding population.

The people of Clondalkin continue to campaign for services

The report recommended not just the development of housing, but integrated communities, well-planned and featuring well-designed town centres with amenities for the local populations. In Clondalkin-Lucan no such town centre was built due to politicians voting to re-zone lands on behalf of property speculators, whose sole objective was personal profit rather than developing living communities.

The town centre for Clondalkin-Lucan was relocated and built on the Quarryvale site three miles from Clonburris.
Quarryvale is now The Liffey Valley shopping centre. It is separated from the local community, bounded by the M50 motorway to the east and to the north by the N4 national primary route. It is an out-of-town shopping centre aimed at the commuter rather than the local community.

Mick Finnegan, local Workers’ Party representative, was in the frontline of those attempting to highlight the corruption evident in the planning process throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

“The construction of Liffey Valley undermined the County Development plan. The crucial blow for the right and appropriate development of this area came in the granting of permission for that development. This resulted in the people of Clondalkin-Lucan being denied a town centre in the central Clonburris site at the heart of the two communities.”

He added; “Such bad planning decisions occurred because local authority councillors across the country in the
right-wing political parties were having their election campaigns, and in many cases their lifestyles, bankrolled by developers. These councillors would then vote to change the designation of areas from agricultural to residential/ commercial use in County Development plans. The councillors would receive a few thousand pounds through middle men for their votes but the developers who owned the land would see the value of their holdings go from a few thousands to millions overnight.”

IT IS now an established fact that corruption was central to the Dublin planning process during the 1980s and 1990s. The Mahon Tribunal of Inquiry Into Certain Planning Matters and Payments published its final report in April. The Tribunal examined in detail the planning process in Dublin during the early 1990s. After ten years of collecting evidence the 3270 page report comes to a damming conclusion:

“Corruption in Irish political life was both endemic and systemic. It affected every level of government, from some holders of top ministerial offices to some local councillors, and its existence was widely known and widely tolerated.” (Mahon Tribunal Final Report)

For local activists, the Report’s publication, or even the unlikely event that it will lead to criminal prosecutions of those involved in corruption, cannot undo the damage the corrupt cabal of politicians and developers has inflicted on working class communities.

The late 1980s through to the mid-1990s was a period when corruption in planning, and opposition to it, was at its most intense. It was a time when anybody who backed developers could expect to be bankrolled. Political activists who opposed developers could expect intimidation and harassment.

During this period the Workers’ Party was the leading voice against the corrupt planning practices that were evident as Dublin expanded.

The party published seminal newspaper articles and reports that highlighted the activities of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councillors on Dublin County Council in rezoning land for the benefit of property developers. In May 1991 the Workers’ Party published The Rezoning Majority. This report estimated that over the previous six years select changes to the county development plan had added £150 million to land values in the area and had been a “licence to print money for property developers.”

Leading this anti-corruption campaign was the Workers’ Party TD for Dublin West, Tomás MacGiolla. Mick Finnegan recalls both a merciless propaganda campaign conducted through the media aimed at MacGiolla and his party, which portrayed local community activists as “dangerous communist subversives,” and physical threats.

In Lucan a group called ALARM (All Lucan Against Rezoning Madness) was established and attempted to harness as much community support as possible towards sustainable, people-friendly planning. They came up against occassionaly thuggish opposition. At one stage, a group of young people were attacked outside a Lucan church.
“Money was also provided to pay people to come on board with developers and support their plans. In this way the poverty of the community was used to bring often good people with the best of intentions in line with the developers and corrupt politicians,” Mick Finnegan adds.

Mick Finnegan (second from right) protesting with WP members in Clondalkin

There were also more subtle methods for dealing with those opposing corruption. The general election of 1992 was a tense affair particularly in North Clondalkin. In 1992, MacGiolla lost his seat. He was beaten by Liam Lawlor of Fianna Fail by 59 votes. Assisting at the count was George Redmond, who was convicted on corruption charges in 2003.

Despite these obstacles the campaign to highlight the bad planning and corruption that blighted west Dublin was widely supported. Campaigners were drawn from across the political spectrum with prominent figures including the Green Party’s Bridin O’Connor as well as local members of Fianna Fail who opposed the activities of some in their party.

Although members of the Gardaí from the local community were often to the fore in campaigns their superiors failed to instigate serious investigations into corruption.

Mick Finnegan believes that “the failures of the State to properly police corruption and all other forms of white collar crime during this period and up to the present is still something which has not been dealt with.”

The Mahon Tribunal found that corruption ‘seriously undermined the public’s faith in democracy.’ Finnegan agrees; “There was full knowledge at top political levels. Anti-planning abuse campaigners conveyed their concerns to leaders of all the major political parties. Delegations corresponded with and met Ministers, little was done. In light of this it is perhaps unsurprising that in the working class communities most blighted by developer led planning voting is often at its lowest.”

“In all of this episode there has been total contempt shown for the people of areas such as North Clondalkin. The most valuable asset robbed from them was a sense of identity. Instead of the constant negative publicity media would portray their area as one associated with a vibrant town centre hosting various attractions enticing not only shoppers but those interested in cultural, leisure and other activities.”

IN HIS book Sins of the Father: Tracing the decisions that shaped the Irish economy historian Conor McCabe attempts to unravel some of the links between land, money and planning that underlie the political system since the foundation of the Irish Free state.

“If you talk about morality and ethics, you accept the sort of development that took place in Ireland as rational and normal. The problem is in fact deeply structural. The Mahon report said that the Irish state was corrupt. Any corruption therefore that took place is almost hardly a surprise.”

“The speculative nature of land rezoning has to be taken out of the question. As long as there is huge profit in land rezoning, there will be corruption. Why was it possible to become a multimillionaire overnight if land is changed from agricultural use to residential/commercial use? That was corruption in itself and it is legal.”

So in the light of the hundreds of millions of euro spent on the Mahon and Moriarty Tribunals into corruption, has anything really changed?

The Dublin West TD Patrick Nulty believes there is still some way to go before the interests of communities overtake those of profiteers in the Republic’s planning process.

“With the end of the Celtic Tiger the planning frenzy has relented somewhat. While overt corruption may have relented, a cosy relationship still exists between big business and politics. Until the political donation and planning process are fully transparent, I believe working class communities will continue to lose out due to the corrupt influence of the political-developer axis.”

He added; “I myself received an unsolicited cheque for €500 from a builder during the course of the Dublin West by-election campaign in November 2011. I publicly returned this cheque but as it was below the threshold of what has to be declared as a political donation I could easily have kept it and only the developer and I would have known about his helping hand.”

Mick Finnegan believes that political leaders must now be held responsible for the actions of their parties.

“Restoring public trust in democracy lies with them and a step forward consists of two essential elements. Firstly, political leaders must restore to the victimised communities the essential services they have been robbed of. Secondly, as long as landowners can make windfall profits this abuse will crop up again.”

He added; “The implementation of the Kenny Report with its controls for the price of land zoned for development –would remove the motivation behind planning corruption. Nothing short of these two measures will convince the public that our political leaders are genuinely seeking to restore confidence in democracy.”

Article published in LookLeft Vol.2 No.11