‘I’m sorry I became the story’ – An Bord Pleanála chair apologies for remarks about solicitor at planning conference

Oonagh Buckley. Photo: Mark Condren

Caroline O'Doherty

The chair of An Bord Pleanála has apologised for making remarks about a solicitor at a recent planning conference.

Oonagh Buckley said she was sorry her comments led to her personally making headlines rather than the developments in the planning authority she was meant to be highlighting.

“I’m very sorry that I became the story. That should not have been the case,” she told TDs and senators at the Public Accounts Committee.

“I’m very sorry that I name-checked someone who was not in the room to answer to those questions. I shouldn’t have done that.

“I have to learn a lesson a lesson from this which is not to name-check people, and that in future I have to understand that in this role people are interested in everything I say.

“In future I should write a script and stick to it. So that is my learning from that.”

Ms Buckley, who took over as interim chair of the scandal-hit body in January, was questioned by Green Party TD Marc Ó Cathasaigh after she spoke about the need for An Bord Pleanála to rebuild public trust.

“I don’t think some of your own commentary at the Irish Planning Institute (IPI) conference was helpful in that regard,” Mr Ó Cathasaigh said.

Ms Buckley told the IPI last week that certain solicitors had turned judicial reviews of planning cases into a “business model”.

She said they didn’t even need to win cases because they made enough money out of the state to secure a lucrative career.

She specifically referenced Fred Logue, an expert in planning and environmental law who has successfully represented clients in many judicial reivews of An Bord Pleanála decisions.

Mr Logue was due to address the conference the following day and Ms Buckley urged delegates to “subject him to vigorous questioning”.

Mr Logue said afterwards her comments were inappropriate and showed a lack of the independence her quasi-judicial role required.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy said she had been very surprised at Ms Buckley’s remarks about Mr Logue.

She said it was a case of “shooting the messenger rather than dealing with the real issues”.

The real issue was the flawed fast-track Strategic Housing Development scheme, now abandoned, which had led to a surge in legal challenges.

Ms Buckley replied that urging vigorous questioning of Mr Logue was a positive move because too often conferences were about professionals speaking to each other rather than hearing outsider perspectives.

But she conceded that the reasons An Bord Pleanála was losing judicial reviews was chiefly because poor decision-making in cases. She also said it had been conceding too many cases.

“The fault lies with the board. The fault does not lie with those who took the case. I completely garbled that message,” she said.

The planning body has been hit with resignations, internal and external reviews and an ongoing criminal prosecution over allegations of conflict of interest in decisions by board members.

It is also struggling with a huge backlog of cases, with a year’s worth of work behind schedule and just 50-90 cases being dealt with each month when at least 300 needed to be cleared.

Ms Buckley apologised to anyone whose development was being held up because of the delays which she said she hoped would be much improved by the end of the year.

She said she was legally precluded from publishing one of the internal reports into An Bord Pleanála but would publish it when and if she could.