Saturday 16 December 2017

Revealed: Ahern quizzed planners about key NAMA developer

- Ex-Taoiseach sought details on building project of FF cash donor

Bertie Ahern pictured with Sean Mulryan at the Punchestown Races in 2008

Paul Melia, Michael Brennan and Louise Hogan

FORMER Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and ex-Tanaiste Mary Coughlan asked planning authorities about the progress of building projects submitted by major party donors, an Irish Independent investigation reveals.

This is the first time details of such inquiries by a senior political figure have emerged. It comes following a probe of hundreds of planning files and records of political donations.

Mr Ahern and Ms Coughlan sought details from councils and the planning appeals board on projects funded by party donors including Ballymore Estates, owned by Sean Mulryan who is now one of the biggest developers in NAMA.

The revelation raises further questions on the 'Galway Tent' relationship between developers and Fianna Fail, which was the biggest political party in the State until its implosion at the general election earlier this year.

Planning files and details of political donations declared to the Standards in Public Office Commission show that politicians sent letters on behalf of party donors, seeking updates on whether planning permission had been granted or when a decision would be made.

Around 1,800 submissions were made by politicians to An Bord Pleanala between 2004 and 2011, and both Mr Ahern and Ms Coughlan used official headed paper to make their enquiries.

The records also show:

- In June 2006, Mr Ahern -- on Office of the Taoiseach-headed paper -- wrote to Dublin City Council seeking an update on a development planned by Ballymore Estates, controlled by Mr Mulryan and now in NAMA.

- The letter sought an "early response" to a query on whether a controversial development called Royal Canal Park in Dublin 15 had been approved. Ballymore donated more than €7,000 to the party and individual TDs in 2005 and 2006.

- In 2006, Ms Coughlan sought an update on plans for a windfarm in Co Cork proposed by Ballybane Windfarms. At the time, she was serving as Minister for Agriculture and Food, a department which had no responsibility for renewable energy.

- Ballybane is an arm of the Murnane and O'Shea group in Cork, which donated €1,000 to local TD Ned O'Keeffe and another €2,000 to MEP Brian Crowley in 2009.

- Mr Ahern also wrote "on behalf" of developers of a small housing development in south Co Dublin in August 2007, seeking an update on the application. The owners of this development were not Fianna Fail donors.

All politicians except the Environment Minister are allowed to make submissions to local authorities and An Bord Pleanala on planning applications.

The Environment Minister is precluded because his department is responsible for the planning system, and a trawl of files from An Bord Pleanala reveals that politicians made more than 1,800 representations over a seven-year period.

Ms Coughlan was not available for comment, while Ballymore Estates and Murnane and O'Shea did not return calls.

In a short statement, Mr Ahern said that during his 34 years as a full-time politician he made "representations" on behalf of constituents, but did not address why he contacted planning authorities about a development by a party donor.

He also failed to explain why letters were sent on official headed paper.

In a separate development, the Irish Independent has also learned that former Arts Minister John O'Donoghue made submissions on behalf of both sides in a planning application.

On April 17, 2007, Mr O'Donoghue sought an update on an application to convert a retail unit into a pub at a site near Dingle, Co Kerry, on behalf of a couple who were objecting. Eight days later, he wrote on behalf of the applicant, also seeking an update.

Mr O'Donoghue said he never made political representations to An Bord Pleanala, but only sought information on when a decision was likely to be made.

He always told constituents that he could only make enquiries on what the position was in relation to a development and could not influence the planning process, he added.

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