In recent days there has been much tumult online about the alleged failure of the media to follow up and cover a story about the Fianna Fáil TD for Limerick, Niall Collins.
Last week, journalists at The Ditch revealed that Collins had voted, in 2007, to sell a parcel of land owned by Limerick County Council. That land was subsequently purchased by Collin’s wife, Eimear O’Connor. Now, 16 years later, O’Connor is proposing to sell the land – replete with five units of housing – back to the council for what one assumes would be a substantial profit over the €148,000 she paid for the land in the first place.
The obvious question is whether anything illegal or improper took place. The Ditch hangs its story on section 177 of the local Government act, 2001:
Under section 177 of the Local Government Act 2001, when councillors have “actual knowledge that… a connected person (spouse) has a pecuniary or other beneficial interest in, or which is material to, the matter”, they are prohibited from voting and must declare the conflict of interest to the local authority. Failure to do so is an indictable criminal offence under section 181 of the act.
The obvious question here is whether Collins’ wife interest in purchasing the land rises to the level of “pecuniary or other beneficial interest in, or which is material to the matter”. That is a very broad definition which could be read in a number of ways.
What is clear though is that the case for the defence is very strong: The council voted to sell the land. They did not vote to sell it directly to Ms. O’Connor. In fact, the sale was conducted, according to public records, on the open market. The land was advertised openly for sale to any and all interested buyers. The council accepted the highest bid. Collins could not reasonably have known, when he cast his vote, that his wife’s bid would ultimately be successful.
Nor is there any suggestion that he initiated the sale or was decisive in the sale taking place: The motion to sell the land was brought by another councillor, and the vote was 7-0. Had Collins either recused himself or voted against, nothing would have changed: The land would still have been voted to be sold by a margin of either 6-0 with one abstention, or 6-1, and events would have proceeded entirely as they have.
Nor can it reasonably be claimed that Ms. O’Connor had a “pecuniary or beneficial interest” in land which she did not, at the time, own. That is as absurd as claiming that you or I have a beneficial interest in a thing we’re thinking about buying on Ebay or Amazon – until it’s ours, we have no beneficial interest in it at all.
If anything, placing the land on the open market was financially harmful to Ms. O’Connor, would would presumably have preferred a private treaty sale in which she would have been bidding only against herself.
The only question which remains, therefore, is the question of how to define the the phrase “other beneficial interest in, or which is material to the matter”. We can discard the first part of that, since Ms. O’Connor did not have a beneficial interest in land which she did not own at the time of the vote. The question of alleged wrongdoing arises entirely out of the phrase “which is material to the matter”.
Should Deputy Collins have put on the record at the meeting that his wife was potentially interested in purchasing the land that the council was considering selling? Is that material to the matter? To answer that question we would need to ask another: Would this information, had it been known, had an impact on the council’s decision?
It seems unlikely to me that an entity which has decided to sell land has a particular interest in the identity of the potential buyers. It seems, further, vanishingly unlikely to me that the council would have had either any legal right or ethical imperative to decline to sell land to a buyer simply and entirely because the potential buyer was related, or in this case married to, a sitting councillor. The council’s only obligation really is to hold an open and transparent bidding process, and to extract the maximum value it could for the public from the asset which it was at that point selling. Ms. O’Connor was not, at any stage, guaranteed to be the highest bidder, nor did the act of selling the land ensure that she would acquire it. Nor, it should be said, had the council any guarantees that Ms. O’Connor would actually submit a bid – “expression of interest” is not a bid, and anyone is at liberty to express an interest in buying something and then choose not to follow up.
If this is corruption, it is a funny kind of corruption indeed.
The scandal seems to hang on the fact that Ms. O’Connor – and by extension her family, including Deputy Collins – appear set to make a handsome profit from the transaction. It has, to some noses, the whiff of “cute hoorism”, and making a quick buck. But none of that is illegal. If the Council made what ultimately proved to be a bad and short sighted business decision, then that is not the fault of Ms. O’Connor, nor solely the fault of her husband, whose vote as we have seen was not decisive in the matter at all.
This I think is the problem: Much of the online argument that this event was corrupt requires supposition: I have seen people supposing that in some way Mr. Collins influenced other councillors to propose and vote for the motion to sell – but there is no evidence for that. I have seen other supposing that the sale of the land was some kind of sweetheart deal – but there is no evidence for that at all, and in fact the publicly available evidence contradicts it.
There are, no doubt, many readers with no love for Deputy Collins, or who take no joy in his wife’s financial success in this business. There are others to whom the whole thing simply smells funny. But there is no convincing evidence of either corruption, or criminality, whatsoever. The Ditch have produced a story that it is in the public interest to know. But they have, themselves, neither alleged, nor proven, any significant wrongdoing.
That’s one reason this story isn’t getting the coverage that many have been demanding. If the information changes your view of Deputy Collins, or sways your vote in the next election, then by definition it is in the public interest. But just because you personally think something is dodgy, that doesn’t mean it is.