“Hugely disruptive and disquieting” – An Bord Pleanála chairman updates staff about a “few very difficult weeks”

The chair of An Bord Pleanála told staff that allegations and media commentary about their work had been “hugely disruptive and disquieting”.

In a memo sent to employees, Dave Walsh said they’d been under the spotlight during a “few very difficult weeks” amid serious allegations about their work.

He said it had been “significantly damaging,” and had undermined their reputation and integrity in the minds of the public.

Mr Walsh wrote: “While, as a quasi-judicial body, we don’t perhaps have the same scope to speak out in a public forum and address all of the issues being raised, I want to reassure you all that I fully recognise the seriousness of these issues and its implications for the entire organisation.”

The message was one of a series of communications from senior management to staff as they grappled with the fallout from the resignation of deputy chairman Paul Hyde and other controversies about their work.

You can read the full set of records below, as well as see some other records released under FOI by ABP.

These include minutes of the management committee, diaries for the year 2021, and legal costs incurred by the Bord.

Unredacted records from failed social housing deal between Westmeath County Council and former minister Robert Troy finally released by local authority

Westmeath County Council has at last released a set of unredacted records relating to a social housing deal involving former minister Robert Troy.

The local authority had been ordered to release the records in this decision from the Information Commissioner (OIC).

However, four weeks after the decision was published – they still had not arrived and only did after the OIC were contacted to give them a gentle reminder. 

The records relate to a plan by a company involving Robert Troy to sell four apartments to Westmeath County Council for social housing.

They had agreed a price of just over €900,000 for the units but tenders for the project came back higher than expected at €1.06 million.

In emails, Westmeath County Council said they might be able to pay an extra 10% but said the higher price was unlikely to be sanctioned.

However, the Department of Housing baulked at any renegotiation saying it had been their understanding work had already begun and the price cited previously was final.

They asked how the council could demonstrate “excellent value for money” citing a search they did on Daft.ie that appeared to show there was “no shortage” of similar units available in Mullingar for less.

The department said their unit cost ceiling for a one or two-bedroom apartment in the area was far lower than what was now being quoted.

Westmeath County Council subsequently told the developers that they were not in position to progress the scheme owing to the “substantial increase” in costs.

The developers then said they would proceed with the development using their original pricing saying they were no longer “achieving the 10% profit on the deal as [they] hoped”.

As part of this request, Westmeath County Council has also been instructed to search for other records they may hold on the deal.

Emergency call fallback system also failed during system outage that saw more than 200 calls missed

A fallback automated system for answering 999 calls also failed during an outage of the emergency call service during the summer.

A major incident report into the Emergency Call Answering Service (ECAS) failure estimated that it was likely around 120 actual emergency calls had been missed even though more than 200 were logged during the outage.

The higher-than-usual volume of 216 calls during the seventy-two-minute failure was attributed to multiple “test calls” as well as calls from emergency services and other state agencies.

The report also said it seemed likely that some callers would have tried to contact 999 via “multiple means” using different mobiles and landlines.

Right to Know loses case over access to information from wind farm operator set up as joint venture between Coillte and ESB Wind

A dispiriting day for transparency yesterday with the publication of the Court of Appeal decision in one of our cases.

It involved Raheenleagh Power DAC [designated activity company] a joint venture originally set up by Coillte and ESB Wind, a subsidiary of the ESB.

In a previous High Court judgment, Raheenleagh Power had been deemed a public authority for the purposes of requests made under the AIE [Access to Information on the Environment] Regulations.

However, the Court of Appeal has now overturned that decision saying Raheenleagh Power is not a public authority and therefore, requests for information cannot be made to it.

The decision has widespread implications for public authorities and public bodies that set up subsidiaries or designated activity companies, or other similar spin-offs to carry out their business.

This is already a common practice, especially within the commercial semi-state sector and also among local authorities.

Yesterday’s decision appears to put all such subsidiaries beyond the reach of the AIE Regulations, and seems certain to encourage public bodies to set up such vehicles to avoid transparency over their activities.

Particularly problematic for us is the idea that such a company – originally a joint venture between two public bodies – could be considered “autonomous” and totally separate.

This seems difficult to reconcile when all of its directors (at least at first) were staff members of ESB and Coillte.

The court did find that Raheenleagh met part of the test of whether it was a public authority because it had been given powers to compulsorily purchase land.

However, the court said it wasn’t a public authority in that it had not been entrusted with a service of public interest.

The judgment said: “The generation of electricity is no longer the provision of a service in the public interest.”

The judgment is available here and we are currently considering whether it will be appealed.

New crash deck installed on Skelligs because of “significant concern” over repeated rock falls

The OPW have had to install around 100 metres of new crash deck on Skellig Michael to protect visitors amid “significant concern” over repeated rock falls on the island.

The UNESCO world heritage site – which has become increasingly popular with tourists since featuring in Star Wars – had to be shut temporarily in June after a rock measuring half a metre by half a metre tumbled onto a walkway.

Reports from the OPW warned that rockfalls would continue to be an “ongoing problem” and that it would never be possible to remove all risks from falling debris on the island, but only mitigate them.

An inspection report completed in the summer said: “This fact is obviously significant in health and safety terms with the requirement that the mitigation to deal with it must be as comprehensive as possible and should be put in place immediately as required.”

HSE logged 2,000 data breaches last year including more than 1,000 relating to Covid-19 vaccination certificates

The HSE reported more than 2,000 data breaches last year including almost 1,050 where Covid-19 vaccination certificates were sent to the wrong person.

Other incidents notified by the health services including the discovery of patient lists outside a public premises in Donegal and on the grounds of a hospital in Galway.

In June, a breach was reported where a third party had accessed data related to Covid-19 testing in “an unauthorised manner”.

There were also dozens of cases where appointment letters were sent to the wrong person or to the wrong address or email account, according to records released under FOI.

Missing files were also reported on numerous occasions as was one case where a car was broken into and an “appointment book disturbed”.

In Galway, old patient medical charts were accessed by a third party who had entered a derelict property in the county.

Another case involving a disability service in Co Clare saw the personal information of a service user shared with their ex-partner.

In Limerick, a patient chart was located by a member of the public in June while in one breach, the incorrect results of interview ratings in a job competition were disclosed to third parties.

There were also deliberate breaches reported including one in the west of the country where an employee “intentionally accessed [the] medical records of [a] colleague”.

Official timeline of the chaos aboard Irish Rail services during the Bray Air Show

A garda insisted that the doors of a DART train stranded on the day of the Bray Air Show be opened with passengers inside already “distressed”.

A timeline of the events – which brought chaos to transport services in late July – explained how it took just six and a half minutes before the first passenger forced the doors of a train open after it came to a stop in sweltering conditions.

It explained how after one train came to a stop on the train line, both the gardaí and coast guard had requested the doors be opened so passengers could be evacuated.

Seven minutes later, the driver reported that a garda sergeant at the scene now “insists that doors should be opened” to let passengers disembark.

Another entry in the timeline said many on board were being evacuated through a local golf course; however, a “large group of trespassers” were moving north along the train line towards Shankill in South Dublin.

Irish Rail received around sixty formal complaints in the aftermath of the disruption with one passenger saying they were stuck on a train that was “rammed and hot”.

“The driver seems oblivious of the dangers of what is happening,” they said, “please tell him urgently, then call me. We need to move or get off the train.”

Another wrote: “Why’s the DART to Bray stopped? My daughter is in it with her two-year-old … it’s a bloody sauna, so dangerous. People just forced the doors open and everyone getting out onto the tracks. What’s going on? Sort it out!”

Data on sick leave among gardaí and prison officers including details on impact of malicious injuries and mental health illness

Gardaí have lost nearly 134,000 days of duty over the past two years after officers suffered injuries while on duty and were forced off sick.

That included more than 33,000 days of illness where a garda suffered a malicious injury while at work and 266 days of sick leave for officers maliciously attacked off-duty.

In total, An Garda Síochána reported more than 204,000 days of illness last year with around 35% of that due to injuries suffered by members.

There was a total of 71,761 days of sick leave attributed to occupational injury last year including 41,281 days where an accidental injury was suffered.

A further 5,747 illness days were caused by road traffic accidents with just over 17,500 days resulting from malicious injuries, either on or off duty.

There were also 455 sick days marked as a work-related musculoskeletal injury, and 6,098 attributed to an occupational injury from duty.

Separately, prison officers have had to take more than 17,000 days of sick leave over the past two years due to mental health issues including stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic attacks.

The Irish Prison Service said that last year 257 officers had been off work for a combined 5,769 days due to psychiatric or psychological issues.

That worked out at an average of 22 days per illness for the officers as some staff struggled with the stress of their volatile and sometimes dangerous working environment.

The toll of stress on prison officers was even higher in 2020, according to data released under FOI, when 11,492 days were taken due to mental health issues.

That worked out at an average of nearly forty-four sick days each for the 262 officers who had to take time off because of stress, anxiety, or a related illness.

Eighty four complaints from prisoners last year about assaults, ill-treatment, racial discrimination, or intimidation

Prisoners made more than 900 formal complaints last year including over eighty relating to assault, ill-treatment, racial discrimination, or intimidation.

The Irish Prison Service said they had received 84 Category A complaints last year, which deal with the most serious of allegations.

More than a third of those – or thirty individual complaints – related to a single prison, Cloverhill Remand Prison in West Dublin

There were a further 17 Category A complaints at the Midlands Prison in Co Laois, and nine from the high-security jail at Portlaoise.

Embassy credit cards used to pay congestion charge fines, hotel bills, and £2,100 for handmade chocolates

Irish embassy credit cards were used to pay congestion charge fines in London, for the purchase of GB£2,100 worth of handmade chocolates, to pay an Airbnb bill for a Paris apartment of €3,800, and for tens of thousands of euros in hotel costs.

Copies of card statements from some of Ireland’s most high-profile embassies detail how congestion charge penalties of GB£80 were paid on two separate occasions at the Embassy in London.

The U.K. Embassy also paid out more than £2,100 on handmade chocolate from the Kerry-based artisan producer Dingle Chocolates, with a further £827 spent with the same supplier on a later date.