A candidate in the local elections in Limerick is being sued by a Galway development firm amid claims he sought €360,000 to withdraw a planning appeal.

Pat O’Neill, an Independent candidate, appealed to An Bord Pleanála a decision by Galway City Council to grant permission to Strategic Land Investments Ltd (SLI) for one of the largest ever developments proposed for Galway.

The company has claimed in High Court proceedings that Mr O’Neill and his agent offered to withdraw the appeal in exchange for the payment of €360,000, a practice more commonly known as seeking “go-away money” to prevent the blocking of a property development.

Both men have vehemently denied the claim and are defending the legal action against them.

Mr O’Neill, who is from Clonmacken in Caherdavin, was a Fianna Fáil candidate in the 2019 local elections in North Limerick but left the party this year. He is now running as an Independent candidate in the June 7th elections.

Mr O’Neill said he was “absolutely” defending the action taken by SLI and denied the claim that he asked for a fee in exchange for withdrawing his appeal.

“It’s all there with my solicitor. Everything is in writing. Everything has gone in. We have outlined all this. Yes, we will be defending it,” he said.

His co-defendant Liam Carroll of Rooaunmore, Ardrahan, Co Galway, who acted as an agent for Mr O’Neill in their engagement with SLI, has also denied the payment claim.

“I will be lodging a defence and counterclaim to the proceedings,” he said in an email.

In October 2020, SLI submitted an application for a six-hectare site on the north side of Galway City that included multistorey office blocks, 309 apartments, a hotel and a leisure centre.

In December 2020, Mr O’Neill made submissions to the council setting out objections to the development through a Belfast-based planning consultancy.

Galway City Council granted permission for the development on August 11th, 2021.

On August 31st, 2021 Mr O’Neill submitted an appeal to An Bord Pleanála. He was the only objector to the development.

He argued that the proposed development was contrary to strategic policy and to the city development plan’s zoning objective, that it constituted overdevelopment, and was contrary to guidelines for spatial planning and national roads.

The statement of claim in the court action submitted by SLI in September 2023 stated it was contacted by Mr Carroll later in the autumn of 2021 and told Mr O’Neill had given him legal authority to act on his behalf.

Correspondence took place between Mr O’Neill, Mr Carroll and the company, mainly through Finian Hanley, a director and shareholder. Some meetings and conversations also occurred.

The statement of claim has outlined that Mr O’Neill texted Mr Hanley on November 11th, 2021 to say he had given Mr Carroll authority to engage with SLI.

On December 6th, according to the statement of claim, Mr Carroll texted Mr Hanley to say he was contacting him “to establish a resolution of the contentious matters” .

“Without prejudice to me in any capacity, I am assured and understand the sum of 360k, will address the matter in full and final to end all matters [sic],” he wrote.

“I am assured this offer will stand until close of business tomorrow. I do not believe this opportunity will arise at any stage later in the process – as there was a lot of work done to get to this position … .

“In fairness, there is now a window of opportunity available, which will allow everyone to move on immediately.

“Should you accept, my fee will be 1 per cent,” wrote Mr Carroll, signing off the text “Liam”.

The statement of claim alleges that “essentially (Mr Carroll) was stating unequivocally that the planning appeal would be withdrawn on payment of €360,000 and his fee of 1 per cent”.

After further negotiations, SLI refused to pay the sum or the commission, the firm claims.

The following year, in September 2022, An Bord Pleanála refused permission on a number of grounds, including that the development would materially contravene the zoning objective for the site and would be contrary to strategic development policy and objectives for the city.

SLI has claimed both Mr O’Neill and Mr Carroll were involved in a conspiracy, the primary object of which was to “unjustly enrich themselves”.

The company is seeking damages for alleged loss as a result of the two other parties bringing the appeal to the planning board. SLI has also alleged it was subject to attempted intimidation, attempted blackmail and extortion, and was also subject to fraud and deceit.

SLI submitted an application for judgment in default after no defence was submitted by either Mr O’Neill or Mr Carroll. The application was heard on February 9th this year.

Mr O’Neill was represented at the hearing and was given an extension until June 10th to submit a defence. The court heard Mr Carroll had written to the judge, seeking an adjournment in relation to his case, and was granted one until July 8th.

In response to queries, Mr Carroll confirmed he would be defending the case and denied that Mr O’Neill had asked for money to withdraw the planning appeal.

“At no stage, nor at any time, did Pat O’Neill request or demand money from the applicants of the proposed development in exchange for the withdrawal of his valid submission made to An Bord Pleanála,” he said in response to queries from The Irish Times.

Mr Carroll said Mr O’Neill held “significant financial business interests that conducted business from three retail shops located in Galway City Centre notably Shop Street and Eyre Square”.

“On the basis the proposed development would adversely affect the viability of Mr O’Neill’s business interests operating from the three locations located in Eyre Square and Shop Street, a submission was made outlining to the local authority, and subsequently, to An Bord Pleanála,” he said.

“The submission proved valid.”

He said he was looking forward to giving evidence and having the dispute with SLI resolved in court.

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