Frank Dunlop: will be sentenced on Tuesday

On Tuesday, Frank Dunlop will learn his fate. He is due to be sentenced at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court on five sample charges of corruption. He has pleaded guilty to bribing councillors engaged in forming the Dublin Development plan in the early 1990s.

The charges relate to a rezoning decision in Carrickmines, Co Dublin, potentially worth around €50m to the beneficiaries of the rezoned land. Carrickmines is one of up to 20 rezonings in which Dunlop says he bribed councillors for their votes. Tens of millions were made by landowners as a result of Dunlop's bribery. It is impossible to know how many of these tranches of land would have been rezoned if councillors had been left to their own erratic devices.

All the councillors deny being bribed. All the landowners deny having any knowledge of bribes being offered to have their land rezoned. Dunlop is the only person to face corruption charges. So far. As things stand, he says, he bribed councillors on behalf of clients, but the beneficiaries of both the bribes and the corruption claim to have known nothing about what Dunlop was doing. Strange, but, it is alleged, true.

Dunlop has said he will cooperate with any prosecutions against the councillors he says he bribed. However, the bribes were a pittance, a thousand here, two there, the odd five for the greedier souls. The figures are pathetic in the context of what was at stake.

If Dunlop is to be believed, these boys gave literal interpretation to Yeats's line about fumbling in the greasy till. They sold their mandate for the price of a half-decent holiday.

If there are further charges, it is most likely they will be heard in the District Court, and any guilty verdict will attract minor penalties. Bent councillors aren't the only ones who put a cheap price on the corruption of democracy. The law, as it stands, doesn't seem too worried about it either.

It is highly unlikely that any landowners who benefited from Dunlop's bribery will be charged with anything. These are the people who really hit paydirt in the rezoning racket. Overnight, muck was turned into gold, as councillors exercised their quasi-judicial function in the name of the common good.

Fortunes were made on the back of a punt and the retention of Dunlop, who waved his magic wand, seducing councillors to lend their votes. The victim was the common good, which was robbed of something that can't be measured in euro or specific physical injury.

The Criminal Assets Bureau (Cab) is locked in a High Court battle over the Carrickmines land, but so far it doesn't look as if Cab will go after anybody else. The main beneficiaries therefore appear to be in the clear from criminal or civil sanction.

Dunlop wasn't the only one who stuck his oar into the planning process. Fianna Fáil TD Charlie O'Connor told the Mahon tribunal that a party whip was in place for rezonings when he was a councillor in the early 1990s.

Councillors are obliged under their office to vote in a quasi-judicial manner on rezonings. That means they must vote according to what they personally perceive to be the best course in the public interest. But, according to Charlie, Fianna Fáil bosses had only to look into their own hearts to know what their individual councillors were concluding in the public interest. Rarely did the word go down from on high to vote against a rezoning. This, after all, was a pro-development party.

We are asked to accept that it is mere coincidence that a whip, which was technically illegal, was applied to benefit landowners and developers who, in turn, filled the party coffers.

Spot the difference. Individual councillors fumble in the greasy till for the price of a holiday. Party policy dictates that the interests of landowners and developers are served for the price of funding the retention of power. If only the poor councillors knew how short they were selling themselves.

No evidence has emerged suggesting Fine Gael had a similar whip system in place, but the record of their councillors varied little from that of their civil war adversaries.

That was then. Now, we are told, everybody is honest, or, at least, more fearful of getting caught. This is nonsense. It may well be that no councillor will now accept money under the table from an intermediary such as Dunlop.

It may well be that no party will place a whip on members in an organised fashion. But there is more than one way to twist a councillor's arm.

There is no reason to believe that the common good is any better served in planning today than it was in the early 1990s. Any system that bestows huge wealth overnight on a landowner – usually increasing the value by a multiple – will continue to be the subject of corruption. A councillor with bad thoughts might be too scared to accept a bribe these days, but that doesn't eliminate corruption.

As long as the system prevails, the common good will take a beating. The Kenny report recognised this truism 36 years ago and recommended a system in which rezoned land was valued at agricultural prices plus 25%.

This would be abhorrent to free-market ideology and vested interests. No government – and precious few politicians – has been willing to bat for the common good against such opponents. So corruption in planning is here to stay. It just mightn't involve naked bribes anymore.