Cork council merger special report: Call for inquiry into plan; Review outcome seemed ‘predetermined’

Eoin English reports on the latest developments from the Cork council merger plan.

Call for inquiry into Cork merger plan

- Eoin English 

There have been calls for a public inquiry into the Cork Local Government Review process after revelations that senior civil servants pushed the positives of local authority mergers.

The Oireachtas environment committee should also examine the role of civil servants in the process, and how the review committee was chaired before its controversial recommendation in late 2015 to merge Cork city and county councils. That proposal has been shelved, and the subsequent Mackinnon review has recommended keeping Cork’s two local authorities and extending the city boundary.

Cork County Council is opposed to the scale of the Mackinnon extension and has formally offered to cede a smaller area of land.

Cllr Terry Shannon led calls for a public inquiry at last night’s city council meeting after the Irish Examiner published extracts of files linked to the review process which were released to Cllr Chris O’Leary under freedom of information. Mr O’Leary, who was congratulated for his pursuit of the information over two years, said he did so to ensure the process, and those involved, were held to account.

Mr Shannon said the revelations were “unprecedented in public administration in Ireland”. “There must be a public inquiry into what were attempts to stitch up the city,” he said.

Earlier, city council CEO Ann Doherty confirmed to councillors that City Hall has received Cork County Council’s formal request to alter its boundary with the city. She said the city has six months to consider it. A mechanism has been agreed internally to deal with issues relating to boundary issues, she said, and the council’s request will be dealt with using those mechanisms.

Review outcome seemed ‘predetermined’

The outcome of the review of Cork’s local government structures appeared predetermined, the process lacked transparency, and its majority findings were not evidence-based, the former environment minister was told.

The claims were made by Dr Theresa Reidy and Prof Dermot Keogh, who united to oppose the merger proposal recommended by the majority members of the Cork Local Government Review (CLGR) committee in September 2015.

Their claims, contained in an email released for the first time under freedom of information legislation, underline the scale of their concern over the entire review process.

The CLGR merger report sparked a political storm, triggered a judicial review, and resulted in the Smiddy report subsequently being shelved following the Mackinnon review, which is itself causing controversy.

Dr Reidy and Prof Keogh were among the five people appointed to the statutory CLGR group by former environment minister Alan Kelly in January 2015.

Theresa Reidy and Dermot Keogh dissented from the majority finding of the local government committee.

Documents released to Cllr Chris O’Leary, a former lord mayor, under FoI show how hours after the CLGR met on August 24, 2015, to consider their final draft report, Dr Reidy emailed Mr Kelly, on behalf of both her and Prof Keogh, to say they both “dissented” from the committee’s majority finding on the amalgamation of Cork city and county councils.

She said they disagreed with substantial sections of the content of the report and could not agree with most of the subsequent recommendations.

“The far-reaching conclusions reached by the committee majority is not evidence-based,” they wrote.

“Due diligence was not sanctioned by the committee when requested by us.

“In our view, the process lacked transparency and the outcome often appeared to be predetermined.

“We will not sign the report as drafted and will submit a minority report to you by September 2.”

The email from Theresa Reidy and Dermot Keogh to then environment minister Alan Kelly highlighting their concerns about the CLGR process.

In a statement to the Irish Examiner, Mr Smiddy said that Dr Reidy and Prof Keogh only made their views known at the start of the CLGR’s final committee meeting.

“The two academic members of the committee, very surprisingly and without any advance knowledge, having been meeting together for almost nine months, stated in separate letters presented to the chairman at the outset of that meeting, that they could not sign the final majority report of the CLGC, which was actually fully considered and signed off and approved by the other members of the committee at that meeting,” he said.

“They stated that they would individually be outlining their position to the minister.

“When they left the meeting and within a week they prepared a ‘minority report’ — which came ‘out of the blue’, as this was never previously raised or discussed at committee meetings, and consequently was never put before the committee.”

Mr Smiddy said the content of their minority report was never discussed or reviewed by his committee as it only became available when the agreed majority report was being submitted to the department.

“Even some of the recommendations within the minority report were never once raised or discussed at committee meetings during the review period (eg: recommendation five on migration — recommending that Cork City be prepared to take larger numbers of refugees),” he said.

“The minority report was then attached to the final CLGR and submitted to the minister in early September.

“At no point in the previous nine months was it stated by any committee member that he or she was contemplating issuing a minority report. It just was never said and never formed part of our review.”

Alf Smiddy and Alan Kelly

Mr O’Leary said the academics’ email clearly shows the scale of their concerns, and underlines why he felt it was important to pursue the FoI request for the last two years. “I did it in the interests of transparency,” he said. “These academics put their professionalism on the line and the documents show that their expertise was discarded.

“Lessons must be learned from this entire process — and such processes must be open to scrutiny.”

Smiddy advised to ‘take time’ over final report

- Eoin English

A senior civil servant advised Cork Local Government Review (CLGR) committee chairman Alf Smiddy that it was important the committee be seen to take their time before issuing a final report in an effort to avoid accusations of a rush to judgment.

The comments are revealed following an email update from Mr Smiddy to the department in May 2015, in which he said the committee was now moving into private consideration of the information it had gathered.

Established in January to report by September, the CLGR committee met almost weekly throughout 2015. By early February, it is clear from documents that some committee members expressed concerns internally about the September deadline.

But Mr Smiddy said he wanted the committee to focus on having the bulk of its work done by summer.

In an email update to department officials on March 6, he expressed satisfaction with the pace of the CLGR group’s work, and said: “Let’s keep the momentum going to deliver our report ahead of schedule, if possible.” In an email to Paul Lemass on May 14, Mr Smiddy said the CLGR group had gathered most of the material it needed.

“We are now moving into the third phase of our work which involves the committee in private fully considering all aspects of the information gathered, against a multi-criteria evaluation analysis which we are now working on,” he said.

He assured Mr Lemass that the group would consider everything thoroughly with a view to recommending to government “the best possible local government structure for Cork that will stand the entire region and its citizens and local economy in good stead for the next 50 years”.

He said as a “proud Cork man, with extensive family, business and educational connections in the city, in north, east and west Cork”, he only wanted the very best for Cork and all its citizens as the committee tried to “galvanise everyone in the region around a vision that sees Cork prosper in the years ahead”.

But against the backdrop of mounting public concerns that a merger was the likely outcome, the department sounded a note of caution.

Its official, Denis Conlan, emailed Mr Smiddy on May 18 with information on the “city region concept” — a key element of a policy which was being prepared by the Department of Enterprise and Jobs — but which was not yet public.

May 18: Department official emails Alf Smiddy and asks him not to distribute a policy paper. He also suggests it would be a good idea for the committee to be seen to take its time to avoid accusations of a rush to judgement.

Mr Conlan said it was for Mr Smiddy’s own information and that more information may come into the public domain before the CLGR report is finalised.

However, in the email, it is clear Mr Conlan was aware of concerns that were mounting locally about the possible outcome of the CLGR process.

“On the question of finalisation of the report, recent publicity regarding some differences at local level would lead one to think that it may be important that the committee is seen to take as much time as possible in reaching its conclusions and avoid any possible accusations of ‘rushing to judgment’,” he said.

Committee chair wanted to ‘blow apart’ arguments

- Eoin English

The chairman of the Cork Local Government Review (CLGR) committee said he wanted to “blow apart” the arguments presented by the two committee members who opposed its majority merger recommendation.

Alf Smiddy also expressed concerns that the committee’s two academics, Theresa Reidy and Prof Dermot Keogh, may be leaking confidential information.

And he suggested changes be made to the wording of the final CLGR report after Dr Reidy and Prof Keogh had submitted their minority report.

The revelations are contained in a series of emails released to Cllr Chris O’Leary under Freedom of Information legislation.

Dr Reidy emailed then environment minister Alan Kelly on behalf of herself and Prof Keogh on August 24, 2015, saying they could not sign the committee’s majority report, and would be submitting a minority report recommending the retention of Cork’s two local authorities and a city boundary extension.

On August 28, Mr Smiddy emailed Richard Boyle, of the Institute of Public Administration, who was drafting the final report, and dismissed the minority report as “very general, not in any way evidence based, and the recommendations appear very light”.

Later that evening, he copied department official Denis Conlan in an email he sent to Mr Boyle in which he wrote: “Feel free to strengthen the majority report further in light of anything you might see in the minority report. (I want to blow apart their 8 recommendations on p56 in our report…

“The majority report and anything we say in there does not have to be approved by the minority and we don’t need to send back to DK or TH.” He went on: “I want to ensure our [the majority] report wins the hearts and minds of the people of Cork.”

He also suggested to department officials how Mr Kelly might respond to the academics’ email. In an email to Paul Lemass on September 3, he supplied a draft memo “setting out options as a response”. But in his foreword, he said he’d be concerned that “minority members are leaking confidential information, and fear that a response from me of this nature if passed on by the minister to them will get into the public domain.

“My sense is that they may actually want to illicit such a response, but I feel that we certainly do not want a public spat between those who supported the majority and the minority. The report is just too important for that nonsense.”

The email contains a suggested statement, written by Mr Smiddy, that he believed the minister could issue by way of response to the academics’ email.

The statement refers to the “professionalism and rigour” in the way the committee managed and processed everything, and concludes by thanking Dr Reidy and each member of the committee for their time, hard work and efforts. Mr Smiddy suggested the minister could respond thus: “He could go on to say that in due course, and perhaps in the new year, he will call into UCC and specifically would like to visit the Political Science department to learn more of the degree course, the masters programmes and in particular, research activities.”

Smiddy defended review committee

- Eoin English

Alf Smiddy mounted a robust defence of his stewardship of the Cork Local Government Review (CLGR) committee just days before the formal launch of its controversial merger report.

Documents released to Cllr Chris O’Leary (SF) under freedom of information legislation show Mr Smiddy emailed senior department officials with a detailed defence following claims about a lack of transparency and due diligence, and accusations that the outcome was preordained.

In an email to department official Paul Lemass on September 3, Mr Smiddy said he had consulted with the three majority members of the CLGR who all took “grave exception” to the comments made by minority members Theresa Reidy and Prof Dermot Keogh.

“It would appear to be yet another attempt by those supporting the minority position (who appear highly disgruntled) to discredit and undermine the facts, the evidence and the substance of the majority recommendations,” wrote Mr Smiddy.

He said the majority report draws clearly from relevant national and international reports and experience, and from historical evidence.

“There is no evidence whatsoever to support a contention that the minority report is more strongly evidenced that the majority report — on the contrary in fact,” said Mr Smiddy.

Alf Smiddy

The evidence across all key measures in favour of the majority position was “overwhelming”, he said.

“The minority group position is largely based on theory and generalisation, and they were not in a position to demonstrate to the committee any convincing arguments to support their case,” wrote Mr Smiddy.

“The majority of the committee were satisfied that the information provided by Cork City Council on the financial and staffing impact of boundary extension was sufficient for the purposes of drawing conclusions regarding the scale of change likely.”

Mr Smiddy said the entire review process was “clear, open, and transparent” and involved extensive face-to-face engagement with individuals and groups, and extensive engagement with both the city and county councils in particular.

On the point of a predetermined outcome, he said the majority committee members approached the review with “independent minds from the outset”.

“No pre-judging of the outcome was made by those who supported the majority position.”

Mr Smiddy concluded by saying he realised the academics “appear disgruntled” with the majority position, adding: “Sadly, their report is neither rigorous nor convincing, and indeed is seriously lacking in substance and tangible evidence to support their case.

“It is not grounded in any sense of practical reality and — as stated in the majority report — is unworkable. Indeed it seems to replicate the failed and highly fractious attempts at extending the city boundary over the last 50 years leading to the preservation of the status quo.”

READ MORE: Special Report: Documents reveal how senior officials prepared pro-merger information


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