Words are easy but action comes slow

Get promoted. Mess up in your job. Retire on a massive taxpayer-funded pension without any sanction or penalty. 

The body you leave behind has to clean up. 

The taxpayer has to again pay for the mistakes, either by way of compensation or legal fees. Accountability, Irish style.

Last month, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was under fire in the Dáil after it emerged the State would be footing the bill to support former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan’s defence in a pending case being taken by whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

While saying he wished the outstanding cases McCabe is taking against various State bodies should be settled, Varadkar was pressed about what happens to those who smeared him.

After the Disclosures Tribunal found that Callinan engaged in a campaign of “calumny” against McCabe, the opposition parties in the Dáil sought answers as to why the State would even consider coming to his aid.

Varadkar said the decision to legally support Callinan in his defence was being reviewed. 

He also said advice was being sought from Attorney General Séamus Woulfe on pursuing Callinan and his former press officer, Dave Taylor, for contribution to damages that may be paid to McCabe as part of the likely settlements.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said given the damning conclusions of the Disclosures tribunal, Callinan should not receive “one red cent” to fund his defence.

Varadkar replied that the decision to offer support to Callinan was taken in July, ahead of the publication of the third interim report of the tribunal.

He said he shares the public anger at repeated sight of senior public servants “who get involved in wrongdoing sailing off into the sunset with golden handshakes”.

However, he added that “we have to be conscious of people having paid into their pension funds”, in response to a question from Social Democrat Róisín Shortall.

“Firstly, pensions in Ireland are property rights. If a person pays into it,” he said. 

"For everybody who pays into their pension, it then becomes an entitlement. It is not a gift, it is something into which people have paid. 

"We have to consider pension rights and property rights and whether or not the public would want to give us the power to take away somebody’s pension rights.

“The second issue that would need to be considered is due process. 

"While there are people who have sailed off into the sunset with very generous pensions and lump sums, there are also those people who have been very unfairly hounded out.

“We would need to make sure there is due process in that regard, and consequences for those people who have hounded them out.”

For those of us who genuinely would like to see a whole new attitude towards accountability, Varadkar’s comments were a welcome departure. 

So far, though, they remain just that. Words.

This week, we got yet another example of outrageous behaviour by senior office holders, who have since retired, and are therefore beyond the scope of sanction or retribution.

I refer to the special report released this week by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) into the awarding of pension top-ups by the University of Limerick (UL) to two senior members of staff, at a cost of €1.2m.

All this was done on the watch of president Don Barry, who retired in 2017 and was honoured for his service to the university on the way out the door.

The C&AG savaged UL not only for the dubious top-ups but also found the university under Barry repeatedly misled him, the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, and the Department of Education.

The report by the C&AG revealed that in December 2012, two senior executives, who were employed by one of its commercial subsidiary companies, were seconded onto the UL’s payroll and given the full pension benefits of core staff.

This move resulted in one of the employees getting an additional six-figure State-backed pension benefit.

As set out by RTÉ’s Conor Ryan, formerly of this parish, in an article on the C&AG report, Plassey Campus Centre (PCC) is a subsidiary of UL and is not covered by the university code of governance or the public service pension scheme.

Its staff are supposed to be signed up to a defined contribution scheme separate to UL’s public service scheme.

However, in December 2012, two senior executives of PCC were added to UL’s defined benefit scheme just as it was about to be closed for good.

Neither person’s contract required this and there is only limited documentation referring to it in recent years.

Despite this, in November 2011 UL’s director of finance recommended that the two staff members have their arrangements restructured so that they would be employed directly by UL and this would address any pension claims.

The C&AG report said there is no record of any consideration being given to adopting similar arrangements for the rest of PCC’s staff, other than the two senior executives.

In one person’s case, their pension benefits should have been €396,400 when they retired in 2014; instead their pot on retirement was €1,140,900.

The second person, who has yet to retire, will receive up to €424,000 more from their pension than they would have if the transfer had not happened.

The report states: “As a result of the 2012 arrangement, they were awarded an entitlement to very significant additional pension benefits. 

"The university failed to keep adequate records in relation to the assessment of the claim, the decision to second the executives, and to award university pension benefits.”

The report also found that when the senior staff member who benefited from the €745,000 uplift in their pension retired in 2014, UL hired that person back on a one-day-a-week contract.

UL was this week criticised by members of the PAC for misleading it over the pension top-ups in public session.

Chairman Sean Fleming and member David Cullinane expressed their deep disappointment and anger at the actions. 

“That they misled this committee, the C&AG, and the department is incredible,” said Cullinane.

UL said the actions of its former management was “wholly unacceptable”.

It said it rejects the view put forward by Barry, its former president, that the severance packages and follow-on consultancy contracts were separate and distinct, and absolutely maintains they should be regarded as the one severance arrangement.

Current University of Limerick President Prof Des Fitzgerald
Current University of Limerick President Prof Des Fitzgerald

“This was repeatedly misrepresented to the relevant State bodies,” said the university. 

“This is wholly unacceptable practice for a public university. 

"Such practice cannot happen today at UL due to the controls that have now been put in place at the university and the approach of the new leadership.

UL has held its hands up and said what went on was “appalling”. 

Current president Des Fitzgerald has some work to do to turn the ship around.

As for Barry, we asked this weekend what UL is doing with him, given all he oversaw. 

“Well, what can be done, he’s gone,” was the response from one source. 

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