Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the INS claimed a report used by the two colleges to justify the closure of the Irish Marine and Energy Research Cluster (IMERC), in Ringaskiddy, Co Cork, contained “inaccuracies and unsubstantiated assertions”.
A senior naval officer said that the flawed report could result in reputational damage for the Naval Service and for individual officers.
The INS described the decision to close IMERC as “short-sighted”, given the time and effort devoted to the project and “its significant achievements and impacts.”
The Naval Service confirmed it had no role in the decision to close the facility, despite being a joint partner.
The Department of Defence tried to prevent the Naval Service’s disquiet about the closure becoming public.
The facility was designed to make Ireland a world-leader in the commercialisation of marine research, and the decision to close it was made on foot of a controversial report commissioned by UCC and CIT, in 2016, which concluded it was “not fit for purpose”.
IMERC was established jointly by the two colleges and by the Naval Service, in 2010, to facilitate collaboration among its partners, including the National Maritime College of Ireland, a constituent part of CIT, and the Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy, which is coordinated by UCC.
The report, which was carried out by five international experts chaired by Paul Haran, a former secretary general of the Department of Enterprise and Employment, warned that UCC, CIT, and the INS were being unduly exposed to reputational and financial risk by poor public procurement, and by poor public relations and financial and human resource management at IMERC.
In a draft reply to a media query (which was withheld by the Department of Defence), Commodore Hugh Tully, the flag officer commanding the Naval Service, said inaccuracies in the Haran report would be addressed in a further report, but this did not happen to the satisfaction of the Naval Service.
“There was no apparent financial review carried out, as part of the review process, and yet the review made some significant, unsupported findings,” Cmdre Tully said.
“The review did not highlight the substantial achievements and impacts of IMERC and this remains an outstanding issue.”
Asked if he believed the Naval Service’s views had been incorporated in the Haran report, Cmdre Tully replied: “It wasn’t apparent.”
Start-up businesses that used IMERC’s incubation hub at Ringaskiddy also expressed anger and frustration at the closure. They claimed the report’s findings were “inaccurate and biased” and failed to reflect their positive view of IMERC’s role in assisting new firms.
It is understood that the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Mike Mellett, was also deeply unhappy at the decision to wind down IMERC.
In his profile on the website of the Defence Forces, Vice Admiral Mellett is described as “a founding member and champion” of IMERC.
Documents show the INS had no role in setting the terms of reference of the review of IMERC and it was only presented with the report after it had already been accepted by the presidents of UCC and CIT.
The criticism of the Haran report by the Naval Service is contained in a draft reply to a media query, which was released under the Freedom of Information Act.
When asked for a response to a detailed series of questions on the closure of IMERC, in August, a non-critical statement was issued by the Department of Defence, although questions were submitted directly to the Defence Forces.
The statement contained no comment on the attitude of the INS to the report’s findings and the related decision by UCC and CIT to withdraw funding and staffing from IMERC.
Documents now show that the Department of Defence informed the Defence Forces that it did not consider it “appropriate” to respond in detail to the questions posed.
The department’s head of operations, Clare Tiernan, said she believed that it “would be better to issue a general response to the questions asked, rather than an individual response to each question.”
Ms Tiernan said the responses proposed by the Naval Service “give rise to serious further questions on the governance structure provided by IMERC’s governing authority.”
The senior civil servant also expressed concern that “these issues are now being raised through the media over a year after the independent report has been published.”
Details of the report only become public earlier this year, after questions about IMERC were raised by the Dáil Public Accounts Committee.
Records show that Cmdre Tully wanted to answer the questions directly “to accurately reflect his position on IMERC” and “to ensure the list of IMERC achievements were recognised.”
While Cmdre Tully did not insist on his reply being released to the media, he asked that any alternative response would be issued by the Department of Defence, as it was “not representative of his views.”