Former financial controller alleges unfair dismissal by Cork Opera House

Former financial controller alleges unfair dismissal by Cork Opera House

Cork Opera House has appeared before the Labour Court. Picture: Des Barry

Cork Opera House has appeared before the Labour Court following allegations of unfair dismissal by a former financial controller.

Dermot O’Driscoll took the case after his employment was terminated in 2016 following allegations he made of “endeavours to misrepresent financial reporting and recording” by a former senior member of the company.

Junior Counsel Rachel O’Flynn representing Cork Opera House said this was the gravest of allegations. 

In the eyes of senior figures at Cork Opera House, it was tantamount to the crime of fraud, something which Cork Opera House took extremely seriously, she said.

The allegations were investigated, including by an independent auditor, and were found to be unsubstantiated.

Although Mr O'Driscoll was given two weeks to retract the allegations, he declined to do so, the court heard.

Following investigations into his allegations, Mr O’Driscoll was found guilty of “insubordination and gross misconduct” by a disciplinary committee.

But due to his “significant positive impact” on the company, he was not fired.

His “trojan efforts” had helped turn the company's fortunes around when it was in financial difficulty and he had no previous history of disciplinary action, the court heard.

He was allowed to stay in his role but with some “essential safeguards”. 

One of these was signing a letter of undertaking which would preclude him from repeating his allegations. 

Mr O'Driscoll said the terms of this letter of undertaking were too onerous. He said he could not sign it because it would contravene his statutory rights, legal obligations and would prevent him from making disclosures to the Workplace Relations Commission. 

He said he then received a letter when he was on annual leave informing him that the company would take his refusal to sign the letter as a resignation and his employment would be terminated. He later received his p45 by post. 

"I wrote back: ‘I have not resigned and want to return to work’," he said.

Initially I tried to comply with the letter of undertaking as much as I could.

“This could have been solved by putting in a sentence like ‘as long as it complies with the law’.”

Losing his job resulted in the loss of two years salary at €65,975 gross per annum before he reached retirement, he said. 

Mr O’Driscoll had first made the allegations of endeavours to misrepresent financial recording and reporting by a former senior figure in Cork Opera House at a Workplace Relations Commission adjudication when he appealed the terms of a new contract he was given in 2015.

Mr O’Driscoll said that when he began his tenure at Cork Opera House in 2010 he was given a verbal contract. 

But in 2015, he said he was presented with a contract which would allow the Opera House board of directors to change his position and reduce his wages without consultation.

“They could change my position or reduce my salary as they wished. I couldn’t accept that,” he said.

Following the allegations, he was suspended on full pay while investigations were carried out. 

"I was dumbfounded, I couldn’t move. Eventually I did and I was escorted to the door like a common criminal,” he said.

In 2015, he had also made disclosures that endeavors were made to miscategorise Opera House employees as contractors, or to miscategorise Irish workers as foreign workers for tax purposes.

But investigations found that these miscategorisations never actually took place, and as no fraud had been committed, the disclosures did not count as protected disclosures under whistle-blower legislation.

“As the financial controller, I had responsibilities,” he said. “I did my best.”

Cork Opera House says that it did not fire Mr O’Driscoll. It says he resigned because he refused to sign the letter of undertaking.

Deputy Chairwoman of the Labour Court, Louise O’Donnell, said the court must establish if there was a dismissal in the case or whether it amounted to a resignation.

The case, being heard in the Metropole Hotel in Cork, was adjourned.

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