Dublin City Council officials stood by their commendably forthright manager at yesterday’s Dáil hearing, writes Noel Baker.
FORGET the lyrics of Garth Brooks — yesterday, words made famous by another country and western signer came to mind as Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan and his colleagues appeared before the Oireachtas: ‘Stand By Your Man’. Or in this case, your manager.
Yesterday’s Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications was the first chance for TDs and senators to grill anyone attached to the concerts debacle since Brooks issued his tear-stained statement on Monday night, finally ruling out once and for all any prospect of the shows taking place.
The decision by the local authority to issue licences for just three of the five concerts has been endlessly debated, generating much heat but little in the way of light. With his opening remarks yesterday, Keegan sounded assured and authoritative as he outlined a sequence of events and the mechanics behind a decision which has created shockwaves on both sides of the Atlantic.
First, he explained how the decision-maker in this instance was the man to his right, DCC executive manager Jim Keogan, who was assisted in his work by the man to his left, John Downey. Both men consulted with Keegan before the final decision was taken, the committee was told.
He stressed — again — that the decision cannot be amended or appealed, and that the process cannot be reopened. He said if the Brooks situation exposed “certain weaknesses” in the system, then that was a matter for the Oireachtas to amend legislation or the environment minister to amend the relevant regulations.
Again, we were told that the licence application was not lodged until April 17, despite all five shows having been sold out before Valentine’s Day, and how, typically, what with the consultation process and other elements of the process, it can take 10 weeks after an application is lodged for a decision to be issued. In this case it was 10 weeks to the day.
Keegan said the decision was “appropriate, balanced, and reasonable, given the competing interests” and that nothing had occurred since the decision was taken to convince him it was the wrong decision.
So far, so good, but then the “complexity” of the situation came to the fore.
Keegan outlined how, in contact with Jim Clark from Aiken Promotions, he had advised him that there was a likelihood of just three shows being sanctioned, and that, in response, he had been told that only five would do. Then came the idea — and it was only that, he said — of a fourth concert, an idea that was subsequently shot down. “It wasn’t a commitment, it was an offer,” he said. “I can be rightly criticised for making that offer; looking back on it, I regret that I did.”
As to whether or not the city council should have intimated at an earlier stage that all five shows would not be licensed, he gave a sigh of exasperation, stating that it would not have been appropriate until DCC had fully processed the decision as otherwise it might have prejudiced the decision-making process.
No formal pre-planning application consultation took place — and it seems everyone agrees that if it had, the situation would not have unfolded in such an unseemly manner. Such a consultation is not mandatory, but as both Keegan and Keogan stated, it might be best if it were.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing,” Keogan said. “We would all welcome it being mandatory to have promoters in for formal pre-consultation meetings before the tickets go on sale.”
Instead, regarding notification of five concerts, he said: “We were not asked for an opinion, it was a statement of fact. It was just notification of their intention to sell the tickets.”
The committee heard that the first signs of a possible Brooks residency in Croke Park emerged via a mid-December phone call to an office of the council for the venue manager, indicating the possibility of two shows. However, between then and the end of January, there was “no formal or informal contact”, Keogan said, by which time the two shows had sold out and a third had been added.
On January 31, a phone call was received by DCC from the venue managers to say they were proceeding with concerts four and five and the tickets would be going on sale. Keegan received a call from Jim Clark of Aiken on the Sunday night — February 2 — saying tickets were going on sale. On February 4, at a pre-arranged meeting about a different event, DCC told Aiken the concerts were “a big ask”. No minutes were taken.
Then came the issue of the allegedly fraudulent submissions. Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald put it to Keegan that he had been “negligent” in not assuring the bona fides of the submissions and that this was a “key point on which this decision hinged”. He was then hauled up by McDonald on an earlier comment, that granting all five shows would have been “a complete sell-out to the applicant” and an “indefensible position” for the council.
As far as committee members were concerned, there was another misstep from Keegan in his dealings with them. A letter sent to the committee last week, voicing some concern over any GAA affiliations some members might have, raised the hackles. Committee chairman John O’Mahony — an All-Ireland winning manager — instantly pinpointed it, Timmy Dooley found it “objectionable”, Patrick O’Donovan found it “insulting”, and Keegan formally withdrew the letter and apologised for any offence caused.
Ironically, any suggestion of a conflict of interest was batted back in the direction of the city council representatives when it emerged that Keogan owned a property, his old family home, in the shadow of Croke Park, and that his son still lives there. Owen Keegan said he only became aware of this fact yesterday, but said it was more relevant where Mr Keogan lived today and has done for some time, namely Skerries. Asked if he had known of the family connection earlier, would he have delegated the job to someone else, he said: “I don’t believe I would, but I will deal with that if it comes up again.”
It was put to him that the proposal for matinee shows, put forward by Aiken Promotions, was “ridiculous” and he confirmed that he had expressed this view to the promoter.
By the end, Keegan was still commendably forthright, even if he and his colleagues seemed less sure-footed with each jabbing question. As the local authority’s top earner, with an annual salary of €175,721, it is Keegan’s job to stand over the licensing decision, even as immense pressure was applied from all angles. He has done that, repeatedly mentioning the “integrity” of the process and how this must be retained. “No one can unduly influence the decision,” he said, seemingly referring to the Brooks camp. He said “There was a “willingness to be flexible” within DCC but “there was absolutely no budge from the other side”.
As he worked his way through his career to reach his current position, you have to assume Keegan never once considered the possibility that he would one day be engaged in a shadow boxing contest with Garth Brooks, a battle of wills in which everyone, from the Taoiseach to the Mexican ambassador — even a statement from a White House official — has had their say.
Yet for all the red faces, a planning decision has been adhered to, despite multiple calls for the rules to be bent to fit a bizarre and ever-changing situation. For once, an Irish solution was not provided for an Irish problem.
Today Aiken Promotions and the GAA are before the same committee, and another country classic comes to mind: Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’.
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