Comment: UL still in denial and refusing to recognise human cost


Alan English, editor


Alan English, editor

Comment: UL still in denial and refusing to recognise human cost

The University of Limerick

THE Mazars report into allegations made by three female whistleblowers at the University of Limerick vindicates all three women, two of whom are currently suspended by the University of Limerick.

When the Limerick Leader’s Anne Sheridan first broke this story, UL’s response was to issue High Court proceedings against both the newpaper and me personally – an unprecedented reaction. We stood over our story then and will continue to do so.

The Higher Education Authority’s response to the Mazars review is also a comprehensive vindication of the Leader’s call, in a front-page editorial last September, for an independent review into these matters.

The HEA has made numerous strong recommendations arising from the Mazars review and stated that it expects these to be implemented in the shortest possible timeframe. None of these recommendations would have been forthcoming if the whistleblowers had not shown the courage to come forward.

The HEA states clearly that instances of irregular claims by staff occurred in the university, and that these were correctly challenged by the whistleblowers. Furthermore, the HEA is concerned “that there may have been, or may still be, a culture in the university of inappropriate claims being made, until challenged”.

UL’s rejection of that concern is very much in keeping with its outlook to date. It initially went into attack mode, using public money to issue High Court litigation in an attempt to gag the Leader. Now it is in a state of denial, as evidenced by a selective response (below) which fails to properly acknowledge its own failings.

It is regrettable that UL does not address individually the recommendations made by Mazars and listed by the HEA. Neither does it properly address the substantive issues at the heart of this review.

It is important to state that the terms of reference for the review were narrow and were not solely concerned with financial matters. The report raises serious issues related to HR policies and processes at the university.

In reporting this story, we were extremely mindful of the human cost involved to the whistleblowers.

We have stressed from the very beginning that we believe that UL has brought great pride to the people of Limerick throughout its history, and the university and the Limerick Leader have had a positive relationship for many years, but as a newspaper we have a responsibility to hold public institutions to account, in the public interest.

We regret that – unlike the HEA response – the UL statement fails to acknowledge the notable contribution and public service performed by these women, who have described their experiences as enormously stressful and painful over a sustained period. Their view has always been that in seeking to highlight problems, they became the problem – rather than part of the solution. We share that view.

These matters were first brought before the Committee of Public Accounts (PAC) in early 2012 by Niall Collins TD, but it was only when the first whistleblower, Leona O'Callaghan (Person A), read the Limerick Leader report about the difficulties endured by Persons B and C that her original allegations were brought into the public domain.

We believe the PAC should now properly examine this situation, with a wider remit than that held by Mazars.

Among many other things, we suggest the PAC should examine the severance agreement proposed to two whistleblowers, just days after they had been found guilty of making a “malicious complaint” about a colleague.

Why were these employees, now vindicated and thanked for their public service, offered two years’ salary each, almost €60,000, in return for the termination of their employment when they facing disciplinary action that led to their suspension? That generous offer – of public money – was conditional on them signing a confidentiality agreement. They were also obliged to withdraw their complaint under the Protected Disclosures Act.

Had they signed that agreement and taken the money, the public would be none the wiser about the serious issues raised in this week’s report. The wider public should be thankful that all three courageous women took the principled stance they did.

Is it asking too much for UL to acknowledge that too?