Michael Noonan linked to City of Culture job row

Alan English, editor


Alan English, editor

Noonan link: the finance minister sought a new structure to secure funding for Limerick City of Culture - the board of which is overseen by chair Pat Cox. Picture: Sean Curtin
THE sequence of events which led to a major political controversy around the appointment of the CEO of Limerick City of Culture shows that Minister Michael Noonan played a prominent part in the process which saw a senior council executive sidelined and replaced as project leader.

THE sequence of events which led to a major political controversy around the appointment of the CEO of Limerick City of Culture shows that Minister Michael Noonan played a prominent part in the process which saw a senior council executive sidelined and replaced as project leader.

This followed unhappiness at Government level over the quality of the application for funding, which sources said threatened the viability of the entire project.

“It has been difficult having to defend a process which I knew was very real,” said Conn Murray, city and county manager and the man who made the appointment.

“Because quite simply, the money wasn’t coming. That’s the way it was going to be.”

The recent appointment of Patricia Ryan as City of Culture CEO, without the position being advertised, has drawn criticism all week both locally and nationally. Ms Ryan is former special advisor to City of Culture chairman Pat Cox, but any suggestion that he influenced her appointment has been vigorously denied.

Concern was first raised a week ago by the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, John McGuinness, who also sought assurances about the allocation of the €6 million City of Culture budget recently sanctioned by the Government.

Mr Noonan’s Fine Gael running mate in Limerick, Kieran O’Donnell, who is deputy chairman of the PAC, told the Leader that he was not present at the time when Mr McGuinness made the remarks and only learned about them in media reports.

Considerable disquiet about the appointment process has been aired since the story first broke.

One of the most vocally critical city councillors, Tom Shortt, said this Wednesday that “for the success and the integrity of the City of Culture project Ms Ryan must step down now”.

He described Mr Murray’s robust defence of the appointment process as “not acceptable” and claimed that “the silence of the board members who are responsible for the success of City of Culture is deafening. They must come out of hiding and address this situation urgently.”

However, Mr Murray has gone on the offensive and provided the Limerick Leader with a detailed account of the events which led to Ms Ryan’s appointment.

He has already strongly denied suggestions in the national media that Ms Ryan might be paid a salary of €170,000 and has now questioned how the Public Accounts Committee was “fed” the information about the appointment process in the first place.

“That totally inaccurate figure of €170,000 got people’s attention in the media, eventually. Whoever was responsible did so, in my opinion, purely to cause damage. Now whether it was political damage they were trying to cause or personal damage, they have managed to do both.”

In another development, the CEO of Shannon Airport, Neil Pakey, who is a member of the City of Culture board, also strongly defended Mr Murray’s actions in making the CEO appointment, which was confirmed only weeks short of the beginning of the City of Culture year.

“I would probably step off the board if I thought it couldn’t achieve what I think it can achieve,” said Mr Pakey.

“I would reconsider my position if I felt it was going to come off the rails in any shape or form and at the moment, under the leadership of Conn and Patricia, I am quite convinced that we can deliver a cracking year.

“We have done our best to get passenger numbers up for next year so that the visitors will come. So I am looking at it and thinking, I need the product to be right for all these people. I want them to leave Shannon Airport having come to Limerick thinking, ‘I want to come back.’ And that is the bottom line for me. I want to come back because it was a great experience. And so we’ve all got to pull in one direction to make it a great experience. And we don’t have long. It’s nearly December.”

An application for funding was sent to the Government this June, but it was not well received.

“By July we were hitting a wall,” Mr Murray said. “I would have regular meetings with the Minster for Finance, that is one of the privileges I have – access to the minister. The agendas consistently cover the merger, the economic development and the City of Culture. Those three items have been on the agendas for the last eight months because I was consistently pursuing the issue of how do I get funding.

“It would have been part and parcel of those meetings that the minister would have expressed his view that he was not satisfied with the type of proposal that was coming to him.”

The man with overall responsibility for the City of Culture project was Kieran Lehane, the final city manager appointed before Mr Murray headed up the joint authority.

However, Mr Lehane’s direct involvement in the proposal document sent to Jimmy Deenihan, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, was very limited. Like Ms Ryan, Mr Lehane has little experience in the area of arts administration.

It is understood that the proposal was mostly put together by the City of Culture artistic director Karl Wallace and city arts officer Sheila Deegan. Mr Wallace had only started in his new role and thus they had little time to pull the programme together.

Furthermore, the huge uncertainty over the level of funding that Government might grant the project and the exceptionally tight timeframe that those involved were working to caused considerable difficulties and led to mounting frustration in the wider arts community about why little information was emerging.

Limerick’s status as Ireland’s first City of Culture was only confirmed by Mr Deenihan on July 3, 2012. That left only 18 months before the year began.

Derry, a city comparable to Limerick and the current UK City of Culture, had a considerably longer lead-in time to facilitate planning and had its budget of in excess of £20 million in place at an early stage.

Limerick, by contrast, only learned of the €6 million Government funding when Mr Noonan unveiled his budget on October 15. This chronic shortage of time has ultimately resulted in the controversy which insiders believe may undermine efforts to secure an additional €4 million in funding from the private sector.

Little happened between July, when Mr Deenihan made his announcement, and November, when he told the Leader that “some financial allocation will be made for the initiative”.

Without any funding secured, it was left to Limerick City and County Council to find the contribution of €187,000 that enabled a structure to be put in place to run the City of Culture year.

The first priority was to appoint a board that carried clout and three Freemen of Limerick - Mr Cox as chairman, Riverdance composer Bill Whelan and rugby star Paul O’Connell - agreed to join the new board. The next step was to appoint an artistic director and Mr Wallace was given the role after the post was advertised.

However in late July, having been forcibly told at Government level that the proposal was regarded as unsatisfactory, Mr Murray took the decision to restructure the management of the project.

It is understood that Government ministers, including Mr Deenihan and Mr Noonan, believed the proposals sent to them were insufficient to secure the success of an ambitious programme and would not appeal adequately to the wider public beyond the artistic community.

Mr Murray asked Ms Ryan to radically overhaul the proposal and she spent the month of August doing so, after intensive consultations with Mr Wallace and others based at City Hall, such as Ms Deegan.

At the same time, Mr Murray began the recruitment process which has led to the current controversy.

He rejects suggestions that Ms Ryan was parachuted into the role without being part of any selection process - albeit the road he went down was not an open one.

She had been taken on in late January in a limited capacity, as an advisor to a board which met only once a month. Mr Murray says he learned of her availability through numerous conversations he had about the project in January, insisting that Mr Cox was not consulted.

As well as being made aware of dissatisfaction at Government level, Mr Murray says the City of Culture board was also “unhappy with the management structure which I had put in place around the City of Culture. So I came back with a revised structure, which had a project manager at that point in time. I suggested that Patricia be put in on an interim basis, in order to get the co-ordination working.

“We had to get something to the department which was credible and deliverable. This was the end of July when the board approached me. At that time I made clear decisions (reassigning Mr Lehane to a different portfolio that Mr Murray says is of equal importance in the context of council business). But I also, over the August period, identified a number of people and followed through with meeting those people in early September.

“I had somebody with me in relation to those conversations (he named a senior council official). In total I interviewed five candidates. They included Patricia. I worked around their timetables. The issues that came up was that they couldn’t start immediately in some cases. In other cases they weren’t satisfied with the salary I was prepared to offer. But there was no doubting the competency of the people I was meeting.

“There was one individual from Northern Ireland, one from the UK who was Irish, and then two from the Mid-West and one from the South-East. It was a headhunting exercise, pure and simple.

“Based on that, I said ‘We have someone very good.’ I listened, saw what the quality was, and knew what Patricia could do.

“The immediacy of the appointment was important. The ability to pick up and run. A bit of passion in coming from Limerick did no harm. There was a combination of factors that sold it. Patricia was prepared to negotiate around the salary limit that I could work with. That was where the recommendation came from.”

Reflecting on a week which saw him propelled into the national spotlight, Mr Murray said: “Sometimes things have to be done. There’s a good reason why public servants sometimes don’t do things – because they don’t get themselves in trouble. And that leads to inertia. And Limerick had enough of that.”