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University of Limerick criticised for its failures in policy, attitude and honesty

THE TWO employees in the University of Limerick’s finance department who remain suspended from their roles for two years with pay should be reinstated “as soon as possible”, Fianna Fail deputy Willie O'Dea has urged.

Deputy O’Dea said that the women were “treated terribly by certain elements of the university’s senior management” and stressed that the way whistleblowers are dealt with and treated needs to change.

“The new president, Dr Des Fitzgerald has, I hope, turned a new page for the university. I hope that under his tenure the institution becomes more transparent and open.

“I would urge Dr Fitzgerald to immediately lift the suspension of these two people,” he urged.

Fianna Fail deputy Niall Collins, who also raised the case of the UL whistleblowers in the Dail more than a year ago, said he was pressurised and verbally abused by senior staff members in UL, following his own disclosures in the Dail.

Commenting after a RTÉ Investigates programme into financial affairs at UL and other third-level institutions, Deputy Collins said that the “contempt and disdain demonstrated by the University of Limerick to basic principles of oversight and accountability is staggering”.

“This has to change. When I, along with Willie O’Dea, raised these issues in Dáil Éireann I received pressure from people within UL to pull back.

They also attempted to continue to discredit the whistleblowers.

“One senior staff member of UL verbally abused me for raising these issues in the Dáil whilst I was canvassing during the last general election,” Deputy Collins told the Limerick Leader.

However, he said it is “very refreshing” to see the open approach by the new UL president in dealing with these issues.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald, a graduate of UL and a member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said it is now clear that representatives of UL “failed to be fully frank or give full information” to the PAC when they came before the board in relation to its finances this March.

Ms McDonald said she is now “more concerned than ever” that the new independent review of UL affairs should be as rigorous as possible.

Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan, who was Minister for Education at the height of the controversy, said she was “shocked at the number of unanswered questions, many of which did not come to light in the HEA-initiated investigation”.

Deputy O’Sullivan said that it is essential “that the clouds that hang over it [UL] are lifted and that we know that public money is not abused and that there is full transparency in how it is spent and how decisions are made”.

Referring to the legal action taken by UL against the Limerick Leader and its former editor Alan English over its original report on these issues, Deputy Catherine Murphy, Social Democrats, another member of the PAC, said: “When you see things like a small local newspaper where the editor is personally put at risk … I think it is deeply disturbing.”

Another PAC member, Catherine Connolly, said the State is “utterly dependent on whistleblowers” — including several in UL — who have contacted the committee “in desperation”.

“Yet they suffer tremendously and are demonised. We have the whistleblowing legislation. To me it is an illusion. It gives legal protection. But on the ground, whistleblowers, he or she does so at a great personal cost.”

Leona O’Callaghan, the original whistleblower in the UL saga, who brought her complaints regarding UL’s finance department to the PAC in 2012, saw her claims rebuffed by the then president, Professor Don Barry.

Her claims eventually went before a full hearing at the PAC this March — five years after she originally sought to bring them to public attention.

One of the two suspended staff members in UL’s finance department — both of whom raised similar issues — replaced Ms O’Callaghan in that department.

“It is almost like they [in UL] are a god onto themselves and they get to make their own decisions and nobody holds them accountable,” Ms O’Callaghan told RTE Investigates.

PAC chairman Sean Fleming said he is concerned that UL misled the Department of Education and the Comptroller and Auditor General during an inquiry into its payments of unauthorised and excessive severance packages to senior managers.

The unauthorised severance payments were originally spotted by the Comptroller and Auditor General as part of a special report in the management of severance payments in the public sector.

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