Eamonn McCann - Council chief has questions to answer

Derry City Council chief executive Sharon O'Connor  has questions to answer.
Derry City Council chief executive Sharon O'Connor has questions to answer.

Over a period of months, this column has raised a series of questions about the organisation of City of Culture. Perhaps we will have answers this afternoon.

The questions concerned the hiring of a number of personnel at what many would consider inappropriate salaries to positions already defined as coming within the remit of the Culture Company (CC). Others focused on the procedures used in recruitment and how those awarded the positions had been alerted to the vacancies - given that no-one at the CC seemed aware that the vacancies existed until they read of the appointments in local media.

I explained last week it had been ‘Project Director’ Dermot McLaughlin who had first noticed that there was a need for an ‘Events Producer’. Mr. McLaughlin had been seconded to City of Culture from the Temple Bar Cultural Trust (TBCT) in Dublin at a salary in excess of £100,000 a year. He went back to Dublin after five months. The TBCT is now in the process of being wound up.

The man appointed to the position which Mr. McLaughlin had identified, John Storm Farquhar Smith, is paid as a ‘consultant’ at a rate of more than £1,000 a day. His appointment was made on the advice of recruitment agencies by officials not of the CC but of the City Council.

A council spokesperson has explained that there had been a “tender process”, then added: “It is our understanding that some individuals may have been aware of the position and contacted the agencies directly.”

Here’s a couple of new questions: did the individuals mentioned by the council as having been aware of the vacancy include John Storm Farquhar Smith? If so, how and by whom had Mr. Storm Farquhar Smith been made aware?

What is meant by “directly”? Did he ‘phone some unnamed recruitment outfit and say, “I believe you are looking for a consultant for the City of Culture thingy over in Derry, I’m your man?

How did Mr. Storm Farquhar Smith know what agency to call?

The city council meets this afternoon. Chief Executive Sharon O’Connor will, as always, be in attendance. This is the arena in which she reports to the elected representatives on her stewardship of the city’s affairs.

Perhaps she will be asked to provide a narrative account of her role in relation to the appointments of Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Storm Farquhar Smith.

Maybe she will be invited to explain the coincidence whereby Mr. McLaughlin was appointed just days after Garbhan Downey had refused to go quietly from his job as marketing and communications manager of the Culture Company following a remarkable attack by Ms. O’Connor on his performance – endorsed by no-one at the CC. Downey was suspended and has since been sacked. Will Ms. O’Connor be asked how and why it came about that the body delivering the programme which has rightly earned sky-high praise in recent weeks was cut out of key decisions and appointments, seemingly on her say-so?

These are not just reasonable but necessary questions to be asked on behalf of the people of the city. Ms. O’Connor, after all, is accountable to the councillors - not the other way round. There appears to have been some confusion on this score, too.

It may be that some have assumed that if they ignored these questions, we’d weary of asking them. Wishful thinking.

Of course, if the answers don’t come from Ms O’Connor, we will be left to speculate, and we will.