Extravagant festival of mourning for Mrs Thatcher

Culture Company Project Director Dermot McLaughlin. Picture Martin McKeown. Inpresspics.com.. 29.10.12
Culture Company Project Director Dermot McLaughlin. Picture Martin McKeown. Inpresspics.com.. 29.10.12

The reason so many people are enraged by tomorrow’s funeral plans is that they are designed to present the former Prime Minister not as a partisan figure but as a leader who transcended politics and whose ideas can be taken as representative of the “nation”. The funeral is not a “national” occasion but a political event against which citizens are fully entitled to protest.

This, it goes without saying, doesn’t give anybody of any age a right to attack the Fountain or any other community. But is does mean that distaste for the extravagant festival of mourning is inevitable, right and proper.

It will be remembered that the wearying saga of industrial relations at the North West Regional College seemed to have come to an end last Februarv with the publication of the McConnell Report charting the way towards a fairer way of working. The report was accepted by all sides.

Last week I asked a long-standing member of NWRC staff how things were working out.

These things do take time. But I had assumed that the simplest and most easily deliverable recommendation had by now been implemented.

This was that NWRC principal Seamus Murphy, head of Human Resources Kate Duffy and Governing Body chair Bertie Faulkner should resign from roles on six-county wide bodies so as to concentrate on their “day-jobs” at the college. Mr. Murphy was joint Chair of the Lecturers’ Negotiating Committee, Mr. Faulkner was Chair of Colleges NI, Ms. Duffy was chair of Regional Human Resources.

All that was needed was a short letter withdrawing from these positions. But there’s little sign any one of the three has taken this course.

What does this say about the chances of the more challenging recommendation being implemented?

The Strategic Investment Board issued a statement eight days ago purporting to correct “errors of fact” which had allegedly appeared in this column regarding organisation of City of Culture (CoC). Lack of time and space prevented an adequate response.

The statement provided further evidence of the need for a thorough examination of the criss-crossing relationships between the SIB, some officials of Derry City Council and the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minster.

In the circumstances, it is remarkable that staff at the Culture Company (set up to run City of Culture), individual council employees and enthusiasts from arts and cultural bodies across the city have so far delivered an impressive and in some instances brilliant programme of events.

The difficulties created by the SIB are illustrated by its denial that the Culture Company had been put under pressure to sign a statement praising Dermot McLaughlin’s contribution to City of Culture and wishing him well for the future. Mr. McLaughlin had resigned as Project Director of the year-long event after just five months. The affairs of the Dublin body of which he had previously been CEO - the Temple Bar Cultural Trust - had fallen into chaos amid reports of questionable practices: its board has since voted to wind the Trust up.

Said the SIB: “SIB did not make efforts to persuade Culture Company to join its commendation of Dermot’s contribution, nor did it make any appeal to officials in OFMDFM to intervene and convince Culture Company to do so.”

The questions which arise include: Was a statement prepared by a senior SIB official for release under the names of the Culture Company, the City Council and the SIB commending Mr. McLaughlin for his time with City of Culture? Did the Culture Company tell the SIB official to remove its name from the statement? Did a representative of the SIB then contact or threaten to contact an official of OFMdFM with a view to OFMdFM pressing the Culture Company put its name to the statement?

The answer to each of these questions is yes. It would be invidious at present to name the SIB official concerned, but this could change.

Mr. McLaughlin was appointed to City of Culture in October last year. No vacancy had been advertised. Nobody alerted the Culture Company to the existence of the vacancy. Thus, some were bewildered when Mr. McLaughlin took up the job and told the media that he would be the “linchpin” of City of Culture.

The SIB explanation for the helter-skelter pace of these events is that, “The number of suitably qualified individuals willing and able to become the Council’s Project Director at short notice was not large and because of the urgent need to start work, there was not sufficient time to go through the normal open recruitment process.”

This does not sit easily with the SIB’s statement carried in the Londonderry Sentinel last month that a business case for Mr. McLaughlin’s appointment had been “approved in line with normal procedures.” So there was time to draw up a business case - but no time to tell the Culture Company? Pull the other one.

Responding to my criticism of Mr. McLaughlin being appointed to a public-sector post at a salary more than £20,000 a year above his Temple Bar earnings and with city-centre accommodation thrown in - at a time of pay-freeze for public-sector workers across the board - the SIB says that, “He was not recruited on a Civil Service salary scale because SIB is not part of the Civil Service. Dermot, like all other SIB staff working on projects in Derry-Londonderry, is paid by SIB from SIB’s budget.”

But the fact that the SIB is not a civil service body doesn’t give it a right or impose a duty to ignore public sector pay scales. What’s at stake here is public money, which we are constantly told is in desperately short supply. Who has given the SIB authority to set salaries at whatever level it fancies? The Department under whose remit it operates, OFMdFM? Or is it on a solo run? We should be told.

And who within the SIB has authority to set exceptional salaries for particular posts to be paid from the public purse? From where or whom is this authority derived?

The SIB says: “Dermot’s resignation did not follow on a meeting with SIB’s Wesley Emmett. The insinuation that SIB sought to encourage Dermot to resign has no basis in fact.”

Is the SIB saying that Mr. Emmet and Mr. McLaughlin did not meet on the Tuesday before the Thursday on which Mr. McLaughlin resigned? Or that they did meet but didn’t discuss Mr. McLaughlin position? This was at a time when the details of Dermot’s difficulties in Dublin were being widely discussed. But the two men had a chin-wag at which this just didn’t come up?

Possible. But plausible?

October was a hectic month for City of Culture manoeuvres. The reference to “urgency” in the SIB statement was not misplaced. But what had created this urgency?

On October 3rd, Council chief executive Sharon O’Connor wrote the now-notorious letter telling Culture Company CEO Shona McCarthy to shift staff immediately from Culture Company premises to City Council offices - but to leave communications and marketing boss Garbhan Downey behind. Downey handed the letter to the media. On October 5th, he was suspended. Downey had been vocal in opposing what Culture Company staff had seen as a “money-grab” by the Council for Culture Company resources.

Eleven days later, the City Council announced the appointment of a new head of marketing for City of Culture. The Culture Company was not consulted about this either. The new marketing chief was Fiona Kane, a senior member of staff at the SIB.

A fortnight later, it was learnt that Mr. McLaughlin would be arriving to take on his role as “linchpin” and “Project Director.”

The reason all this matters is that while most Derry people saw City of Culture as a joyous event to be enjoyed by all, others were acting to acquire control of an event which could bring prestige and extra influence.

In any event, the result of all the cack-handed antics has been to disrupt the smooth running of the body with responsibility for the day-to-day delivery of the programme. The hiring and then resignation of Dermot McLaughlin have been symptomatic.

The other reason is that this tangled affair is not unique but reflects the phenomenon whereby public money is dispensed by unelected and effectively unaccountable bodies which allocate public-sector jobs at sky-high salaries on a basis which is unclear to anyone outside the loop. Meanwhile, small community groups applying for meagre funding have to account for every penny and the jobs and wages of “ordinary” people are under constant attack.

We might leave things there for the moment. Unless I am provoked in the meantime.