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'It's like we're in an episode of Father Ted': Top civil servants contradict each other when questioned

Civilian members of the gardaí gave evidence in front of the Public Accounts Committee today.

Updated 9pm.

Today further revelations about the finances of the garda college in Templemore were made in front of the Public Accounts Committee. Five top civil servants in the organisation were grilled by politicians about their roles in this controversy. They are:

  • John Barrett, executive director of human resources and people. At the last PAC hearing, he openly contradicted Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan about a meeting they had in relation to Templemore’s financial irregularities.
  • Niall Kelly, head of internal audit. He conducted the recent audit that revealed the extent of the financial issues. Last time he appeared before the committee, he said he felt he had been “duped” when given assurances in 2011 that issues he identified would be addressed.
  • Michael Culhane, executive director of finance and services. A letter he wrote castigating Kelly was the subject of media coverage last week.
  • Ken Ruane, head of legal affairs. He issued a letter to the Commissioner urging her to inform the Minister for Justice 15 months before she actually did so.
  • Joe Nugent, chief administrative officer.

THE EVIDENCE GIVEN by civil servants of An Garda Siochana to the Public Accounts Committee has been likened to “an episode of Father Ted”.

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald said she hasn’t seen anything “quite as shambolic as this”.

It feels like we’re trapped in an episode or even a serious of Father Ted. Nobody is responsible for anything, everybody knew everything yet nobody knew anything, and it’s absolutely astonishing.

A top civil servant in An Garda Síochána today revealed that there are five tax numbers connected to the garda college in Templemore.

The revelation emerged this afternoon in the second Public Accounts Committee hearing on the college’s irregular finances. Five senior civil servants in the organisation appeared before the committee including Chief Administrative Officer Joe Nugent, who told politicians about the five tax numbers connected to Templemore.

He said one was the main An Garda Síochána number and three related to the college’s restaurant, bar and shop. The fifth was for the controversial Sportsfield Co company that an internal audit found was being used to transfer public funds to various external entities, including the Garda Boat Club.

When asked whether each was tax compliant, Nugent told the PAC that the organisation is currently “in discussions with Revenue” about it. He did confirm that the bank account for the bar was closed, but again, when pushed about whether tax returns had been filed up to date for each of these numbers, he said he would “revert on the issue”.

“This is the Public Accounts Committee, it’s not a case of being able to revert”, Labour TD Alan Kelly told Nugent.

If you know an answer and fail to give it, that’s a very serious issue.

Kelly said, “This is a crisis for our country. The evidence that has been given here today, to me, means we have a crisis in our country in relation to the gardaí and our justice system.”

Tension

The session today saw the five civil servants openly contradicting each other’s evidence numerous times. TD Catherine Connolly noted: “People are swimming to save themselves at this point.”

Fianna Fáil Shane Cassells described their exchanges as “bordering on hostility”.

“All from people who are supposed to be on the same side,” he said.

There were particular tensions between the executive director of finance Michael Culhane and two of the other senior civil servants, Niall Kelly, who is head of internal audit and John Barrett, executive director of HR.

Correspondence provided to the committee showed criticisms by Culhane of both of these men. In one letter, he had referred to Kelly’s opinions as “unprofessional, misleading and mischievous”.

Another letter, written to the Commissioner and a number of other top-level gardaí a year ago, questioned whether Barrett might be in breach of Official Secrets Act in posting documents to himself in relation to these irregularities.

Barrett was particularly agitated in today’s hearing, revealing that he tried three times himself and four times through his solicitor to gain access to documents relating to him.

When eventually released to him under the Freedom of Information Act, he said 85% was redacted. This letter about him was, however, handed over to the PAC in its entirety yesterday and this is how Barrett first learned of its existence.

He said it “reflects the situation in its reality” that he had no knowledge of a criminal allegation against him.

Reservations 

At one point in the hearing, Labour’s Alan Kelly asked each of the five civil servants in turn whether they had confidence in top management in An Garda Síochána. From Nugent, Culhane and head of legal affairs Ken Ruane he received a simple, “Yes”.

Barrett told the PAC he has “some reservations” and Nially Kelly responded that he had “some questions”.

In his opening statement, the head of internal audit spoke of attempts to undermine him or to influence him to change his audit findings.

He also said there “was and may still be in some parts of An Garda Síochána a culture of not admitting to problems and when these problems persist, trying to keep them in-house and away from transparent public scrutiny”.

Despite his reluctance to express confidence in top management across the board, Kelly did say he has confidence in Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan and in Deputy Commissioner Donal Ó Cúaláin. He is currently conducting further audits in relation to Templemore and he said “doors are being flung open” to facilitate this work.

The Cabra bank account

The final revelation of the hearing came from questioning by Fine Gael’s Josepha Madigan. She asked Barrett whether he was aware of any other bank accounts that haven’t already been discussed.

“I believe there may be some that have not yet been fully audited by Mr Kelly,” he replied, later confirming he was aware an account may exist at an AIB bank in Cabra, north Dublin.

He said his understanding was that this account related to EU funding. When asked by Madigan whether this funding was being used for something other than what it had been meant for, he replied: “I don’t know”.

When the matter was made known to him recently, he said he gave the information to the head of internal audit.

Kelly confirmed he is currently undertaking two additional and specific audits in relation to Templemore’s finances. One relates to EU-funded projects and programmes dating all the way back to 1998. He hopes to have this completed by 13 July, when Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan is scheduled to appear back before the committee.

The committee reconvenes at 5pm this evening. You can watch it live here

Additional reporting by Cliodhna Russell.

Read: Massive infighting among top gardaí over Templemore scandal>

Related: The Garda Commissioner, the head of HR and the ‘brief’ two-hour meeting in Templemore>

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