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The St Patrick's Day Parade in Dublin in 2022
St Patrick's Day

Council and Fáilte Ireland 'strongly disagreed' with month-long St Patrick's Day Festival plan

Two reports on the festival have been released in redacted form.

FÁILTE IRELAND AND Dublin City Council “strongly disagreed” with plans put forward by the then CEO of the St Patrick’s Day Festival to turn the event into a month-long celebration, according to a report into the governance of the festival.

Two separate reports on the festival were commissioned by the Department of Tourism.

The first report was commissioned in November 2018, with management consultants EY undertaking a review of the operation and future of the festival. This was presented to the department in July 2019. A second report, an “Independent Governance Review of the St Patrick’s Festival Company”, was carried out by the Institute of Public Administration (IPA) and presented to the department in May 2020.

The reports were released on foot of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, but with key findings, much of the analysis, and most recommendations redacted. 

This was appealed to the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC), which upheld the decision to redact much of the reports.

The OIC said releasing the redacted parts of the IPA report “could reasonably be expected to result in a material financial loss to the company, or could prejudice its competitive position” and “could give rise to reputational damage and prejudice the competitive position of the company in its engagement with potential sponsors or investors”.

Refusing to release the EY report in full, the OIC said that the Department “must have the necessary time and space to engage in deliberative processes that enable proper consideration of all relevant issues”, adding that “release at this time could result in negative speculation without the mitigation which could be provided by a policy decision and direction”.

The OIC noted the department’s position that “neither report highlighted any serious irregularities in relation to governance but identified a need to update some aspects of governance to bring it into line with current company law”.

Independent councillor Mannix Flynn has called for the reports into the festival to be released in full, in particular the recommendations, given public money is spent on the event.

Expansion

One finding that is visible in the IPA report concerns friction in early 2019 between the festival board, the executive, and its then principal funders (Fáilte Ireland and Dublin City Council) in relation to the proposed 10-year vision and strategy.

In February 2019, then CEO of the festival Susan Kirby spoke to the Irish Times about the festival’s 10-year strategy and vision, which would see it grow from a five-day event into a month-long celebration across Ireland.

Opening and closing ceremonies, multiple concerts, a festival village and a symposium were all outlined as potential events in the festival’s future.

However, according to the IPA report, the publication of the Irish Times article “caused significant friction and also considerable email correspondence and commentary”.

The report outlines how some “key stakeholders” felt that the article was promoting a vision and strategy that had not yet been agreed by the Board, though it was being discussed and deliberated upon.

The report also states that:

Very surprisingly, there is considerable divergence of views and recollections amongst Board members as to whether or not a) this strategy has been approved by the Board, or b) it is the right strategy for the organisation given its resource constraints.

The report also notes that Dublin City Council and Fáilte Ireland “strongly disagree with the strategy and idea of expanding to a month-long celebration”.

“There was a view expressed that acknowledged the good work and commitment of the executive, whilst also a serious concern that the Company is overstretching itself in trying to promote and facilitate a wider Festival programme than resources allow,” the report states.

It was felt that [the festival] should be focused on the key objectives per the letter of offer etc. In this context, it was suggested that the Festival should refocus its ambition around a small number of core events.

However, the report also indicated that some board members were supportive of the strategy on the basis that it “reflects the further evolution of the festival and the celebration, and there was “a clear sense that it is rightly ambitious and reflects what can be achieved”.

“For these members, it was subject to detailed discussions and input by the Board over various meetings,” the report stated.

Elsewhere, in a section on “reporting to stakeholders”, the authors found that the festival had “significant engagement across a wide range of stakeholders, led by the CEO”.

Conclusion

The conclusion of the IPA report states that the review led to “a series of findings” in accordance with its terms of reference. These findings, however, have been redacted in the document released to The Journal.

“It is clear from the review and the detailed interviews that there is a deep commitment to and strong support for the festival and an honest desire, from all stakeholders, to ensure that the festival is a success,” the conclusion states.

The IPA report was based on a review of internal documents and on interviews with executives, board members and funders. The terms of reference were to review the festival company’s memorandum and articles of association, governance structures and arrangements, and reporting.

Long-term vision

One section of recommendations that was partly released from the earlier report by EY in 2019 was titled: “How could a long-term vision and strategy involving all the stakeholders benefiting from the Festival be co-constructed?”

The consultants noted here that the impacts of major events and of overtourism have been highlighted by locals in cities around the world, with Barcelona and Venice given as examples.

“Citizens increasingly feel that their voice should be heard when developing the strategy of an event. In the case of the St Patrick’s Festival, the population and communities of Ireland are engaged during but not before or after the festival, which is aligned with the current Memorandum and Articles of Association,” the consultants said.

The areas for action arising from this finding in 2019 are not visible due to redaction.

 Changes

A number of changes have since occurred at the festival. It underwent significant changes in 2021 and 2022 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns.

Susan Kirby stepped down as CEO in November 2020 after over 10 years in the role to become CEO of Screen Producers Ireland. She was eventually replaced by current CEO Richard Tierney in July 2022. 

When contacted for comment this weekend, Kirby said: “This is a matter for the St Patrick’s Festival organisation.”

In a statement, St Patrick’s Festival said that Kirby’s departure was “in no way related to the outcome of the reports and/or the longer-term strategy for the Festival as reported in the Irish Times”.

“Throughout her tenure as CEO Susan enjoyed the support of the board in her excellent leadership of the Festival at all times and in particular through Covid-19. The Festival returned to live events in 2022 to a changed global landscape, post Covid-19,” a festival spokesperson said.

The proposed 10-year strategy as outlined in the 2019 Irish Times article does not appear to have been progressed. A festival spokesperson said:

In consultation with stakeholders, an updated strategy is currently in development to respond to the new reality.

For many years, Dublin City Council also had an official on the board of St Patrick’s Festival, with the last board member being Alison King. She was appointed in 2017 and resigned in 2019 when she finished working with the council.

Since then, however, the council has not reappointed a staff member to the board.

A spokesperson said the council would not be doing so in the future.

“The council does not intend to replace the  person on the board and has advised St Patrick’s Festival of same. Dublin City Council believes the relationship is better managed through an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding),” the local authority said.

In its statement, the council also confirmed that it has full confidence in the board, the executive and the direction of the festival. 

The Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media said that while the pandemic had delayed the finalisation of its analysis of the two reports, “any governance updates required were completed by the company as recommended”.

“The Department is not aware of any issues in either report that requires immediate action,” it said.

Festival funding

Funding arrangements for the festival (which usually costs about €2 million to run) have also changed since 2020. For years, the festival had been primarily funded by Fáilte Ireland and Dublin City Council, as well as commercial sponsorships.

In 2020, it received €950,000 from Fáilte Ireland and €358,000 from the council.

In 2021, in the context of additional funding as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media took over as principle funder, providing the festival with €880,00, while Fáilte Ireland provided €339,000.

The council provided funding worth €286,000, while Tourism Ireland contributed €211,000. The festival also received €500,000 in commercial sponsorship from social media company TikTok.

Last year, the council contributed €398,000 to the running of the festival. It also provides public land and amenities.

Calls to release full reports

St Patrick’s Festival recently denied a request by Dublin City Councillors to appoint a councillor to the Board of the festival, angering members of the council’s Protocol Committee. 

In a recent letter to the committee, acting chairperson of the festival Maree Gallagher said there were concerns about potential conflicts of interest that could arise if a councillor sat on the Board.

Gallagher instead proposed an “engagement forum” in which a group of councillors could meet regularly with the Board to be briefed on the festival’s activities and to ensure “their involvement and input”.

The letter was met with strong criticism from the councillors, including committee chairperson Deirdre Heney of Fianna Fáil.

Independent councillor Mannix Flynn has called for both of the full reports into into the festival to be released.

“I believe we have a right to know what’s going on here,” he said.

“There’s a major issue here for me, and the issue is that the document is redacted. I’m not looking for names, I’m just looking for the recommendations and what was investigated. We need answers.

He said “censoring” the reports was “frustrating” given there was public money in question.

With reporting by Valerie Flynn