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'Like the Wild West': TD criticises standing ovation for embattled Wexford council CEO

Ethics watchdog SIPO found against Wexford County Council CEO Tom Enright in a report earlier this month.

Wexford TD Verona Murphy.
Wexford TD Verona Murphy.
Image: Eamonn Farrell

INDEPENDENT TD VERONA Murphy has criticised scenes at Wexford County Council after a standing ovation was provided for the local authority’s embattled chief executive. 

The scenes played out on Friday at a meeting to discuss a finding against him regarding his conduct towards a local radio station.

The Standards in Public Office Commission earlier this month found against Tom Enright, who was accused of breaching public office standards by threatening to withdraw funding from South East Radio in 2019 over what he called “inaccurate and damaging commentary”.

Following a complaint made against Enright by Karl Fitzpatrick, who presents the ‘Business Matters’ programme on South East Radio, the ethics watchdog found against the council CEO on all three of the alleged contraventions before it.

Enright apologised to the council chamber on Friday for “any embarrassment” caused after it was found he failed maintain proper standards of integrity and conduct when he sent the emails threatening to withdraw advertising.

Council members decided not to take action against him at the special meeting.

Speaking in the wake of the meeting Murphy likened likened it to “the Wild West” after councillors voted almost unanimously to “note the findings” of the report and impose no further sanction.

The gathering was blasted as “farcical” by the TD, who said councillors did not give the issue due time. One member – Councillor Pat Bardon – abstained on the vote after voicing concern that members hadn’t been given enough time to digest the report.

“I think I was in the Wild West,” she told The Journal afterwards.

She said that considering the report had been “decided by an eminent High Court judge – Justice Garrett Sheehan – the most senior civil servants in the country, the clerk of the Dáil Peter Finnegan, and the Comptroller and Auditor General” that more deliberation should have gone into the matter.

Murphy said the watchdog had produced “a very damning report” against Enright but, at the meeting, “all you heard was lauding of the chief executive”.

The TD was one of the few politicians at the meeting not to join in the standing ovation towards Enright at its conclusion.

“There has been no consideration of the damage to Wexford as a result of this,” she said.

Review of media partnerhips

Sinn Féin’s leader on the council, Councillor Tom Forde, had proposed to the meeting that members undertake a review of the council’s expenditure with local media and social media to ensure it gets “value for money” from its business relationships. Chairwoman Barbara Anne Murphy agreed to take the proposal at a later meeting.

Speaking afterwards, Murphy expressed caution over this move. She said there was a risk the public may now find the council and politicians’ relationship with local media “questionable” due to the controversy.

Murphy said a “narrative had taken hold this week in Wexford that the victim here is Tom Enright and that the complainant is the person at fault, and I think that’s very difficult to accept”.

Friday’s meeting

Addressing Friday’s meeting at Wexford County Council, Enright said he had acted at all times in good faith and in the interest of Wexford County Council during the dispute with South East Radio.

“I regret the tone of my emails,” he said, adding that he does “not regret standing up for the council”.

“I believe I was just doing my job.

“I apologise for any embarrassment that I may have caused to the council. I can assure the elected members that the SIPO findings will not deflect me from the important work of this council that needs to be done.”

He added that he is advised there are “strong grounds to legally challenge” SIPO’s findings against him but confirmed he has no intention of doing so.

“While I do not agree with much of SIPO’s findings, I do accept them and the role of SIPO.”

‘Must move on’

Many councillors supported Enright. He received similar praise from Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, Labour, and several independents, while Aontú’s Councillor Jim Codd said the council has learned from the controversy and “must move on from it”.

Fianna Fáil’s Councillor Pip Breen said his party “accepted that Tom Enright was acting in the best interests” of the council during the row.

Sinn Féin’s Forde said he believed Enright will have “learned some lessons” from the matter, adding that it represented “a small slip in standards” for him.

However, he said Enright has been “good for the people of Wexford” during his eight-year tenure.

Several councillors said Enright — a Waterford man — had “pulled on the purple and gold jersey” for the county, while Labour’s George Lawlor praised Enright for his “exemplary” work for Wexford, adding that local media play a crucial role and that “jobs in our local media” should also be supported.

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They also noted SIPO’s finding that there was “no suggestion of corruption or deception” in Enright’s conduct and pointed to the commission’s remarks that there was no doubting his “passion and drive for Wexford”.

Director of services Eamonn Hore, speaking on behalf of management, said they stand “firmly behind” Enright and would support him in further work for the county, sparking a standing ovation from the meeting.

An emotional Tom Enright then addressed the room, saying he had received much support over the past two and a half years and was happy to be able to “draw a line under this matter”.

Background to controversy

After a series of disagreements between Fitzpatrick and Enright over “views expressed on the ‘Morning Mix’ programme of the same station on 5, 6, and 7 March 2019, Enright complained to South East Radio later in August that two interviews on Business Matters on separate dates that month had been edited to remove favourable coverage of Wexford County Council.

Subsequently, on 29 August 2019, Tom Enright emailed the station’s general manager, copied to Eamon Buttle, the managing director of South East Radio, stating that the Council was “reviewing [its] commercial relationship with” the station and complaining that it was facilitating inaccurate and damaging commentary on Council initiatives.

The following day in a reply to Buttle, Enright said that he had been “threatened with legal action, intimidation tactics, censoring of podcasts and biased editing of interviews which should have reflected well on the Council”.

He ended his correspondence with the sentence: “It is with regret that we must cease our commercial relationship with you.”

Sipo said in its report: “In his role as Chief Executive, Mr Enright has a right, and indeed an obligation, to defend the reputation of the Council, and has a personal right to defend his own reputation. However, a person in his position must react in a proportionate and level-headed manner if he is to protect the integrity of his position and maintain public trust in the Council.”

In a statement sent out in response to Sipo’s report, Enright said that the Commission’s findings were “flawed and disproportionate”.

In a further typed statement released to reporters at the council meeting on Friday Enright claimed a potential major investor who was in discussions with the council in 2019 “questioned their investment when they were informed that the business reporter of the local radio station was critical of the council’s economic strategy”.

Karl Fitzpatrick told The Journal that he had been prompted to complain to SIPO in the wake of one of the emails from Enright which he said had left him “shaken”.

In a statement, Fitzpatrick said: “Given the resistance that I met in seeking to advance my complaint through the Council, I am not surprised by the outcome of Wexford County Council’s meeting last Friday which considered the SIPO investigation report into its Chief Executive Mr. Tom Enright.

“The Council’s decision demonstrates a complete lack of accountability for the actions of senior public officials and a disrespect for the role and findings of the Standards in Public Office Commission.

“The system is clearly one which is not functioning properly and needs to be reformed as a matter of urgency. This can only be achieved by transferring the sanctioning powers to SIPO.”

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