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Today’s headlines, tomorrow’s history

County View

County View
John Healy

IT’S a standard piece of advice in the PR world to anyone who might find themselves in the cross-hairs of any sort of public controversy. That advice is to put the head down, say nothing, and wait for the storm to blow over. And blow over it assuredly will.
How quickly the sensational headline, the burning issue, the radio phone-in controversy, can disappear from the radar, to be replaced by the next hot story.
Think back. Who remembers the Department of Health / SIPTU’s famous Skills Programme, when € 4.4 million was made available to three trade union officials to dispense as they saw fit, mainly on foreign travel? There was a total of 74 trips made to locations like New York, California, Australia and Hong Kong, and no less than five to Lanzarote (although nobody could ever explain why). Nineteen department officials and their wives, together with a coterie of trade union leaders, participated in the trips - one particular official went on five ‘study trips’, paid for by the training fund, even after his retirement from the Department of Health.
And then we had the FÁS spending fiasco, first exposed by then Senator Shane Ross, who demanded that ‘heads will have to roll’. The head of FÁS, Rody Molloy - stoutly defended by then Taoiseach, Brian Cowen - tried to convince an incredulous public that the €642,000 travel to the USA over four years was in the country’s interest. And the reason he played golf in Florida at the taxpayers’ expense was in order to ‘develop relationships with the US space agency, NASA’. In all, €5.7 million was spent on first class travel expenses to America and the Far East, while beauty salon treatments, pay per view movies, gratuities and gifts were charged to the FÁS tab.
Bertie Ahern even famously sanctioned the use of the Government jet to fly a FÁS group to Cocoa Beach in Florida at a cost of €170,000. However, somebody forgot that FÁS had already booked the first class flights at €5000 a head, but forget to cancel the tickets when the taxpayers’ jet was generously made available.
The Central Remedial Clinic scandal saw the chief executive walk away, and refuse to give back a €742,000 retirement package, secured from donations and paid for out of accounts held by supporters of the CRC. The same friends and supporters were subsequently forced to write off a €3 million loan which it paid to CRC in order to fund pension liabilities run up by the charity.
And then all the others. The € 54million spent on the e-voting machines which were finally sold for scrap as a job lot for €70,000. They were bought to replace the stubby auld pencils which, according to Bertie (that man again) were making us a laughing stock in this electronic age.
Michael McDowell, Justice Minister, spent €50 million on Ireland’s most expensive empty field, the site for a new prison at Thornton Hall in Dublin. Labour’s Joe Costello dubbed it a white elephant; the Comptroller and Auditor General declared that the State had paid more than double the market value.
All of these stories, and countless more, made for screaming headlines and breathless news reports until, inevitably, something even juicier came along and the spotlight was turned somewhere else.
Last December, Meath County Council was conned into paying €4.3 million into a Hong Kong bank account when a bogus e-mail from the Council’s CEO, Jackie Maguire, was promptly acted on by some personage of senior rank. The story was a headline grabber for about two days over Christmas. Not a word has been heard of the story since.