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First Blood At Fortress Fás

Posted on: December 1st, 2008 5 Comments

THERE is something of the dark about Fas headquarters in Dublin’s Baggot Street. In recent weeks, my colleague Nick Webb and I have visited Fortress Fas.

Please God, we will never need to do so again.

Fortress Fas has been politically protected for decades.

For several years I have been battling with the bosses manning the Baggot Street barricades.

They have always fought like tigers to avoid publicity. No holds have been barred.

Luckily, the Sunday Independent is strong enough to resist threats from bloated State agencies.

A few months ago, Fas point-blank refused to release basic information about its use of public money, telling us to jump in a lake.

Now we know why.

Around the same time, we struck it lucky. We received a tip-off, telling us to ask Fas specifically about the travel expenses of the top brass travelling to Florida.

I was pretty familiar with Fas, but knew nothing of its antics in Florida. It seems odd now that although director-general Rody Molloy was so fond of flying business class to visit his pet project, he never mentioned the Florida flagship in his statement in the annual report. No point in drawing too much attention to such a successful venture.

True to form, Fortress Fas refused virtually all requests for news of its Florida frolics.

That is Fas. It implicitly challenged us to use the Freedom of Information Act, the first line of defence of an empire under siege.

The Freedom of Information Act is a minefield.

You need to ask the right questions. You need to know exactly what you are seeking. It takes time. And it is lethally expensive.

Fas took the maximum time allowed to release the papers.

Initially it said the documents would cost nearly a grand. Good tactic: that would kill the question stone dead. Any citizen without Seanad expenses or a newspaper would baulk at this.

We instantly agreed to this outrageous fee for information which should be freely accessible.

A few weeks later, Fas admitted that the work involved in digging up its records was less than expected. So it reduced the fee to €400. The deterrent had failed.

Next, mysteriously, my cheque was lost in the post, somewhere on the 500-yard journey from Leinster House to Fas. Another delay. Another cheque.

Four months after our first request for information, Nick Webb and I finally headed for the forbidding Baggot Street building. It had been quite a rearguard action by Fas.

The staff were scrupulously polite. We were escorted to a pokey room on the fifth floor.

At all times we were supervised by an employee sitting there, like an exam invigilator, presumably making sure we did not steal any of the papers.

Suddenly, on the first visit, director John Cahill — another man who has incurred lashings of expenses on the Florida jaunts — entered the room. He explained how “passionate” he was about the programme. I bet he was.

We could not believe our eyes when we saw the documents. We asked for copies of about 100 items. The Fas official was unable to photocopy them in a hurry. He also wanted time to tell the director-general Rody Molloy — “out of courtesy”. Six days later we picked them up from Baggot Street HQ.

There is no largesse at Fas HQ. It is positively spartan, despite the €1bn budget. It does not believe in spoiling its ordinary workers in the State employment agency. Instead, it saves the cash and featherbeds the bosses.

Travel and subsistence at Fas in 2007 came to €5.7m, or €110,000 a week.

Until last week, Fas was stonewalling on any questions about these expenses. Again, now we know why.

Rody Molloy’s first instinct was the same: stonewall, tough it out.

His assertion of his “entitlement” to first-class travel in an RTE interview with Pat Kenny sank him. Full marks to Kenny for gently allowing Rody to hang himself.

On Monday, as public fury mounted, Rody’s friend, Taoiseach Brian Cowen, rode to the rescue. Suddenly on Tuesday, Cowen backed off.

Then there was an ominous silence from Rody’s minister in charge, Mary Coughlan.

Once political support was withdrawn, Molloy was a dead man walking.

So he resigned.

Politicians were now crawling all over Fas. Fine Gael, sensing blood, targeted a State agency long considered a Fianna Fail haven. On the Public Accounts Committee all parties took subtle lumps out of each other as they pursued coded agendas understood only by political insiders. Fianna Fail members pulled their punches. But where were all these suddenly outraged politicians in recent years when some of us were screaming for a probe into Fas? Silent as church mice.

Just as silent as today’s faceless Fas board.

Last week, not a sinner among the directors surfaced.

Now that Molloy has been thrown to the wolves, the directors are still in denial.

The board’s pathetic statement — in the early hours of Thursday — that it would say nothing “in deference to the Dail’s Public Accounts Committee” (PAC) was an attempt to use the PAC as a cover. The guys and girls met for six hours. Later we learned that they were ordering “audits”.

Some of them are compromised by the controversy. Two of the four trade union members, chairman and Impact boss Peter McLoone and crafts union chief Owen Wills, enjoyed tickets to Orlando costing seven grand each. Molloy was on the same plane. And Molloy signed the two comrades’ business-class chits.

But it is unfair to single out McLoone and Wills, although the two brothers were lucky to sample the joys of Florida in the dark days of an Irish January.

This entire board has been asleep on the job. If it knew of the excesses, it should resign. If it did not, it should resign. It is dominated by four trade unionists and four members of the rotten employers’ union, Ibec. In truth they are all great pals, drawing hefty directors’ fees. Fas even pays Ibec over €50,000 a year for membership! Such incest leads to lax habits.

The board is politically appointed. But, in practice, the two cosy “social partners” each give four names to the minister, who rubber stamps them. So the employers, the unions, the board, the Government, the director-general and other top dogs are all happily interdependent.

Imagine the Government asking chairman Peter McLoone, a loud advocate of social partnership, to step down from the €25,000-a-year part-time gig. Pigs will fly first.

Now, with such well-connected directors, are we beginning to realise why the €1bn Government grant to Fas was left virtually untouched in the October Budget?