'Assistants' sue former FF MEPs for 'entitlements'
High Court to hear case of women told they would get no pension after years of service
TWO retired Fianna Fail MEPs, Jim Fitzsimons and Liam Hyland, are being sued by their former "assistants" after they discovered they would not get a pension after their years of service.
The case is being taken by Kathleen Egan, who claims she was assistant to Mr Fitzsimons for 19 years, and Margaret Hackett, who claims she was assistant to Mr Hyland for nine years.
When the MEPs retired in 2004, the women discovered they would not get a pension.
They were later told by the European Parliament that the MEPs submitted applications for parliamentary assistants' allowances, not in the women's names but in the names of two other people, whose identities have not been disclosed.
The European Parliament has refused to disclose either of the names, or a register of MEP assistants, to Ms Egan and Ms Hackett, arguing that the information is private.
The two alleged that "because of serious doubts as to the legality of their use of public funds, there is an undeniable public interest in permitting the applicants to have access to the public registers of MEPs' assistants".
It is understood that Mr Fitzsimons and Mr Hyland will contest the allegations when the case comes before the High Court in January.
Mr Fitzsimons said yesterday that he could not comment on the case as it was before the courts.
"It is a sub judice situation and I honestly cannot say anything because of that," he said.
The Sunday Independent was unable to contact Mr Hyland yesterday.
Some details of the case have already been aired in the General Court of the EU earlier this month, when Ms Egan and Ms Hackett submitted an application to force the European Parliament to disclose the mystery names, in a hearing in Luxembourg on November 9.
The court is still deliberating on the application. According to a report prepared for the hearing, Ms Egan and Ms Hackett "purport" to have been employed as assistants to Mr Fitzsimons and Mr Hyland.
Ms Egan said she worked for Mr Fitzsimons from June 1984 to June 2004, while Ms Hackett worked for Mr Hyland from June 1994 to June 2004.
There was "an interruption of employment" between June 1997 and July 1998.
When their employment ceased, they "discovered that they would receive no pension".
The women considered that they were the only people employed by Mr Hyland and Mr Fitzsimons at that time.
In May 2006, they were told by letter of "the existence of two documents relating to applications for Parliamentary Assistance Allowance, submitted by Mr Fitzsimons and Mr Hyland for two persons other than the applicants".
The women have been seeking access to the public register of MEPs' assistants to discover the identities of these people ever since. In particular, they sought the names of "service providers" engaged by Mr Hyland between 1994 and 2000, and engaged by Mr Fitzsimons between 1984 and 2000.
According to the court document, there had been "extensive correspondence" between the women and the European Parliament between 2005 and 2009.
The parliament refused to disclose the information, arguing that the names constituted "personal data" under EU regulations.
Essentially, it claimed the public interest in an MEP's assistant ended when the employment ceased and, under various EU regulations, their names could no longer be publicly disclosed.
The Secretary General of the European Parliament reached a final decision in February 2010: "Concerning the names of the natural persons engaged by Liam Hyland between the 19th of August 1994 and the 31st December 2000, and by Jim Fitzsimons between 27th of August 1984 and 31st December 2000 ... as explained to you on various occasions these names constitute personal data, disclosure of which would infringe on the privacy interests of the individuals concerned" under the terms of various EU regulations.
Mr Fitzsimons, a publican from Navan, in Co Meath, was a long-standing Fianna Fail politician. He became a Fianna Fail TD in 1977, and retired in 1987 to concentrate on his European Parliament seat. He was first elected MEP in 1984 and retired at the 2004 European elections.
Mr Hyland, from Ballacolla in Co Laois, served as a Fianna Fail senator, TD and became an MEP for Leinster in 1994. He was re-elected in 1999 and retired in 2004. He served briefly as a minister of state in agriculture in 1992.
The European Parliament has changed the payment systems for parliamentary assistants.
Before 2009, MEPs were responsible for managing their assistants according to certain EU rules.
According to an EU spokesperson, the assistants could be paid directly by parliament, through a paying agent designated by the MEP, or through a service provider with whom the MEP concluded a contract.
"The latter arrangement was the most common and meant not only that practices varied widely but also that the service providers were responsible for contracts and social benefits," they said.