THE Limerick city manager has launched an astonishing personal attack on the former City of Culture artistic director, accusing him of engaging in "despicable behaviour" at a stormy behind-closed-doors meeting with local councillors.
As the crisis engulfing the city's embattled project deepened, Conn Murray lashed out at Karl Wallace, who along with two other members of his team dramatically resigned last Wednesday.
Two councillors said Mr Murray branded Mr Wallace "incompetent", but this suggestion was rejected last night by a council spokesman.
At a private meeting in the Pegasus room in the Clarion Hotel, Mr Murray told councillors he was "able to speak freely now he has gone", according to two councillors who were present and who have spoken to the Sunday Independent. One of those councillors, Labour's Tom Shortt, said: "He did a hatchet job on Wallace, but it is he who behaved despicably in trying to discredit him."
But last night a council spokesman said: "The use of the words 'despicable behaviour' referred to Mr Wallace's failure as an employee to inform Mr Murray of his decision to resign, despite having relayed his decision to the media beforehand."
However, it is understood Mr Murray then went on to severely criticise Mr Wallace's performance as artistic director, according to the councillors. He told councillors that as far as he was concerned, Mr Wallace was a failure in the performance of the €65,000-a-year role as artistic director.
This in turn was met with a furious response from councillors, who said Mr Wallace had the "complete confidence" of the artistic community of Limerick.
"The room overlooks the Shannon and the waves were hitting off the windows as the storm raged, but he tried to do a real hatchet job on Wallace and it went down like a shit sandwich," one source inside the room told the Sunday Independent.
News of the angry exchanges came as Finance Minister Michael Noonan came under fire this weekend for his unequivocal support for the controversial appointment of Patricia Ryan as City of Culture CEO.
Mr Murray controversially appointed Patricia Ryan as CEO of the embattled City of Culture body without advertising the post.
However, he has previously defended the process saying that he might have followed a different course if time and budgetary constraints had not been a factor.
Ms Ryan previously worked as an aide to former EU President Pat Cox, who is chairman of the City of Culture body.
At the meeting, Mr Murray refuted the allegation that Ms Ryan was a "political appointment" and criticised what he called attacks on his integrity.
Mr Cox also took personal exception to the suggestion that he was involved in a "crony appointment".
"I am entitled to my integrity and good name and I made no solicitation for anyone whatsoever. At no stage did I solicit the appointment of any person," he said.
At the meeting, Mr Cox also had to refute that he said Mr Wallace's departure was a "blessing in disguise". He said during an interview on Limerick's Live FM that if the resignations of the three officials saved the body from being dogged by controversy, then maybe it was a "blessing in disguise" to have the issues resolved now rather than drag on for the 12 months of the City of Culture programme.
Last night there were fresh calls from several councillors for Ms Ryan to resign her post, saying her continued presence would besmirch the cultural body.
"She must step back, she must go. If she doesn't go, the problems surrounding the City of Culture project will only mount," said Tom Shortt, local Labour councillor and brother of comedian Pat.
Last month, Mr Noonan urged an end to the row which has centred on the appointment of Ms Ryan.
When asked about criticism that the proper process had not been adhered to in filling the position, Mr Noonan said it was a temporary, 18-month post and that Limerick was extremely lucky to get someone of Ms Ryan's competence.
On foot of the resignation of Mr Wallace and two members of his team, Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairman John McGuinness strongly criticised Mr Noonan's comments, saying it "ill behoves a senior accounting officer" to dismiss public concerns in such a "cavalier fashion".
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Mr McGuinness accused Mr Noonan of failing to follow proper protocol in his "backyard".
Mr Shortt also said Mr Noonan's comments were "ill-judged".
"The people of Limerick certainly did not appreciate Michael Noonan's comments. I don't think he thought his comments through properly, but they were ill-judged," he said.
Mr Noonan's office failed to respond to repeated requests for comment yesterday.
Mr Shortt also led criticism of Mr Murray who he said has "utterly failed the artistic and cultural community of Limerick not once but twice".
The PAC has initiated an investigation into the scandal engulfing the City of Culture.
They will call board member and senior official in the Department of Arts Niall O Donnchu to account for the scandal.
Mr O Donnchu has also been criticised for failing to declare his role on the City of Culture board when he was before the committee last month.
In addition to the criticism he received over Ms Ryan's appointment, Mr Murray has also been criticised for appointing his best man to a €98,000-a-year job without it being advertised publicly.
Minister of State Joe Costello described events surrounding the Limerick City of Culture project as "an unholy mess".
He said that the Limerick City of Culture Board should seek and get agreement locally in the city on a way forward, before appointing a new artistic director.
Mr Murray has also come under fire over the appointment of his friend, Dr Pat Daly, to the senior council post, after the Shannon Development Authority where he had worked was wound down.
The council said that Dr Daly was appointed by Mr Murray on the recommendation of an independent interview board and the process followed established redeployment procedures provided in the public sector agreement.
Dr Daly was best man at Mr Murray's wedding in November 2000.
Dr Daly's appointment was one of two senior appointments made by Mr Murray last summer, neither of which were advertised externally.