Tuesday 23 July 2019

Lavish lunches beginning of end as deal on bill leaves bad taste

OUT OF OFFICE: Dermot McLaughlin, chief executive of Temple Bar Cultural Trust, who is suspended on full pay from his position. The trust has been embroiled in a number of controversies and is to be wound down by Dublin City Council
OUT OF OFFICE: Dermot McLaughlin, chief executive of Temple Bar Cultural Trust, who is suspended on full pay from his position. The trust has been embroiled in a number of controversies and is to be wound down by Dublin City Council

Niall O'Connor

FROM its lavish lunches to blazing boardroom rows – Temple Bar Cultural Trust is competing for the title of the most dysfunctional quango seen in years.

The trust boasts a property portfolio worth €40m and collects €1.6m in rent from tenants in Temple Bar every year. But the organisation established to drive culture in Dublin's busiest tourist quarter is now teetering on the brink following scandal after scandal.

It was the late Taoiseach Charles Haughey who requested that a development plan be created for Temple Bar over 20 years ago. What began as Temple Bar Properties was soon transformed into Temple Bar Cultural Trust.

The trust's board members have included former European Affairs Minister Lucinda Creighton and current Lord Mayor and Labour councillor Oisin Quinn.

It was the decision to host two lavish lunches in 2011 that prompted the unravelling of the myriad misspending at the taxpayer-owned body. As chief executive Dermot McLaughlin hosted the lunches at Jay Bourke's Eden restaurant, little did he realise that his own future at the helm of the trust would come under the spotlight.

He decided to offset the €2,500 cost of the Prosecco-led lunches against Bourke's rent – a move that caused deep consternation among board members.

McLaughlin defiantly continued as CEO and was himself embroiled in a series of heated boardroom rows with Independent councillor Mannix Flynn – the first person to call for the trust to be wound down.

Boardroom tensions deepened throughout 2011 and a fresh row broke out in August after McLaughlin publicly stated that he would "abhor" the prospect of McDonald's opening in Temple Bar. The fast-food giant was eventually given the green light and opened this year with the creation of 80 jobs.

In September 2011, an independent consultant published the Latitude report which called for the trust to be wound down within three years.

It was at this point that end game was in sight.

But it wasn't until the summer of 2012 that the most serious of questions were asked of the trust. Details emerged of an external audit report which found that the trust was making late payments on its VAT returns and even allowed a non-management employee to have access to its bank accounts.

The body was also found to be slow in collecting hundreds of thousands of euro owed to it.

McLaughlin himself was found to have charged the trust €907 to cover "personal legal expenses" which was not paid back until the following year.

He also received a salary advance for himself of €5,857 – in order to tide him over "until the next pay day". And the audit found he sanctioned three significant pay increases without board knowledge or approval.

The audit also found that no contract exists for McLaughlin despite him being on an annual salary of €104,000.

The revelations prompted the first call from a government deputy, Dublin South East TD Eoghan Murphy, for the trust to be immediately scrapped.

As the storm clouds gathered over Temple Bar, it was announced in November 2012 that McLaughlin was being seconded to head up the Derry City Culture programme on a temporary basis.

Ray Yeates, the Dublin City Arts officer, was installed as acting CEO. In a bid to draw a line under the controversies, Dublin City Council announced in April 2013 that a time frame was being put in place for the winding down of the trust.

But the drama surrounding the body only continued. Just five months into the Derry job, McLaughlin quit citing "personal reasons".

But his plans to return to Temple Bar were scuppered when the board decided to suspend him after he allegedly offered staff redundancy packages without its consent. He has remained on suspension on full pay ever since.

Despite being out of office, the controversies surrounding McLaughlin continued to emerge.

It was revealed that he struck a deal with a top architectural firm, providing it with exclusive access to the Meeting House Square venue in Temple Bar.

The agreement was allegedly struck without the knowledge of the board.

The scandals that have gripped the trust have finally been brought to the attention of senior gardai.

It remains to be seen when this sorry saga can be brought to a close. But more importantly, the cost of extinguishing this quango is continuing to grow. Ireland's most popular tourist quarter will struggle to recover from the deep wounds it has sustained as a result of the Temple Bar Cultural Trust.

Sunday Independent

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