Tuesday 20 March 2018

Ministers deny €3m 'slush fund' blame

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

GOVERNMENT ministers whose departments poured more than €3m into a controversial Siptu "slush fund" have distanced themselves from the scandal.

Micheal Martin and Noel Dempsey were ministers in health and environment, respectively, when the controversial grants to the Siptu bank account were sanctioned by their departments.

The funds, which totalled more than €3m in almost a decade, were paid into a Siptu bank account and used to fund foreign trips for officials and union activists. In addition, another €925,000 was paid into the same account by the Health Service Partnership Forum, a talk shop of union leaders and managers.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mr Martin was in health when officials agreed to pay €250,000 a year into an obscure union bank account controlled by Siptu's Matt Merrigan and a colleague.

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Mr Martin could not say this weekend whether he personally sanctioned the grants that began in 2000 with a €75,000 grant and rose to a €250,000-a-year "no strings" handout. A statement issued on his behalf said that Mr Martin's policy was to "support partnership".

The statement said: "In the context that the health service was bedevilled with disputes, and at a time when the Labour Relations Commission was carrying out a study of the value of partnership in the health services, the minister's policy was to support partnership and the up-skilling of non-nursing staff. The running of this was overseen by the Office for Health Management (which later became part of the HSE)."

Mr Dempsey, the current Transport Minister, was in charge of the Department of the Environment when grants worth €790,000 were paid into the account.

A spokesman for the minister said yesterday that Mr Dempsey had "no recollection" of these events and referred queries to the Department of the Environment.

Bertie Ahern, the former Taoiseach who negotiated social partnership agreements, also denied specific knowledge of the funds nor did he have any direct negotiations with Mr Merrigan.

A spokesman for Mr Ahern said: "He was aware of the general arrangements and structures for the social partnership agreements and attended the various meetings of the Central Review Committee which were attended by union leaders and officials. He had no involvement in, or knowledge of, the details of the arrangements that are the subject of your questions."

Jim O'Keeffe, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, said that there was no evidence that the government ministers had signed off on the grants. He said he would be "very interested to know at what level sanction was given".

The Public Accounts Committee meeting on Thursday heard how over almost a decade, the Department of Health paid €2.3m and the Department of the Environment €790,000 into a Siptu bank account that was controlled by Matt Merrigan and his union colleague, Jack Kelly.

The committee heard from HSE auditors how the money was drawn from the bank account to pay for 31 foreign trips, on which health officials, union activists and a senior figure in a local authority travelled as guests.

The HSE and Department of Health officials were unable to give a complete list of who travelled on the trips because, as the trips were paid for by Siptu, there was no official State paper trail for them.

Bernard Allen, Fine Gael TD and chairman of the committee, has sought an investigation into the trips. Party colleague Mr O'Keeffe noted that several of the trips appeared to coincide with St Patrick's Day celebrations abroad.

"We have sought further reports as to who travelled on what dates and again we would be checking whether there were international events or games going on at the same time," he said.

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