Monday 22 July 2019

'Enda? He is not a man I consider a close friend . . . we're not pally'

In an exclusive interview, Ronald Quinlan talks to Frank Flannery, the embattled former head of Rehab

Frank Flannery, former CEO of the Rehab group
Frank Flannery, former CEO of the Rehab group
Ronald Quinlan

Ronald Quinlan

AS THE controversy surrounding Rehab continues to rage, the refusal of its former CEO Frank Flannery to appear before the Dail's Public Accounts Committee has seen him come in for a sustained and frequently vitriolic attack from across the political spectrum.

In this exclusive interview, Frank Flannery explains his perceived defiance of the PAC, insisting that he is simply defending his right and the right of every other Irish citizen not to be "blackguarded, bullied or demeaned" by the State. He also speaks frankly of his relationship with Rehab, Fine Gael and with Enda Kenny – the man he identified as the "right man" to lead the party but with whom he wouldn't go for a drink.

Ronald Quinlan: "In terms of going in before the PAC, it looks like you're not going to be hounded into doing it, or shamed into doing it."

Frank Flannery: "I am just Frank Flannery, private citizen, who eight years ago was head of a not-for-profit company that happens to do business with the State. Why should I be publicly abused or brought in to be castigated?

"All I want to do, and I am in my own way, speaking for every private citizen in Ireland, because what happens to me now could happen to somebody else. As a private citizen, if the Public Accounts Committee wants to talk to you, they've got to tell you what they want to talk to you about. I don't have any control over the spending of any public money, good, bad or indifferent. What do they want to talk about in terms of their agenda, and how is that agenda relevant to their terms of reference as a committee? That's all I want to know. I'll be very happy to talk to them in that way.

"We are all equal citizens under the Constitution. We can not and should not be blackguarded, bullied or demeaned. I am not being unreasonable or recalcitrant. I am not trying to bully anybody. I am just trying to stand up for my decision as a citizen of the Irish Republic and my rights under our Constitution."

Quinlan: "How damaged do you feel by this whole controversy?"

Flannery: "It's not a pleasant experience, and for me it was quite unexpected. With regards to damage, time will tell. That's a more long-term thing. There have been elements of the dark night of the soul about it over the past few weeks."

Quinlan: "There has been a lot of commentary on the fees you were paid by Rehab for consultancy. What consulting did you do exactly?"

Flannery: "I was engaged under contract by the Rehab group for a number of years to provide certain services in the area of international rehabilitation. I was one of the founder members of Workability International which is the body which champions the cause of the rights of people with disabilities for their fair share of employment worldwide.

"We developed that on an international basis. I was president of that for quite a number of years and both contributed to it and gained from it in terms of international linkages, knowledge and information and indeed some business opportunities throughout Europe and the world. So they asked me after I retired to continue to do that work because of my extensive knowledge. It's a body of work which I undertook which was very time-consuming. They had access to a huge amount of my time and they paid me a monthly fee for that. They got extremely good value for money."

Quinlan: "Some media coverage has suggested your consulting work had more to do with 'cosy chats' with ministers in the corridors of Leinster House. Take the Ruairi Quinn conversation, for instance.

Flannery: "I had one contact with Ruairi Quinn which he initiated. He rang me. Very little with Ruairi Quinn at all, very little with any minister on Rehab business, even with the Minister for Health James Reilly. Rehab handles its own affairs with the HSE. They negotiate their contracts and they tender for business. They didn't involve me in that kind of business at all really. If a particular issue arose, someone might come along to me and say 'how might I go about that?' I would help them as best I could.

"The idea that I would have, because of my associations with Fine Gael, special access to ministers [is wrong]. The way Fine Gael works is that if you're a known supporter of the party, they tend to keep away from you on the grounds they don't want to be seen to be giving 'jobs to the boys'."

Quinlan: "It's been said that the CRC was the Fianna Fail charity, and Rehab is the Fine Gael charity? What do you say?

Flannery: "There isn't any [connection]. Never was any. I mean, obviously, I have a political outlook, which is kind of well known."

Quinlan: "Do you think your 'stand off' with the PAC is harming Rehab?"

Flannery: "I would be devastated if it were harmful to Rehab. I think Rehab has answered to the very best of their ability and have taken steps now which seem to be the right steps for going forward and taking accountability. They have my very best wishes, and my total goodwill; always will have that. And insofar as I can help in any circumstances, I will."

Quinlan: "Would you accept there was poor corporate governance during your time with Rehab?"

Flannery: "No, I wouldn't make any comment on that at all really, except to draw your attention to what the chairman of Rehab said. He said there were definite areas for improvement, so no stronger than that."

Quinlan: "How much of this controversy is political?"

Flannery: "Politics, I would have thought, is highly likely. I notice that the people attacking me tend to be from the opposition parties."

Quinlan: "People within Fine Gael have attacked you as well."

Flannery: "Not too many. I'm not whinging and moaning about that. When you are involved in the political arena, that's the kind of place that it is. It is a bear pit, and the rules of political discourse are ancient rules. And there's an election in May. I don't have to tell you that."

Quinlan: "We had the unexpected 'retirement' of the Garda Commissioner recently. Do you feel you are falling victim to a 'coming for a head' kind of mentality?

Flannery: "I don't know. All I retired from recently in Rehab is membership of the board, once it became clear my presence on the board wasn't going to be a positive."

Quinlan: "And what about stepping away from your positions with Fine Gael?"

Flannery: "Given the furore that's building up around me, and the fact that there's an election campaign that Fine Gael has 450 candidates involved in, I felt it was far safer for me to stand well back."

Quinlan: "What is your present relationship with the Taoiseach?"

Flannery: "No comment."

Quinlan: "You're friends with the Taoiseach?"

Flannery: "I identified him early enough as the right man to lead Fine Gael. And I put my efforts behind making that happen and I think he was a good enterprise and I think he's doing a very fine job."

Quinlan: "Is he still a good enterprise?"

Flannery: "Absolutely. The economy is coming solidly into shape. The prospects for Ireland are improving each year. If you compare the prospects for Ireland to when the Government took over, it is chalk and cheese. And I think that will tell as we come up to the next general election."

Quinlan: "Do you anticipate having any involvement in that campaign?"

Flannery: "I do not anticipate having any involvement in that, no."

Quinlan: "You won't be involved?"

Flannery: "I don't anticipate it."

Quinlan: "You rule it out?"

Flannery: "We have to wait and see. But if at any time there's anything I can do to assist Fine Gael, I'll do it. I've always been that way. I haven't always been in fashion. I've been in and out. I got on very well with Garret FitzGerald and I got on very well with Enda Kenny, and there were long periods in between where I wasn't the flavour of the month at all, so I'm used to both sides of life."

Quinlan: "You still get on well with him?"

Flannery: "With who?"

Quinlan: "With Enda."

Flannery: "I get on well with everybody in Fine Gael. They're all my friends."

Quinlan: "Do you consider Enda Kenny to be your friend?"

Flannery: "Insofar as he ever was a friend, our relationship won't have changed. But we have never been 'palsy' in any kind of way at all. Our attitude has been quite professional. He's not a man I would go for a drink with, so he's not a man I consider a close friend or anything like that. I mean, if people said we were associates rather than friends, if I knew exactly what they mean by associates, I probably wouldn't disagree with them."

Quinlan: "You haven't cut off contact with him?"

Flannery: "Not at all. I never cut off contact with anybody."

Quinlan: "He hasn't cut off contact with you?"

Flannery: "There's no change in anything. We don't have chats over breakfast or anything like that. Our relationship is quite distant. I am not involved in the business of government, I am not involved in any way formally or even in advising it. So any ideas that I am an influential person are seriously exaggerated."

Quinlan: "Leave aside influential. You're valued."

Flannery: "Valued? That's a judgement. I don't know if I'm valued or not. At times I'm valued; let me put it like that."

Quinlan: "At crucial times."

Flannery: "At times I'm valued and at times I'm not valued."

Quinlan: "Certain people within Fine Gael who are now criticising you owe their political careers to you. Does that hurt?"

Flannery: "I wish them all very well. They're all politicians now, the people we're speaking about. They have their own challenges and I sympathise with them."

Quinlan: "Returning to the subject of Rehab, you stepped down as its chief executive in 2006. Why?"

Flannery: "Well, it was kind of time. I'd been chief executive since '81, and in fact, I'd been effectively running the organisation even earlier than that. I was 62 years of age at the time. I just felt I wanted to move on. I wanted to develop other activities. There was a major challenge of an election coming up in 2007, they wanted me to be the national director of elections, so I felt it would be really difficult to do that while still being chief executive."

Quinlan: "Did anybody on the board ask you to leave?"

Flannery: "Absolutely no. I think the whole organisation was ready for the challenge of change and it had to come some time."

Quinlan: "What about your return? Cynical people might say Frank Flannery returned to Rehab in 2011 because Fine Gael were coming into power."

Flannery: "No. But they did want me back because they thought I'd be able to contribute."

Quinlan: "Contribute what?"

Flannery: "Experience, knowledge, I know that business better than anyone alive. Now that's an overstatement now, because I don't, but in many ways I just had an in-depth lifetime immersion and now you say maybe it had something to do with the government changing; never thought of that."

Quinlan: "Never thought of that?"

Flannery: "Never thought of it. No, because I worked all my life mainly with Fianna Fail-led governments and I got on always very good with governments. My ability to deal with the government is nothing to do with parties. The best Taoiseach we had probably for disability issues in my lifetime was Bertie Ahern, he had a huge interest in it."

Quinlan: "Would you concede that the lines became blurred between your work as a consultant, your work for Rehab and your role with Fine Gael?"

Flannery: "Oh, not at all. I wouldn't concede one per cent of that. Not one per cent. My work was very professionally established and very professionally delivered. There's no conflict of any kind."

Quinlan: "Tell me about the charitable lotteries scheme and the very particular role you played in lobbying for its retention. There was a meeting where you sought to lobby Alan Shatter."

Flannery: "We weren't lobbying Alan as such. The Government moved the fund from the Department of Finance to the Department of Justice and it came to our attention that, at that point, the money hadn't moved with it. So we had to go in then and explain and talk then to Alan Shatter about it."

Quinlan: "Did anybody suggest your association with Fine Gael would be helpful?"

Flannery: "No."

Quinlan: "Did you ever feel talking to Alan Shatter that he might have issues with you stemming from your role as Fine Gael director of elections?

Flannery: "No, I don't think so. Not at all. Any electoral involvement I had with Alan Shatter was always very good. Any election I was running that he ran in, he got elected."

Quinlan: "Could you address the criticism over the low profits Rehab makes from its lottery scratch cards?"

Flannery: "Because of the unfair competitive competition in the matter of prizes, the charity prizes and so forth compared with the national lottery prizes – it became increasingly difficult to sell the product. And as a result of that, if you're doing a national lottery, there's a basic cost that you have to have. Like 60 per cent or so has to go on prizes, 12 or 14 per cent has to go on retailer commission. You have to have a few people to go around and service all the outlets and so on. And from that point of view, turnover is pushed down and down and down, and the profit is gradually, slowly squeezed out of it."

Quinlan: "Did Angela Kerins approve payments to you from Rehab for consultancy work without bringing them before the board for its approval?"

Flannery: "That wouldn't be a matter for me. Except in a company like that, consultancies are not really a matter for the management. Bear in mind, the Rehab group has 60,000 people involved, so the board can't get involved in matters of detail that fall within the remit of the CEO and other key executives."

Quinlan: "Tell me about Complete Eco Solutions and its importation of coffins. Wasn't it a strange business to be involved in?"

Flannery: "Well, from Rehab's perspective, and again I can't speak for them, they said at the committee that they had this business down in Kilkenny employing 27 people, most of them people with disabilities. It was losing money and they were looking for a new venture, and someone came up with that idea, creating a new business where coffins would be imported into the country from China and Rehab could do the final assembly and fund employment that way. That's how it arose. It was an entirely Rehab idea."

Quinlan: "Is Rehab a charity or a business?"

Flannery: "Well, indeed it is [a business]. Essentially everything Rehab does, every service it provides, is something somebody requires. And that somebody could be a Government department, could be the HSE, could be a training service as part of a National Training Authority, or any of that kind of stuff. But in all cases, it's doing it in a businesslike way.

"The State doesn't grant any money to Rehab. That is absolutely the key point. It buys services. Rehab invoices them, and it gets paid. Each contract only lasts 12 months, so you're only as good as your previous year's business. And if you don't perform well this year, somebody else might get the business next year."

Quinlan: "But doesn't 92 per cent of Rehab's money come from the taxpayer?"

Flannery: "Only to the extent the State is buying services from Rehab, because Rehab is the best and most cost-effective supplier available. If they can find a better supplier, that's where they will go. The contracts are renewed each year. Every year it's a zero sum and you're only as good as your last contract."

Quinlan: "Finally, tell me about your involvement with Ireland First, the group of business people which came together in 2011 to produce recommendations for the economy which became known as the Blueprint For Recovery."

Flannery: "Well, it was just a committee I was asked to sit in on. And I did. There were great and good people and very interesting people, and I was interested to hear what they had to say. The idea was to draw up ideas which would help with the recovery of the economy. Bear in mind, it was coming after or around the time of the last election, and we were feeding in some ideas. That's all that was about."

Quinlan: "Some would say you were asked to become involved as you would have had a particular access to the future Taoiseach."

Flannery: "I can't help what people would or would not believe. The Government had its programme and that's the way it went forward. I think that's all overblown. I am cool about that kind of stuff, you know, relaxed."

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