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Former Dail Clerk attacks failure to appoint sucessor

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Kieran Coughlan, former clerk of the Dail

Kieran Coughlan, former clerk of the Dail

Kieran Coughlan, former clerk of the Dail

The former head civil servant in the Dail has launched a scathing attack on the Government and Leinster House chiefs over the appointment of his successor.

The position of Clerk of the Dail has been left empty for the past year due to a "stand-off" between the Coalition and Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett over who gets to appoint the public servant in charge of the Oireachtas and the responsibilities attached to the position.

The row centres on the Government wanting an open process for filling the vacancy. But Mr Barrett was reported to have preferred the traditional route of the Ceann Comhairle choosing a nominee for approval.

The position of secretary general of the Houses of the Oireachtas will be vacant for 18 months by the time the matter is resolved. A new law will be passed by the Government next month to allow for the position to be filled.

Writing in today's Sunday Independent, the retired Clerk of the Dail, Kieran Coughlan, said the proposals for filling the position were "out of kilter" with public service reform. "This raises wider questions about the credibility of the political establishment, which are critical of the public services for their lack of openness to modernisation, but feels free to ignore the need for the same in their own back yard in Leinster House," he said.

Mr Coughlan's article in this newspaper is the first time he has publicly outlined his views on the affair.

The position has evolved beyond just being in charge of Dail procedures into wider responsibilities for a body with a €110m a year budget, requiring more of a chief executive-type figure being in charge.

Mr Coughlan said Mr Barrett felt the development of the role into a Chief Executive Officer and Secretary General was not necessary.

The appointment has been shrouded in controversy ever since it emerged there was a furious row between the Ceann Comhairle and Mr Coughlan, prior to his retirement, over how his successor would be chosen. Mr Barrett hit out last year at leaks about the appointment process, which he said were "an attempt to blacken my good name". "I am being dragged into a controversy over this matter and I resent it very much," he said at the time.

He also criticised the "shambles that took place" over the appointment process and said he was going to exercise his right under existing legislation to make the appointment a matter for the Taoiseach.

"I'm appearing in newspapers, people are leaking stuff following a consultation process that took place within the law. The content of the leak was totally improper and incorrect and an attempt to blacken my good name. I have to sit here and take this abuse without having any right of response," he said at the time.

Mr Coughlan said Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Public Spending Minister Brendan Howlin insisted at a meeting with Mr Barrett in August 2013 that the "vacancy had to be filled by an open competition".

A compromise was reached which balanced out the open competition aspect with a greater role for the Ceann Comhairle, where he nominates one of the recommended candidates for appointment by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, which he also chairs. Disagreement following the compromise means the legislation is "minimalist" and deals only with the recruitment and appointment of the Clerk of the Dail.

"The Bill, as it stands, leans heavily towards a clerk over CEO as head of the Oireachtas Services and is out of kilter with how the administration has evolved since 2004 and with public service reform generally, for example CEOs replacing city and county managers," he said.

Mr Coughlan dismissed the notion of the controversy around the appointment being a "power grab" by the Taoiseach.

"It was nothing of the kind. The same open professional recruitment standards were being applied to this top post as has applied to other senior positions in Leinster House and across the public service," he said.

The absence of a Clerk of the Dail has caused legal complications around the holding of by-elections and other functions of the Oireachtas.

To fill the post, the Government is passing legislation, which will be going through the Dail by the end of October.

The new Clerk of the Dail is not expected to be appointed until next year. In the meantime, the role is being carried out by a civil servant carrying out the role in an acting capacity.

This week, Mr Barrett was involved in a dispute of a different type when members of the Dail Technical Group, made up of Independent TDs, objected to Reform Alliance TDs Lucinda Creighton and Peter Mathews joining their group.

Mr Barrett said he had no role in the expansion of the membership of the group.

"I had no hand, act or part in two new members applying for membership of the Technical Group. It is not my role," he said. Mr Barrett told the Technical Group to raise the matter of their composition with the Dail Committee on Procedure and Privileges, rather than bringing it up in the Dail Chamber.

Full Story, page 34

Sunday Independent