Wednesday 13 November 2019

Strategist who rebuilt Fine Gael at centre of Rehab controversy

Former Rehab Group chief executive Frank Flannery
Former Rehab Group chief executive Frank Flannery
John Downing

John Downing

WHEN TDs and senators arrived at Knockranny Hotel in Westport on November 4, 2002, Enda Kenny presented them with what amounted to their new survival manual.

The 70-page document was called '21st Century Fine Gael' and had been written by Frank Flannery with input from up to a dozen people with different types of expertise.

Enda Kenny had been leader of Fine Gael for barely five months and the party had suffered an electoral meltdown under Michael Noonan the previous May. For the next nine years, Flannery was central among a small group of people who helped plot the slow but inexorable resurrection of Fine Gael – and Enda Kenny listened and eventually prospered politically.

A native of Kiltullagh, near Athenry in east Galway, his associations with Fine Gael date to his time at University College Galway. He was active in FG under Garret FitzGerald but drifted from it under subsequent leaders.

Kenny's election as leader saw the return of Flannery working closely with a small group of strategists like general secretary Tom Curran. Their work has seen the party become a tighter operation, more centralised, and for some politicians less democratic.

In his day job, Flannery was equally successful. In 1973 he joined Rehab, a leading non-governmental group which provides services to people with disabilities. He was Rehab chief executive for 25 years and by the time he stood down in 2006 it had 3,000 staff serving 60,000 people in Ireland, Britain and other countries and had an annual turnover of €160m, a figure which has since grown to over €200m.

Now, Flannery finds himself at the eye of the storm as Rehab, in common with other charitable organisations, faces many questions about its funding and spending, especially on salaries and pensions. Though he quit the top job, he had retained a seat on the Rehab board and was active in a number of other ways for the organisation.

His political role, for a long time entirely voluntary, has compounded matters. Flannery is linked directly to the Taoiseach.

But let's declare a few other things about Flannery. This writer, and many others who know him through politics, find him to be a likeable man who comes across as decent and well-intentioned.

He is far from universally loved within Fine Gael. He has often been the one who has blocked some ambitious candidates and imposed vote-sharing arrangements upon reluctant incumbent politicians.

The row over Rehab kicked off on RTE's 'Morning Ireland' two months ago when Flannery's successor, Angela Kerins, refused to reveal her salary.

Last week, a Rehab delegation, led by Kerins, spent six hours fielding questions at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The PAC members were less than satisfied and they have outlined 12 specific topic heads for which they were promised supplementary information. Much was made of Flannery's absence from the Rehab delegation with allegations of him snubbing the committee.

Well, yesterday Flannery said he had never received any personal request to attend the PAC – not last week nor subsequently. In fairness to him here, the PAC chairman, John McGuinness of Fianna Fail, also said he had doubts such an invitation was issued.

Flannery says Rehab was formally asked to attend, picked a team and made their arrangements. There was a subsequent PAC email to Rehab requesting the attendance of certain individuals – but Rehab decided to go with their arrangements which did not include Flannery.

Will he attend soon? He says he will await the outcome of Rehab's further communications with the PAC and then decide. He is clearly not too keen on the idea and argues that PAC are exceeding their legal remit and being overtly political.

PAC members say they want to talk to Flannery about three topics: reports that he lobbied Government for Rehab in return for fees; his role as director of a company, Complete Eco Solutions, which had business dealings with Rehab; and his own salary and pension arrangements.

Flannery is adamant he will not discuss his salary and pension – eight years after he retired from full-time work with Rehab. He says he has taken some fees from Rehab – but also done much work for them voluntarily.

He rejects the term 'lobbying' saying this is a fraction of the work he does and it rarely involves direct meetings with ministers. Most of the work he does is on an international level.

On his work with 'Complete Eco Solutions' he insists he got no money from this enterprise which "did not come to anything".

He and others were asked to advise and help make connections but it was not a success.

Others in Rehab believe he will now quit the board purely to protect it from political controversy. His current role as Fine Gael director of elections for the May 23 local council and European Parliament elections appears uncertain.

PAC members are determined to hear from him. The Taoiseach and Tanaiste have said he should attend PAC. We will definitely hear a deal more about all of this in the next few days.

Irish Independent

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