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CIE, Ibec and the wall of silence

LAST week, I rang CIE in search of its chairman, Vivienne Jupp. I was told that the troubled transport company's chief was not "due until next week".

On Thursday, I tried again. Perhaps someone else from the office could help.

"Hello, CIE," came the reply after a long wait.

"Could I speak to the chairman?" I asked.

Pause. "Hold on."

A lengthy background conversation between two CIE staff members ensued: "Hey Mary, who's the chairman?" asked the operator.

Mary: "Um..." Silence and a long, long pause. Sounds of internal telephone directories' pages being turned.

Operator: "Sorry for holding you, I wanted to be sure to give you the right number for his office."

Evidently the chairman of CIE has not made much of an impression on the workforce.

Eventually I was given a number for 'Linda'. Linda was supposedly the channel to the chairman.

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Linda was not available. I was told to email her. Which I did immediately.

The email prompted an automatic response, informing me that Linda was out until Monday. But if it was urgent, I should contact Jennifer at a given number or email.

As it WAS urgent, I emailed Jennifer. Jennifer has yet to reply. Thankfully, I was not ringing the fire brigade.

The chairman turned out to be a woman. She should tell her staff, who seem to think she is a man.

So Vivienne, Linda and Jennifer of CIE were all elsewhere.

Vivienne Jupp has been top dog at CIE for two years.

She seems to have been in hiding for the entire time. Not much has been heard of Vivienne herself during that period. Plenty has been heard of CIE as it stumbles between liquidation and examinership, rescued by emergency injections of State funds on top of annual subsidies.

Vivienne, it seems, does not come out to play – although she takes a fat fee of €31,500 a year.

A CIE spinner tried to make contact instead. I told him that I was looking for the chairman.

I remember when Vivienne's term of office began, the day she told an Oireachtas committee proudly: "It is quite a demanding job in terms of time commitment. I actually nearly got locked into the Heuston Office at 7.30pm last Wednesday."

That was the day she informed TDs that she "looked forward to driving CIE to further success". Oops, had she read the balance sheet before accepting the job? As it happens, her tenure has been a disaster, marked by falling passenger numbers and financial crises.

It was at the same meeting that Vivienne admitted her lack of expertise in transport, but comically tried to impress the Committee on Transport with her credentials by telling them that "I take the number seven bus and the Dart is close to me".

Echoes of former US Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin claiming in an interview to know all about Foreign Affairs because she could see Russia from her bedroom window.

Luckily for CIE, Vivienne has plenty of quango experience. She has sat on the board of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. She was on the Review Body on higher remuneration in the public service. She even sat on the Covered Institutions Remuneration Oversight Committee, where she trousered €19,000 for two-and-a-half months' work.

Quite a quango queen.

Funnily enough, all I had initially wanted to ask Vivienne was how much CIE paid to Ibec, the utterly useless employers' body, which has somehow managed to ensnare contributions from quangos galore into its coffers.

Ibec is the established comfort zone for all quangos.

CIE, the bankrupt semi-state, lashes out taxpayers' money with its annual subscription to Ibec.

How much?

A grand? Two grand?

It is a secret. Quangos are deeply secretive organisations. Last week, they were almost masonic in guarding their guilty little secret about their subs to Ibec.

But judging by the reckless generosity of other quangos to Ibec, the CIE subscription runs into tens of thousands.

Ibec loathes the idea of semi-state bodies letting the ordinary citizen know the size of membership fees they snatch from the taxpayer.

Prompted by CIE's reluctance to release the size of its largesse to the quango club, I decided to set out in hot pursuit of the others who bankroll the employers' club. Was Ibec, poser as the champion of private enterprise, really still living off taxpayers' money, the subscriptions from bankrupt semi-states and destitute State-owned banks?

What a wall of silence was suddenly erected. No one in the quango world wanted to say anything about Ibec. They are ashamed of any open association with this once-powerful social partner, not to mention the loot they thrust in its direction. One insider told me that it drove the Employers' Group (often known as I Beg) bonkers to see the source of its income blazed all over the newspapers.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that not only our destitute semi-states, but also our beloved bankers are still pulling the strings at the employers' lobbyist's Baggot Street headquarters.

Both AIB and Bank of Ireland refused to reveal the current figure flowing out to Ibec for their annual member subscriptions.

No one can blame them. The last time that I asked the question, they were far more forthcoming.

Four-and-a-half years ago, Bank of Ireland was pumping a staggering €200,000 annually into Ibec's coffers. AIB, the now State-owned bank, was giving them €194,000 as an annual donation.

Perhaps the figure is lower today? Somehow, I doubt it.

Perhaps it is higher?

Pity Ibec. It has suffered from the disappearance of its key nobility like Irish Nationwide and Anglo, so it must bridge the gap somewhere. Otherwise, its top brass would have to take pay cuts like the rest of us.

Where better to make up the difference than from the semi-states? Provided, of course, that they keep their mouths shut.

And last week, they did.

Omerta on the subject of Ibec subs has gripped the so-called communications centres of the nation's top quangos. An Post refused to respond to the question. No one can blame them. Four years ago, this State monopoly admitted to chucking a staggering €123,000 of taxpayers' funds as an annual donation to Ibec. Struck dumb too was the Dublin Airport Authority, still deep in debt. In 2008, it donated €136,000 to the bosses' club.

A deep throat from Coillte broke the omerta. Today, Coillte is paying far more than it did in 2008. The forestry outfit, which escaped the privatisation gallows last week, has increased its subscription to Ibec from €88,000 to €113,000! Is it possible that the train wreck that is CIE has followed the same rising pattern?

Other spectacular amounts handed over to Ibec that year by taxpayer-owned quangos included €154,000 from the ESB and €103,000 from RTE. The national broadcaster, the phoney champions of openness and transparency – themselves facing financial oblivion – refused point blank to say whether they had increased their annual amount.

Not only did quango spokesmen refuse to reveal the figures, not a single voice offered a reason for their continued membership of this moribund body. In the days of social partnership, there was a cynical case for the lobbying body's existence: the State- funded outfit, propped up through the back door of semi-states annual subs, would – on cue – always be relied upon to give the employers' seal of approval to outrageous pay deals. Ibec provided the fig leaf a government needed to approve benchmarking and other damaging agreements cooked up between the social partners.

But today, now that social partnership is dead, there is no longer any need for this social partner.

Back in 2008, the banks, CIE and other quangos contributed over €1m a year to keep Ibec afloat. Nothing has changed. Today, it is the protector of the worst pillars of Irish business – State-owned banks and semi-state invalids. Silence is not a solution.