BusinessAny Other Business

Sebastian Barnes, IFAC and unfortunate timing

Any Other Business: Denis O’Brien winds up foundation, Dublin lord mayor hosts UPMC at Mansion House, Lorraine Higgins opens Brussels office, Kate Fullen joins Yonder, and CRO uses AI to scan company documents

The timing of Sebastian Barnes’s departure as chairman of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council last June was somewhat unfortunate. He left just before the Government’s Summer Economic Statement was published on July 4th, in which it announced a 6.1 per cent increase in core spending for next year, in spite of the council’s advice not to exceed 5 per cent. The two events were entirely unrelated, however.

Records released under the Freedom of Information Act show that Barnes emailed colleagues in the council on June 19th to tell them he was leaving. He is also a head of division at the OECD Economics Department, and Barnes explained that “the OECD has tightened its stance on external activities, so unfortunately I will be stepping down as chair and as a council member”.

He added: “The council has come a long way since its inception 12 years ago and we have made a real contribution to the understanding of the public finances and budgetary outcomes in Ireland.”

The next day, Barnes emailed John McCarthy, chief economist in the Department of Finance. “As discussed,” he said, “please find attached a letter to Minister [Michael] McGrath regarding my standing down ... dated 26 June (I am sending it now as I know you will be away).”


In his letter to the Minister, Barnes said he would step down “due to other commitments with effect from June 30th″.

Yet it was not until July 5th, the day after publication of the Summer Economic Statement of which the council was so critical, that the department got around to announcing Barnes’s departure as its chairman. An earlier announcement might have avoided any confusion about a possible link.

Lord Mayor of Dublin hosts UPMC at Mansion House

“All of us at UPMC Ireland would like to extend our heartfelt congratulations to our colleague Daithí de Róiste on his appointment as the 355th Lord Mayor of Dublin,” the American healthcare provider posted on Facebook last June.

In addition to being a Fianna Fáil councillor, de Róiste is Ireland head of marketing, communications, external relations and stakeholder management at UPMC, which is steadily expanding its footprint here. Earlier this year it bought the Sports Surgery Clinic in Dublin, joining hospitals in Waterford, Clane and Kilkenny in its portfolio.

UPMC bigwigs are occasional visitors to Ireland, including during the recent American college football game at the Aviva Stadium, which the company sponsored. We heard the mayor hosted UPMC colleagues at the Mansion House over the summer, but when we asked Dublin City Council press office for details, it replied: “The Mansion House is the private residence of the Lord Mayor for their tenure, and as such, private events can take place. There was no official public meetings or events in the Mansion House or which any costs were attributed to the Mansion House.”

We followed up with a Freedom of Information Act request. This time an administrative officer in the office of the mayor replied: “There is one record of a diary entry on the 27th of July where the lord mayor hosted a private dinner and UPMC staff were in attendance. This was a private event and of no cost to Dublin City Council.”

UPMC’s press office said the company had no comment to make.

Denis O’Brien winds down charitable foundation

The Iris O’Brien Foundation, set up by businessman Denis O’Brien in honour of his mother, has ceased to trade and applied to the Registrar of Companies to be struck off. Based at 1 Grand Canal Quay, a Dublin office block O’Brien owns, it was set up in 2000 to help local and overseas charities. According to O’Brien’s website, the foundation has focused on advocating for human rights, disaster aid, assisting with special needs and educational programmes.

In 2016, the Iris O’Brien Foundation disbursed €5.5 million, split more or less evenly between domestic and overseas projects. Overheads that year were a paltry €5,400. So why is it being wound up? A spokesman said: “We are doing it for privacy reasons, as we make most of the donations on a discreet basis. The level of annual funding will continue.”

Lorraine Higgins expands consultancy with Brussels office

Several politicians have become lobbyists after leaving Leinster House, from Michael D’Arcy to Dick Roche, Paudie Coffey to Noel Rock, and a few have set up consultancies, including former ministers Mary Coughlan, Noel Dempsey and Lucinda Creighton. A recent arrival to their ranks is Lorraine Higgins, a former Labour Party senator who set up Rockwood Public Affairs in late 2020. Business is clearly booming, as its staff of 14 are now being divided between a headquarters in Dublin and a newly opened office in Brussels.

“With European Parliament elections taking place in 2024, and a new European Commission to be appointed next year, Rockwood is expanding into Brussels at a critical time for Irish and European businesses,” says Higgins, whose clients include DHL, Eaton plc and the Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers.

Meanwhile, a new communications agency is being launched by PR stalwarts Garrett Harte, former editor in chief of Newstalk, and James Dunny, who has been European head of crisis management for FleishmanHillard, and most recently global head of communications for the Kerry Group. “Harte & Dunny will aim to attract many of Ireland’s leading companies and executives who are looking to build their reputation or protect it when a crisis hits,” they tell me, adding modestly: “The unique skill combination of Harte & Dunny is sure to shake up the Irish communications agency landscape.”

TCD graduate Fullen joins Yonder

Here’s a typical career path: join a start-up in your 20s, make a success of it, sell up, and then use the proceeds to become a venture capitalist. Kate Fullen, a law and business graduate from Trinity College Dublin, where she was president of its Entrepreneurial Society, is doing it in reverse. The 25-year-old is leaving Elkstone, the Irish investment house which backed start-ups such as Flipdish and Manna, where she was a senior venture associate. Fullen has become chief of staff at Yonder, an Irish platform set up last year to simplify health and pension benefits for business and employees via a digital platform and app.

CRO uses AI to scan company returns

While artificial intelligence is playing havoc with plans for teacher-based assessment in secondary schools, the Department of Enterprise has managed to put the disruptive technology to good use. In reply to a Dáil question, minister Simon Coveney has revealed that the Companies Registration Officer (CRO) is using machine learning to scan digitised annual returns, checking they are all signed in the right places. This has led to huge efficiencies, since the CRO got over 240,000 annual returns from businesses last year, all of which were processed by the AI signature-recognition gadget. The cost of the project was €175,000.

Coveney says the Department of Enterprise and the CRO are also collaborating on a project “to scan annual returns and derive semantic meaning from the data”. A task that often defies mere mortals.