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Miriam Lord’s Week: Diligent Verona Murphy’s masterclass in pulling teeth

Politicians prevail despite sustained and mystifying onslaught of corporate gobbledegook at the Public Accounts Committee

It’s only a few minutes’ walk from the Dental Hospital in Lincoln Place to Committee Room 3 in Leinster House.

Such a pity the students didn’t ramble over on Thursday to see The Public Accounts Committee’s latest engagement with the head buck-cats from the University of Limerick (UL).

It was a masterclass in pulling teeth. And getting blood from a stone.

Verona Murphy, Independent TD for Wexford, managed to do it.


You don’t want to get into a row with Verona.

Not for the first time, the PAC was examining financial governance issues at the institution and, in particular, circumstances surrounding the 2018 purchase of land for a city centre campus in Limerick. Critics claim the €8m price was overinflated.

The politicians found it next to impossible to get straight answers from university president, Prof Kerstin Mey, and her colleagues.

“Very frustrating,” sighed committee chair, Brian Stanley, during this sustained onslaught of corporate gobbledegook.

Verona lost the rag early on, accusing UL of indulging in “an arse-covering exercise. Full stop”.

Exasperated by the replies, she asked Prof Mey if the witnesses underwent media training before their appearance.

There followed a perfect example of how most of the exchanges went and it explains why the TDs were so annoyed.

It was a simple question with a simple answer.

Verona Murphy: Did you receive media training for today?”

Kersten Mey: We prepared ourselves for, with all due respect, we were preparing ourselves to give the best . . .

VM: Did you employ media consultants to do that?

KM: . . . the best of our abilities to answer your question . . .

VM: Did you employ media consultants in which to do that? It’s well known from people appearing that’s that what they do for this committee. Did ye do the same?

KM (as Deputy Murphy sighs heavily): We prepare ourselves very diligently to give you the answers that you seek from us, in order to account with transparency and accountability.

VM: I’m not going to repeat the fact that what we are getting is just waffle. The question was: Did. You. Hire. A. Media. Consultancy. Company. To. Prepare. For. Today?

KM: We worked to prepare for today as a team.

VM: It’s incredible that somebody who is in your position does not understand the question that is being asked. Did you hire a media consultancy company in which to prepare for today?

KM: I answered your question, deputy Murphy, that we prepared ourselves as a team.

VM: And did that preparation incorporate the use of a media consultancy?

KM: We worked closely with our communications staff on the preparation for the appearance in this committee.

VM: Who are the consultancy company?

Professor Mey names two colleagues employed by the university “with whom we have been working”.

VM: In the examination of the university’s accounts next year, we’re not going to see any media consultancy fees. Is that correct?

KM: We are happy to share information on our media consultants’ fees.

Verona was like a dog with a bone. She wasn’t giving up.

VM: I’m only asking the question: did you use a media consultancy company to prepare for today? That’s a “Yes” or “No” question.

KM: We are training ourselves in leadership, as members of the university.

Verona asks her three times to name the company.

KM: As I said before, we, we, we, eh . . .

VM: It’s not a trick question, Ms Mey. Who do you use?

KM: We prepare ourselves in the execution of our leadership training using a number of training opportunities internally.

VM: So you don’t employ a media consultancy company?

KM: And if we need to, we will employ an external media company but our leadership . . .

VM: And have you recently?

KM: Our leadership development . . .

VM: Have you recently employed a media consultancy company?

KM: Our, our leadership development involves also dealing with the media . . .

Dear God, woman. Will you just answer the question and put us all out of our misery!

Verona changes tack slightly.

“When did you last employ a media consultancy company?

KM: We employ training companies in order to enhance our leadership, as part of a normal practice.

VM: When did you last employ one?

KM: Eh, the last, the last employment will have been earlier in the year.

VM: We are in the month of May. So there was April, March – go back. Just tell me you don’t recollect – is that it? – when you last had a media consultancy company into UL?

Au contraire.

KM: I have a very clear recollection. You asked me a very particular question of whether we employed a media company . . . .

VM: And I asked you the last time . . .

KM: . . . in order to train for our appearance in the Committee of Public Accounts and what I have said to you is that we are training in terms of developing our leadership abilities in the round, as a senior management team.

VM: When did you last employ a media consultancy company? In what month of this year? What month of this year?

Suddenly, a breakthrough.

KM: In May.

VM: In May. Thank you! And who was it? What was the consultancy company?

At this point, UL’s Chief Corporate Officer intervened, saying he didn’t know if it was “appropriate to name an individual company in the circumstances”.

Verona couldn’t see why not. Won’t it be in the accounts anyway?

Whereupon the Comptroller and Auditor General jumped in and said the expenditure would be listed but maybe not the specific company.

VM: I can’t see any difficulty. It’s just interesting for the committee.

The chief corporate officer, John Kelly bit the bullet.

“As I understand it, leadership training is provided by a company called Blue Yard Consultancy, but a number of companies provide. . .”

VM: Leadership training. Is that the company that was employed in May?

John Kelly: Yes.

VM: Blue Yard. Thank you.

Dear God, but you’d need a lie down after all.

In a crowded field, Blue Yard, by the way, is a very successful and highly regarded public affairs and management consultancy company established in 2021 by Mandy Johnston, a former Government Press Secretary.

What an unnecessary song and dance on Thursday.

Ahern and Adams return to old stomping ground

A prestigious stop on the panel-discussion circuit for Good Friday double act Bertie Ahern and Gerry Adams next week when they return to Leinster House for an event organised by the Ceann Comhairle to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement.

Seán Ó Fearghaíl has put together an impressive line-up for the forum which will be held in the Members’ Restaurant on Tuesday night. Also due to attend are Bríd Rogers, former MLA and member of Seanad Éireann who led the SDLP team at the talks; Monica McWilliams, former MLA and co-founder of the NI Women’s Coalition; David Kerr, Ulster Unionist Party director of communications in the run up to the agreement; Liz O’Donnell, former minister of state for foreign affairs; Rev Harold Good, the Methodist minister who oversaw the decommissioning of IRA arms; and Deric Henderson, the Press Association’s Belfast bureau chief at the time.

Journalist and broadcaster Seán O’Rourke is on moderating duties so it should be a lively affair.

Much has changed on the political landscape here and in the North since the two referendums, but the peace still holds.

Back in 1998, Sinn Féin had just one Dáil deputy (Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Cavan-Monaghan) and Mary Lou McDonald was a rising star in Fianna Fáil.

An exhibition of portraits of some of the key players in the peace process by artist Shane Gillen will also be on display in the Main Hall in Leinster House.

Bertie, meanwhile, has a noticeable spring in his step these days. He played a huge role in delivering the Agreement and deserves his place in the sun.

But according to seasoned observers of The Bert, all this attention and praise may be feeding into and bolstering his hopes that the presidency is not out of reach. We also hear that some of his people who have remained faithful during the lean years are now not ruling out the possibility of a successful tilt at the Áras.

All that tribunal unpleasantness is so long ago now and anyway, the young people aren’t interested because they can’t remember the people involved and the amounts of money involved don’t seem so significant today.

Don’t laugh.

They seriously think he can do it.

Rabbitte’s amateur drama days

There’s Minister of State Anne Rabbitte featuring large in the pages of the Drama League of Ireland’s summer magazine, which is hot off the presses.

It turns out that the Fianna Fáil TD for Galway East had a keen interest in the world of amateur dramatics before she embarked on her career in politics. When she was a young bank official back in 1992 she cofounded Mountbellew’s Malthouse Players.

She met her late husband, Paddy, when they were both treading the boards with the group. A high point was when she performed in An Taibhdhearc.

Anne was interviewed by Edward Hayden, the new Chair of the Drama League. He wondered if she might consider setting up a drama group in the Dáil.

“All the characters are there for certain and often take licence to perform on a different stage,” she replied, opting not to go for the obvious by reminding him that Dáil Éireann has the biggest concentration of drama queens in the country with unrivalled performances of amateur dramatics and melodramatics all year round.

Edward says Anne even suggested some TDs and senators who would do well in the drama group but he didn’t name them.

He probably hadn’t enough space to list them all.

Martin’s retro musical taste

Tánaiste Micheál Martin talked about the cultural influences on his life to Today FM’s Matt Cooper during the Culture Club slot on his Last Word drive-time show.

Mercifully on the music front, Micheál decided not to get down with the kids and show off his knowledge of current trends, of which he has none. Which is fair enough for a 62-year-old party leader and former taoiseach who has spent almost all his adult life in national politics.

Apart from a brief dalliance with U2 in 2018 – he lists the band’s Experience + Innocence tour concert in the 3Arena as one of the best gigs he has attended, his musical choices are unashamedly, er, retro.

His other favourite gigs were in the 1980s, including the Siamsa Cois Laoí festivals in Cork.

His favourite album is Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer or anything by Simon & Garfunkel.

And he bought his first ever single in 1972. It was Long Haired Lover from Liverpool sung by Little Jimmy Osmond.

We admire his honesty.

Miriam Lord

Miriam Lord

Miriam Lord is a colour writer and columnist with The Irish Times. She writes the Dáil Sketch, and her review of political happenings, Miriam Lord’s Week, appears every Saturday