Catherine Martin’s account of events contradicts that of RTÉ’s board. They can’t both be right

RTÉ board has dug in and is on a collision course with Minister for Media

Early on Thursday evening, word began to circulate in the political system that a big announcement was coming from RTÉ.

Texts and WhatsApp messages were bouncing around between Ministers and senior officials, with rumours – even at this stage – that RTÉ chairwoman Siún Ní Raghallaigh was about to step down. Initially, even senior RTÉ sources were incredulous at the suggestion.

The news of Catherine Martin’s letter, and events leading up to it, was circulating at very senior levels of government but had not filtered down. Some Cabinet members found out either from the Minister’s Prime Time interview, or from texts from journalists scrambling to pull together news copy for Friday’s front pages.

The Nine O’Clock news was keenly watched – but it came and went with no announcement. The real action came after it. “Watch Prime Time,” grimaced one insider.


The initial reaction was fierce from the political system – on the face of it, Martin had been sent out with inaccurate information gleaned from RTÉ's chair – checked and double checked, but still wrong. In politics, this is a cardinal sin. For TDs and senators, the latitude is wider, but Cabinet members don’t get much in the way of do-overs.

“Hard to see [Ní Raghallaigh] staying on,” texted one senior source late on Thursday. “The whole debacle is getting more dysfunctional by the minute,” said a Minister. A second texted: “When you couldn’t think things could get any worse... the whole saga is a shambles.” A third: “It’s hard to see any scenario or explanation here that is good and this is a deeply concerning development.”

Overnight, the news of the resignation broke – with one line in Ní Raghallaigh’s statement garnering attention as breakfast radio shows pored over the news: that the RTÉ chair had disclosed the “process” underlying the severance deals to the Department of Arts and Media on October 10th. This switched the focus very swiftly to Catherine Martin: What had the department been told, and what had the Minister known – or what should she have known?

By midafternoon, RTÉ's board and Government spin doctors were in a staring match – the Coalition wanted the board meeting done before going out to face the press

The rapidly developing story played into one of the most tenacious criticisms of Martin: that she has floated above the crisis, failing to put a political stamp on it. Allies of the Minister reject this flatly, arguing that her arm’s-length approach has enabled a distance from a scandal that could have otherwise ensnared her, pointing to the fates of Frances Fitzgerald and Alan Shatter, who were consumed by separate political controversies, or Denis Naughten, whose hands-on approach to the national broadband plan ended his ministerial career.

The Labour Party was quick out of the traps, calling on Martin to resign in a press release just after 9am. Malcolm Byrne, the Fianna Fáil senator, earned the ire of some in government by floating the suggestion that the department had been brought into the dispute now and criticising Martin for doing the interview. Other parties were more guarded – Sinn Féin, so recently burned by a rushed confidence motion in Helen McEntee, called for a Dáil questions-and-answers session – stopping short of floating a no-confidence motion. As the day progressed, the political system entered into a holding pattern. Simon Harris went on Claire Byrne’s show shifting the focus back to RTÉ's inadequacies. By early afternoon, the Government was firmly circling the wagons – the three Coalition leaders backed her. Ministers were slow to take pot shots.

By midafternoon, RTÉ's board and Government spindoctors were in a staring match – the Coalition wanted the board meeting done before going out to face the press.

As the afternoon progressed it seemed there was a path through the day for Martin. Firstly, if the RTÉ board stayed put (rumours were flying of a mass resignation); then, if Martin made it through her press doorstep planned for that afternoon; and, crucially, if it transpired that the information given by Ní Raghallaigh was devoid of crucial details that should have been passed up to the Minister by her officials.

Just after 4pm, the RTÉ board released a statement, along with notes of the meeting of the board’s remuneration committee which agreed RTÉ's former chief financial officer Richard Collins’s exit package. The board was absolutely emphatic: on October 10th, Ní Raghallaigh contacted Katherine Licken, the secretary general of Martin’s department, directly and updated her – crucially, that update included reference to “the meeting of the remuneration committee, and its outcome – ie, that it approved an agreement with Richard Collins,” according to the board. It also shows, interestingly, that the board agreed in principle to sign off on the deal on the 9th, but only formally on the 10th – the day Ní Raghallaigh spoke to Licken.

Within the hour, Catherine Martin was standing in the chilly courtyard of Government Buildings, fielding questions from journalists.

Martin seemed nervy and apprehensive when facing the press at Government Buildings – as if conscious that she was escalating the political seriousness of the controversy by placing herself at the centre of it. Previously, the trouble has all been in RTÉ, with the Minister – and everyone else – looking on. Now Martin, and by extension the Government, to the horror of many of her colleagues, was at the centre of things.

The RTÉ statement pointedly remarks that new terms of reference were introduced in September, with all changes to executive pay and terms going before the remuneration committee

Licken’s recollection, she said, was that there was no mention of board approval – only that the process had been completed. Because the board wasn’t involved, it wasn’t worth keeping a note of. Martin was informed, but she seems to have put little store in it beyond noting Collins was gone, and that there was a deal. The part she found truly problematic, and which she says she became aware of only on Thursday, was the board approval.

The RTÉ statement pointedly remarks that new terms of reference were introduced in September, with all changes to executive pay and terms going before the remuneration committee. Martin’s view is that did not include exit packages, so she could not have known about the board involvement, and would not have been expected to ask.

Her account of events directly contradicts that of the RTÉ board; they can’t both be right.

Across the Government there is growing unease. Previously, Ministers and senior officials have muttered about Martin’s handling of the RTÉ controversy; that criticism has now intensified.

In a second statement, the board said it was now seeking a meeting with the Minister. The Oireachtas committee system is surely primed for more action.

As the day drew to a close on Friday, the support for Martin at ministerial level is solid, but there is also a view she is damaged.

Above all, there was an abounding sense of nerves among some Ministers. With the relationship between RTÉ and the Government more deeply damaged than ever, with media and political attention unrelenting, the risk and the fear is that more may yet come out, as the saga continues to unwind in unpredictable and volatile ways.

In RTÉ, meanwhile, the board has dug in and is now on a collision course with the Minister. Quite where this leaves the station’s chances of securing a generous funding settlement is anyone’s guess – but RTÉ’s greatest champion in the Government is now at war with its board. Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse for RTÉ, they did.

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