Siún Ní Raghallaigh’s ferocious response is full of problems for Catherine Martin

Minister for Media not under immediate threat following RTÉ ex-chair’s riposte, but the scandal rumbles on, shifting focus from fixing the station’s problems

Catherine holding image

Last Thursday, Minister for Arts and Media Catherine Martin delivered a steady-handed defence of her actions in the run-in to Siún Ní Raghallaigh’s resignation as chair of the RTÉ board.

However, her performance at the Oireachtas media committee had a weak point: it brought the focus intensely on Ní Raghallaigh, foregrounding her actions in the lead up to a bombshell interview by Martin on Prime Time which prompted the resignation. The risk was always that there would be a riposte from the former RTÉ chair.

On Monday afternoon she delivered a ferocious repudiation of Martin which will deepen and prolong the crisis – something the former chair says she does not want, but the subtext of her 2,300-word statement is that she had no choice.

The statement immediately caused shock waves in the political system, the Opposition ramping up the pressure on Martin, talk of further committee hearings and rumblings of concern privately expressed from within the ranks of the Government. And it is not hard to see why: Ní Raghallaigh’s statement is full of problems for Martin.


Just a few paragraphs in, she explicitly tackles evidence given to the committee last week by Martin, who told Malcolm Byrne that she had had “monthly meetings” supplemented by direct emails and phone calls with Ní Raghallaigh. This was flatly contradicted by the ex-chair, who said this was “not true” and she had had “only a handful” of direct meetings in 15 months.

There is manifold criticism of Martin’s overall approach to the crisis, as well as specific instances. At its most stinging, it directly mirrors the language of Martin’s harshest critics, stating Ní Raghallaigh’s experience “has been of a Minister actively taking a hands-off approach”. She suggests Martin acted contrary to good governance, which prescribes regular contact between Minister and chair, saying she had “no choice but to accept” regular contact would be through the secretary general of the department – “not typical”, she says. She petitioned Martin to appoint board members when some stepped down seven months ago – “However, no appointments were made,” she says, criticising the lack of financial acumen on the board of an organisation in “deep financial trouble”.

She skewers Martin’s infamous failure to be prescriptive about whether people should pay the licence fee, saying she was “not assisted by the Minister who said she would refuse to tell licence payers what to do”. Of the fateful Prime Time interview, she outlines feeling a “plan was afoot” involving the programme. Martin’s reason for raising the dramatic rupture in relations on the programme, which made her position untenable, was that she believed it was about to break publicly anyway. Ní Raghallaigh’s statement effectively argues this is faulty as only one relevant press query had been submitted, due for response the following day – although it must be noted that some reporters had picked up on the ructions that day as it circulated within some senior circles in Government.

Perhaps the most damaging point is a little arcane – but it is worth thrashing out. Martin moved against the RTÉ chair for failing to provide her with accurate information about board sign-off for an exit package for former chief financial officer Richard Collins. The RTÉ board argued that the information had been conveyed by Ní Raghallaigh in a phone call on October 9th – and should constructively have been grasped by the politicians and officials due to new rules on the role of the board’s remuneration committee – the thrust of this being that Ní Raghallaigh was unfairly attacked for omitting information which already resided in the department.

Martin poured cold water on this last week, repeatedly saying that Ní Raghallaigh had told officials only that she “imagined that she would have referred to” the committee’s role. The former chair’s statement – three times – emphasises that she told the department of the involvement of the remuneration committee in the decision, and that last week she told officials that she “would imagine” that had been passed on to the Minister. “A different construction is now being put on that, my use of the word ‘imagine’ is now being misrepresented.

“I cannot remain silent about the manner of my enforced dismissal which seemed designed to traduce my reputation,” she adds.

The RTÉ story has shown capacity to rapidly evolve – to re-spawn as a new sublineage of scandal, sucking more people in. Nobody seems able to put a floor under it. The latest chapter on exit payments has claimed the RTÉ chair, winged the new director general and damaged the Minister, just as she prepares to install a new chair – the timing is exquisitely inconvenient for Martin. The Opposition seems slow to bring matters to a head with a confidence vote, and in the absence of any unlikely revolt from within the Government, she will continue. But so will the palaver at RTÉ – making the Coalition’s task of alighting on a formula for the future funding of the broadcaster more fraught still.