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RTE chairwoman ‘indicated she might resign’ before minister’s live TV interview

The former chairwoman of RTE’s board indicated she might resign before a TV interview in which the media minister failed to express confidence in her, a committee has heard.

Catherine Martin said that she did everything she could to avoid saying that she had no confidence in the former chairwoman Siun Ni Raghallaigh.

But Ms Martin also said during a committee appearance that her “confidence had been rocked” in Ms Ni Raghallaigh after she indicated she “shouldn’t” meet the minister.

Ms Martin has been accused of making a “serious blunder” after she went on live TV and refused to express confidence in Ms Ni Raghallaigh on RTE’s Prime Time programme last Thursday.

The minister said she had been misinformed on two occasions by Ms Ni Raghallaigh about the board’s involvement in approving exit packages for former RTE executives.

Former RTE board chairwoman Siun Ni Raghallaigh
Former RTE board chairwoman Siun Ni Raghallaigh (PA)

Ms Ni Raghallaigh resigned from her position hours later, prompting opposition parties to question Ms Martin’s handling of the matter at a crucial time for the embattled broadcaster.

In a late appearance before the Oireachtas media committee, Ms Martin said her confidence had been “rocked” after Ms Ni Raghallaigh “had indicated during the day that they felt they shouldn’t meet me”.

“It was indicated to the former chair that my most likely action would be that I would write a letter or an email… because I felt it was significant,” she said in response to questions from TD Christopher O’Sullivan.

“When the official came back to me I said ‘this was not good, I’ve received inaccurate information on a number of occasions’.

“It was indicated that I would write a letter, and the former chair was not willing to receive a letter.”

Ms Martin added: “She was indicating that she might resign if I sent a letter.

“That’s quite problematic from a confidence point of view if the chair is unwilling to receive a letter.”

She said she had thought that the indication of a resignation was just “a rash comment because it didn’t make sense”, and said she was “hopeful that that was something that was said in the heat of the moment”.

She added that Ms Ni Raghallaigh had not agreed to a meeting on Friday: “She indicated she felt she would not come to a meeting, but I was still hoping that she would.”

Asked why she chose to prioritise an interview on RTE Prime Time over meeting with the chairwoman, Ms Martin said it was “a pre-arranged interview”.

“I felt it would be wrong for me to pull out of an interview that had been pre-arranged,” she said.

“I had to be transparent on that programme. And it was a case of I just could not express confidence in someone, but I was doing everything I could, under repeated questioning, to not say I have no confidence because I wanted to afford the opportunity to speak to her on the Friday morning.”

Asked how she didn’t foresee a question about whether she had confidence in the chairwoman of the RTE board, she said it was “impossible” to predict.

“I think I was pushed on a number of occasions and was trying to do my best not to say I have no confidence. I was trying to keep the door open as much as possible (until) that meeting on the Friday.”

She said that the weekend before last, she was reading a media report about an exit package for the former director of strategy Rory Coveney, which stated that the chairwoman had an approval role in it.

“I found that a little bit astonishing because I would have been absolutely confident that that happened in July, it had been conveyed to me as a resignation.

“So I asked in that meeting (last Monday), why haven’t you clarified this error in the report, a statement from RTE saying that the former chair, with the DG, had approved that package, because I just couldn’t understand how it was still there 24 hours later and hadn’t been clarified.”

She was told “it was inaccurate and they had no role”.

“And I asked the chair ‘Did you know that it wasn’t a resignation and not tell me?'”

“And I was told: ‘Yes, I did know. I should have told you. I’m sorry, I forgot’.

“That was the first thing that happened on the Monday. And that led to the next question in relation to ‘had you any role whatsoever in the other package?’ and said ‘no, I did not have any role in that’.”

She said she went out to “correct the record” on Monday evening to state that the board had “no role whatsoever” in approving either packages for Mr Coveney or former chief financial officer Richard Collins.

She added that she did not think the inaccurate information was given on purpose by Ms Ni Raghallaigh: “I do not believe it was intentional, but that does not take away from the fact (of) getting inaccurate information on several occasions, there’s an issue there.”

She said she was not going to seek Ms Ni Raghallaigh’s resignation on Friday morning.

Asked whether her “blood was up” before going on Prime Time over being given incorrect information by the chairwoman, Ms Martin said “certainly not”.

“Anyone that knows me knows I’m not someone who would act like that.”

Asked whether political advisers had held discussions with the Prime Time team about “planting” a question of confidence, Ms Martin said it was flagged that she was willing to address a question about having been given incorrect information.

“As I pulled up to Prime Time, I did become aware that the news was about to break that I had been given the incorrect information that day. And so it was flagged that I was willing to speak to the issue.”

Asked again whether a question in respect of having confidence in Ms Ni Raghallaigh was planted, Ms Martin said: “No absolutely not.”

Ms Martin said she had confidence in RTE director general Kevin Bakhurst, despite him being present alongside Ms Ni Raghallaigh in a meeting with Ms Martin last week.

She said her relationship was with the chair of the board, and the role of the director general was “distinct” from that.

“Either they should both be gone, or they should both be in their jobs,” Fianna Fail Senator Shane Cassells suggested.

Asked whether Mr Bakhurst spoke to contradict the comments made by Ms Ni Raghallaigh during the meeting, Ms Martin said “no”.

Ms Martin said she will look to appoint a new chair of the RTE board “as soon as possible” and will be meeting the RTE board “in the coming days”.