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Media Minister defends her handling of RTE crisis

Ireland’s Media Minister has defended her handling of the latest crisis to engulf RTE, which led to Siun Ni Raghallaigh resigning as the chairwoman of the network’s board.

Catherine Martin, who is facing calls to step down from her position, said she is doing her best to manage a “very difficult situation”.

The Green Party minister repeated her position that Ms Ni Raghallaigh failed to inform her that the RTE board was involved in the exit package of a former board member.

Ms Ni Raghallaigh resigned overnight after Ms Martin failed to express confidence in her.

RTE pay revelations
Culture Minister Catherine Martin speaks during a press conference at the Government Buildings in Dublin (Brian Lawless/PA)

Ms Martin said she had been “misinformed” about the approval of an exit package for a former RTE executive, and said she was “deeply disappointed” when asked to express confidence in Ms Ni Raghallaigh.

Addressing reporters at Government Buildings on Friday, Ms Martin also said the former secretary general of her department has “no recollection” of being told that an exit package for former RTE chief financial officer Richard Collins was approved by the board.

This is despite a statement from the RTE board stating that the then secretary general Katherine Licken was “directly” told by Ms Ni Raghallaigh of the outcome of the remuneration committee on October 10 last year.

“I am aware of suggestions that Ms Ni Raghallaigh had informed the former secretary general of my department that the board had approved the exit package for Richard Collins,” Ms Martin said.

“I discussed this matter with the former secretary general yesterday and today to check if this was the case.

“She has been clear that while she was informed by phone that the independent mediation process on an exit package for Mr Collins had finally reached a conclusion, she has no recollection of being told that it was approved by the board’s remuneration committee.

“I was deeply disappointed that the chair had not given me accurate information when I raised it specifically on two occasions during the week.

“I wrote to the chair yesterday evening asking her for a meeting on Friday morning. I believed the failure to properly answer my questions was so serious that it required a formal meeting.”

It was also confirmed that there was no note taken of the phone call between Ms Ni Raghallaigh and the department’s former secretary general on October 10.

Ms Martin has been criticised after she was accused of dismissing the chairwoman of the RTE board on live television on Thursday night.

Defending her appearance on Prime Time, Ms Martin said it was a pre-arranged interview and that she felt she had to address the matter.

She continued: “I am doing my best to manage a very difficult situation. I am absolutely committed to, after consecutive governments failing to put a funding model in place, I am absolutely committed to making that decision.

“I am at advanced negotiations levels with that at cabinet.”

RTE has come under heavy scrutiny to release details of exit packages for executives dating back to 2016.

On Thursday it published legal advice that said publicly releasing the details of former and current employee contracts would expose RTE “to avoidable legal challenge”.

Questions have been raised about the governance over exit packages after it was revealed that former chief financial officer Breda O’Keeffe was paid 450,000 euro which was not approved under the terms of a voluntary redundancy programme.

Appearing on Prime Time, Ms Martin said she had been given repeated assurances that the RTE board had no role in signing off an exit package to Mr Collins.

However, it emerged that the remuneration committee of the board, which Ms Ni Raghallaigh chairs, had approved Mr Collins’ exit arrangements.

Ms Martin said on Friday: “I had asked the chair at two meetings on Monday and Wednesday if she or the board had played any role in approving either of two recent severance packages to senior RTE executives.

“Ms Ni Raghallaigh said that neither she nor the board had played any role in approving it. On Thursday, Ms Ni Raghallaigh contacted the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, and said that what she had told me on Monday and Wednesday was inaccurate.

“Ms Ni Raghallaigh said that she now remembered that the remuneration committee of the RTE board, which she chaired, had met to approve the Richard Collins exit package last October.

“The fact that she contacted the department with this information indicates she was aware she needed to correct the record.”

She added: “I teased it out even more on the Wednesday meeting, and then to find out on the Thursday that she has suddenly remembered that she not only was in the meeting, but chaired the meeting that approved it.”

Ms Martin said during the Wednesday meeting, Ms Ni Raghallaigh said “no we did not have a role but in the future with the new reform we will, so she talks in the future tense even on Wednesday”.

She said she checked with the former secretary general of her department before going on RTE Prime Time, and before she informed the coalition leaders.

She said she has confidence in RTE director general Kevin Bakhurst to continue his reform agenda.

On Thursday, the minister said she had sought an urgent meeting with Ms Ni Raghallaigh over the matter.

However, hours later, Ms Ni Raghallaigh said it was “abundantly clear” her position is no longer tenable as she had lost the confidence of Ms Martin.

In her statement, issued just before 1am on Friday, she said her misrepresentation of the process was not “intentional”.

Ms Ni Raghallaigh said that during a meeting with Ms Martin earlier in the week, she had been asked if the board knew about the exit packages for former strategy director Rory Coveney and Mr Collins.

RTE pay revelations
Cabinet ministers have backed their colleague Catherine Martin (Brian Lawless/PA)

“I said that I was aware of them but they had not come before the full board. However, I neglected to recollect that Richard Collins’ exit package did go before the renumeration committee.”

Ms Ni Raghallaigh said Mr Bakhurst was also present in the two meetings with the minister and her officials this week, which lasted for more than three hours.

In a statement released on Friday afternoon, the board echoed a statement made by Ms Ni Raghallaigh that she had informed the department about the agreement with Mr Collins the day after it had been approved.

The RTE board also published the minutes of the board’s remuneration committee on October 9, held on the video platform Teams at 5pm, which was attended by director general Kevin Bakhurst.

“The day after this meeting of the remuneration committee, October 10 2023, Siun contacted the Secretary General of the Department directly by telephone and updated her about the meeting of the remuneration committee, and its outcome – ie, that it approved an agreement with Richard Collins,” it said.

Cabinet ministers backed their government colleague despite calls for her to step down, with the Labour Party describing her position as “untenable”.

The Labour Party accused the minister of “summarily dismissing” Ms Ni Raghallaigh live on air.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said that Ms Martin had not effectively dismissed the RTE chairwoman through her interview.

On Friday morning, Ms McEntee, Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman and Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris all publicly stated confidence in their government colleague.

Speaking in Dublin, Ms McEntee said: “I think Catherine Martin has handled this in the best way possible. She has engaged at every stage with the board and in particular the chair of the board. That is the person she is legally responsible to engage with to ensure that the information that she gets is factual and correct and the right information.

“Last night she had committed to an interview she followed through on and outlined a number of conversations that happened this week. Further information came to light that she had not been aware of.

“I think it is regrettable that a meeting that had been due to happen today between the minister and the chair of the board is not now going to happen.

“I think what people want is information, they want to see transparency, would want to have confidence in our public service broadcaster, confidence in those who are managing RTE and the only way we can have confidence is by knowing all of the facts and all of the information, and I don’t believe we are at that point just yet.”

Ms McEntee said that Ms Martin simply “laid out the facts”.

Mr O’Gorman said his party colleague has his full confidence over RTE.

“I think what Catherine outlined last night is that on two occasions this week, she asked the chair of the board about whether the remuneration packages were disclosed at the board and she was told they weren’t,” Mr O’Gorman added.

“Subsequently yesterday, I understand, new information was provided by the chair of the board.

“Catherine had a pre-existing commitment on Prime Time and she expressed, I think, her very legitimate disappointment in terms of new information coming forward like that.

“She did it in a transparent way. I think, all along in our discussions since the story broke, the issue has been a lot of transparency and Minister Martin speaking on a national political show was transparent in terms of what the situation is right now.

“She indicated clearly she wanted to discuss this matter further with the chair of the board. That would have happened this morning but obviously the chair of the board has subsequently made a decision to resign.

“To be absolutely clear, when I look at the work Catherine has done in terms of the two expert bodies, looking at governance and culture in RTE, remuneration and pay in RTE and the work Catherine is doing in terms of looking to bring a sustainable funding model to RTE, she has my full confidence.”

Mr Harris said that some “glib” commentary on Ms Martin has been unfair.

He said Ms Martin found herself in “a very difficult position last night” as she was scheduled to go on TV before meeting Ms Ni Raghallaigh on Friday.

Asked whether Ms Martin’s handling of her department was in question, Mr Harris said: “I don’t believe it is, I believe Catherine Martin is a good minister.

“I know Catherine Martin to be a very diligent, very hard working, very honest person… and I think some of the glib commentary today from some in opposition is unfair.”