Home > Uncategorized > Why Did the LEADERSHIP of the Powerful ITGWU Reject the Connolly Position on Partition and Call a Strike in Support of the Treaty?

Why Did the LEADERSHIP of the Powerful ITGWU Reject the Connolly Position on Partition and Call a Strike in Support of the Treaty?

Disaster Followed: ITGWU   5,000 Members  in 1916,- 120,000 in 1920-21, -15000 in 1929


The Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC and Labour Party) including the ITGWU organised a general strike in April 1922 against the threat of armed action by Republicans to set aside the partitioning Treaty and to defend the 32-county All-Ireland Parliament, first elected in 1918. The strike was supported by the Free State Government , many employers, the Catholic Church and the right-wing Irish Independent newspaper. The ITUC claimed that the strike was against “militarism”. Larkin had not returned from the United States at this time.

Just two years earlier in April 1920, The ITUC called a massive and successful general strike in support of republican hunger-strikers. In the course of the two-day strike, local strike-committees seized control of several towns. These “town soviets”  were an expression of the depth of popular support for the struggle for Irish Unity and independence. As the hunger strikers were involved in a military conflict, it is clear that the union leaders had no objection in principle to the IRA campaign. Together with the paralysing of public transport and other services, the immense power of the general strike was demonstrated. This was confirmed when the British authorities released the prisoners.

After the great victory of the 1920 General Strike, why did the leaders of ITGWU not push on for a complete British withdrawal from Ireland as sought by the First Dáil? https://wp.me/pKzXa-1Az

William O’Brien, ITGWU Leader, knew what Connolly would have done. Connolly would have aggressively demanded a complete and immediate British withdrawal from all of Ireland. He would have invited all local soviet representatives to a national meeting which would set up a national co-ordinating committee. Importantly he would have commenced recruiting to the Citizen Army. in 1916, Connolly told the Citizen Army to hold on to their guns if the rising were successful.  He would have set an early date for a general Strike and huge demonstrations for a British withdrawal.

This was the opportunity for Irish Workers to grasp the leadership of the national struggle on the road to a 32-county Workers’ Republic


O’Brien was in a particularly strong position to lead the campaign for full Irish Unity and Independence as he went back to 1916 with Connolly and he was interned in England during the 1920 General Strike!

British Arrest and Detain ITGWU LEADER William O’Brien 1920

In March (2nd to 4th?) 1920 William O’Brien, secretary of the Irish Labour Party and a leading member of the Irish trade union movement, was arrested under The Defence of The Realm Act and taken to Wormwood Scrubs where seventy other Republican political prisoners were already being held. When they began a hunger-strike he joined in. O’Brien had helped found the Irish Transport & General Workers union and had been close colleague of James Connolly.

(He stood in Stockport Bye-Election March 20 1920, but was not released to campaign)

O’Brien continued his hunger strike until the government did a deal to move him into a nursing home (where he was visited by the veteran Fenian Dr Mark Ryan) and finally release him in early May. O’Brien was later elected to the Dail for many years and died in 1968.

(This means that he was interned in England during the Great 1920 General Strike (April 12,13) in support of Republican Hunger Strikers He had joined a hunger strike in Wormwood Scrubs prison befor being moved, still in detention, to hospital)

But O’Brien did none of this and in a short two years he  had changed sides and called a General Strike in support of the capitulatory and partitioning Treaty

 WHY DID THE ITGWU leaders CHANGE SIDES? Does the position which the ITGWU leadership took on the Treaty have any relevance to positions taken by the ITGWU leaders in later years and even to-day?

Connolly had said of the threat of partitioning Ireland:

“Such a scheme as that agreed to by Redmond and Devlin, the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.

To it Labour should give the bitterest opposition, against it Labour in Ulster should fight even to the death, if necessary, as our fathers fought before us.” From Irish Worker, 14 March 1914.

ITGWU Leader, Willie O’ Brien, a close associate of Connolly,  was fully aware of the Connolly position.

Read John Dorney on The General Strike and Irish independence


Contributions to this discussion are welcome!

The Context

Why The British Agreed to Truce and Treaty—General Montgomery (“Monty”)

BL Montgomery(MONTY) was appointed brigade major in the 17th Infantry Brigade of the British Army in January 1921. The brigade was stationed in County Cork, carrying out counter-insurgency operations during the final stages of the Irish War of Independence

Montgomery came to the conclusion that the conflict could not be won without harsh measures, and that self-government for Ireland was the only feasible solution; He wrote later  https://wp.me/pKzXa-1Az

To Colonel Arthur Ernest Percival of the Essex Regiment 1923

“My own view is that to win a war of this sort, you must be ruthless. Oliver Cromwell, or the Germans, would have settled it in a very short time. Nowadays public opinion precludes such methods, the nation would never allow it, and the politicians would lose their jobs if they sanctioned it. That being so, I consider that Lloyd George was right in what he did, if we had gone on we could probably have squashed the rebellion as a temporary measure, but it would have broken out again like an ulcer the moment we removed the troops. I think the rebels would probably [have] refused battles, and hidden their arms etc. until we had gone…..

The only way forward therefore (for Britain) was to give them [the Irish] some form of self-government, and let them squash the rebellion themselves; they are the only people who could really stamp it out, and they are still trying to do so and as far as one can tell they seem to be having a fair amount of success.”

I have believed for some time that the depth of support for the war of independence expressed in the 1920 strike was a key factor in persuading the British not to contemplate massive repression by the British state itself. I agree with Montgomery’s analysis. -Leave the suppression of the rebellion to the Irish rich!

This view is shared to some extent by Dónal Hassett

He implies that the fact that the Irish were white Europeans also deterred the British  from using extreme measures because there would be international repercussions.

Striking Against Colonialism in Irish and Algerian Revolutions

By Dónal Hassett UCC (Lecturer in French)


The Response of the Authorities: Concessions vs Coercion

(Similar analysis to General Montgomery from Dónal Hassett Lecturer UCC)

“The Irish General Strike of 1920 was a resounding success for the nationalist movement. The immense pressure exercised by the combined forces of labour, nationalism, civil society and the Church secured an immediate and important concession from the British authorities in Ireland: the release of large numbers of republican prisoners.

It underlined the extent to which British repressive tactics were severe enough to provoke outrage and engender solidarity among the Irish but not sufficiently coercive as to crush the movement outright.[13]

This dynamic, undoubtedly linked to the position of the Irish within the imperial hierarchy as a white colonial population that enjoyed formal legal equality with the British but who were subject to specific forms of state violence, fuelled the rise of a cross-class coalition willing to mobilise en masse against the authorities.

While the strike did not immediately bring an end to British rule- this was never its goal- it reinforced the sense that Ireland was ungovernable, further diminishing the desire of the British state and electorate to spend valuable financial, human and political capital on shoring up a collapsing order.”


So Why Did the LEADERSHIP of the Powerful ITGWU Reject the Connolly Position on Partition and Call a Strike in Support of the Treaty? https://wp.me/pKzXa-1Az

Yes, Irish Transport and General workers Union Leader was fully aware of Connolly’s injunction to fight partition “even unto death” as it would usher in a “carnival of reaction” north and south.   O’Brien was fully aware of the emergence of “soviets” of an area nature and of a factory nature during the war of independence. He was aware of the land seizures by small and medium farmers from landlords. He was aware of the militancy of farm labourers who had joined the ITGWU in tens of thousands. He knew that there was sufficient popular support to force a British withdrawal as that alone could allow the now risen people to have a full victory in pursuit of their social and economic interests. Indeed, it was the weakness of British rule in whole areas of Ireland which had allowed “Soviets” and land seizures to take place!

It wasn’t that he made a mistake. If he had he would have changed his mind when he saw that the Free State was actually doing in the civil war.

The Free State army crushed the soviets on it’s way to victory

ButOf Course the Sinn Féin Government, before the division on the Treaty, had been opposed to soviets and were protective of the private property of factory owners. https://wp.me/pKzXa-1Az

In at least two cases, Markevicz, minister for Labour is alleged to have threatened to send in the IRA to evict sovieteers . These were at Bruree and Castle connell, Co Limerick.  It is also claimed that the pre-Treaty IRA was used to break up certain soviets. See immediately below

Bruree Soviet     Wikipedia

On August 26th 1921, the bakery and mills in BrureeCounty Limerick (owned by the Cleeve Family) were occupied by almost all of its employees save the manager and a clerk. The workers raised a red flag, raised a banner reading “Bruree Soviet Workers Mill” and proclaimed they were now in control of the mill and would be selling its food at a lower price, forgoing the “profiteering” formerly being practised there. Forcing the owners to the negotiation table at Liberty Hall in Dublin, Union officials claimed the soviet was able to drop prices, double sales and increase wages.[10]Sinn Féin’s Minister for Labour Countess Markievicz mediated the negotiations and it is alleged she threatened to send in IRA troops to the Bruree Soviet if they did not accept the outcome of the arbitration.[7

……. it is also claimed that the IRA was used to break up soviets in Whitechurch, County DublinYoughal and Fermoy.[3

From the Munster Soviets and the Fall of the house of Cleeve by David Lee

The Castleconnell Fisheries Soviet ended in December 1921. Negotiations had taken place under threat from Markevicz, Minister for Labour, to send in the IRA to evict the sovieteers.

From minutes of Sinn Féin Dáil Cabinet, 2 December 1921: “Minister for Home Affairs to instruct police to proceed with the aid of volunteers to put strikers out of Mr Mackey’s premises.-Mininister of Labour (Markevicz) to interview Liberty Hall officials in the meantime with a view to having an organiser sent down to settle the dispute.”

But during the Civil War, The Free State the Free State army set out to crush and eliminate all soviet formations

From David Lee   The Munster Soviets and the Fall Of The House of Cleeve Published by Limerick City Council

Click to access limerick%20soviet%2015.pdf

“one of the very first acts of the  Free State Troops when they entered a town or village was to immediately suppress any soviet they found and to arrest the leaders https://wp.me/pKzXa-1Az

…..”When pro-treaty soldiers fought their way into Tipperary Town on the weekend of  28/29 of July 1922  they shot down the Red Flag which had flown over the soviet gasworks  since March4 ……………………………… the arrival of Government  Troops in Carrick-on-Suir in August 1922 saw the end of that particular experiment in workers’ control”

The political and industrial behaviour of the Labour Party and ITUC , including the ITGWU, cannot be understood outside of an understanding of why the  leaders of Irish society and their elected representatives negotiated the partitioning treaty. It is well to remember also that, though Devalera opposed the Treaty objecting to certain aspects, he was prepared to accept partition.

From Devalera’s Alternative     Document Number 2

Addendum: That, whilst refusing to admit the right of any part of Ireland to be excluded from the supreme authority of the Parliament of Ireland, or that the relations between the Parliament of Ireland and any subordinate Legislature in Ireland can be a matter for treaty with a government outside Ireland, nevertheless, in sincere regard for internal peace, and in order to make manifest our desire not to bring force or coercion to bear upon any substantial part of the province of Ulster, whose inhabitants may now be unwilling to accept the national authority, we are prepared to grant to that portion of Ulster which is defined as Northern Ireland in the British Government of Ireland Act of 1920, privileges and safeguards not less substantial than those provided for in the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland signed in London on December 6th, 1921.”

It could be claimed that technically though allowing partition, residual sovereignty over the 6-counties would reside with the Dáil rather than Westminster. However, the willingness of Devalera “not to bring force or coercion” to bear on the Unionists, would mean in practice that partition would last for a very long time and nationalists would be subject to a unionist majority in parliament  into the indefinite future. The dominance of the Unionist upper caste would remain an impediment to unity of the Irish working class into the future as Connolly predicted.

Did the second Dáil and the then united IRA leadership enter negotiations with the UK because they genuinely considered that otherwise the War of Independence would fail completely??  There is no evidence for this!


Did the Treaty negotiators on the Irish side agree to the Terms of the Treaty because they were influenced by the threat of terrible and immediate war by Lloyd George?

Collins himself denied this.

Wikipedia: Michael Collins later claimed that at the last minute Lloyd George threatened the Irish delegates with a renewal of “terrible and immediate war”[13] if the Treaty was not signed at once. This was not mentioned as a threat in the Irish memorandum about the close of negotiations, but as a personal remark made by Lloyd George to Robert Barton, and merely a reflection of the reality of any military truce.[14] Barton noted that:

At one time he [Lloyd George] particularly addressed himself to me and said very solemnly that those who were not for peace must take full responsibility for the war that would immediately follow refusal by any Delegate to sign the Articles of Agreement.

Note: The phrase was also cited as “immediate and terrible war”. See: Collins M., “The Path to Freedom Notes by General Michael Collins”, August 1922; Collins did not state that the remark was made solely to Barton, implying that the whole Irish delegation had heard it: “The threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’ did not matter overmuch to me. The position appeared to be then exactly as it appears now. The British would not, I think, have declared terrible and immediate war upon us.”

Paul O’Brien, The Irish Civil War

The Beginning

“Threats issued by Lloyd George whether unfounded or not placed severe pressure on the inexperienced delegates that attended negotiations in London. Michael Collins knew the Irish Republican Army could not withstand an escalation or a prolonged armed conflict wit British crown forces. The signatories were salvaging the best terms and conditions they could hope for under difficult circumstances. The Dail debates revealed that the treaty offered enough to appease all ranks within Sinn Fein. Arthur Griffith put forward that the treaty represented a settlement that satisfied many. Michel Collins held the belief that it was a step to build from and that the withdrawal of British troops from Irish soil was an establishment of a national liberty.”-Paul O’Brien

It is not surprising that any side in war negotiations would issue open or concealed threats. This would be particularly expected of representatives of the gigantic British Empire.  I frankly do not accept the assessment of Paul O’Brien above that “the signatories were salvaging the best terms and conditions they could hope for under difficult circumstances”.

What is true is that to force a total withdrawal of the UK from Ireland, a massive popular mobilisation in support of the IRA military campaign would be needed. The military campaign before the Truce was opening up space for threats to private property through “soviets” and land seizures. Continued war and greater mass mobilisation would undoubtedly have led to wider challenges to property rights and indeed to the entire capitalist system. The conservative leaders of the pro-treaty and anti -Treaty side were not prepared for that.  To paraphrase the most aggressive anti-Treaty IRA leader, Ernie O’Malley “If the only Republic achievable is a Workers Republic, that is fine by me.”

I think that General Montgomery was right. As stated earlier in this document

Montgomery:“My own view is that to win a war of this sort, you must be ruthless. Oliver Cromwell, or the Germans, would have settled it in a very short time. Nowadays public opinion precludes such methods, the nation would never allow it, and the politicians would lose their jobs if they sanctioned it. That being so, I consider that Lloyd George was right in what he did, if we had gone on we could probably have squashed the rebellion as a temporary measure, but it would have broken out again like an ulcer the moment we removed the troops. I think the rebels would probably [have] refused battles, and hidden their arms etc. until we had gone…..

The only way forward therefore (for Britain) was to give them [the Irish] some form of self-government, and let them squash the rebellion themselves; they are the only people who could really stamp it out, and they are still trying to do so and as far as one can tell they seem to be having a fair amount of success.”-Montgomery

The Treacherous Nature of the Irish Labour and trade union leaderships was definitively established by the support that leadership gave to the  Free state side in the counter-revolutionary civil war of 1922-1923.  In this they were following their Irish capitalist masters in ensuring the continuation of the capitalist system in Ireland.

From Professor Emmet O’Connor, Irish Examiner.  October 18, 2019

“The restoration of effective policing (by the Free State Government) in 1923 reduced the number of soviets, and one of the last was the seizure of Waterford city’s gasworks in January 1923. It was run successfully by the workers until they were evicted by the Free State army in March”…………..

“The end of an era came on 15 December 1923 in County Waterford, where 1,500 farm labourers had been on strike against a wage cut since May. The dispute had developed into a miniature civil war. Labourers burnt hay ricks and sabotaged creameries. Farmers formed a self-styled White Guard and assaulted the parish secretaries of the union. The government sent in the Special Infantry Corps, and admitted their job was to protect the farmers. After the harvest in August, it was clear the strike was hopeless. William O’Brien decided it could bankrupt the union and would have to called off, even though there was no chance of more than 40% of the men getting their jobs back. As he noted in his memoirs: ‘that ended that and we did not try to organize the agricultural labourers afterwards’. So that ended that. By 1924 the Labour movement was battered, divided, and demoralized. Trade unionism had collapsed on the land and severely contracted among unskilled urban workers.”

Class Interest

The  Free State Leaders and the majority of the Anti-Treaty Republican Leaders placed their self-interest as supporters of the capitalist system above the Republican and democratic demands to which they were committed by oath. Their betrayal is not that they did not support socialist or even economic demands of sections of workers. They reneged on their own demands on the British Empire for Irish Independence and sovereignty because continuing to fight for them was endangering private property rights (Strikes,Soviet Creameries, Land seizures etc). The Free State set out to crush the masses. Republican leaders such as Devalera, Rory O’Connor , Liam Lynch refused to go on the offensive against the Free State from the beginning because revolting workers and small farmers might take advantage of the instability. (SEE “The Singing Flame” by Ernie O’Malley)  The trade union and Labour Leadership (Tom Johnson, Willie O’Brien etc) had become comfortable under capitalism and supported the Free State side in the Civil War and even called a general strike to deter the Anti-Treaty side from launching an armed revolt against the Free State.  After 1922, with Devalera and Sinn Féin boycotting the 26-county partition parliament, the Irish Labour Party and TUC TDs remained as a loyal parliamentary opposition even as the Cumann na nGael  Free State government deployed the army against strikers,  crushed the Red Flag creameries, murdered more republicans than the Black and Tans and later reduced the old age pension and said that the unemployed could starve on the record of the 26-county Dáil.! The Labour and Trade union leaders gave legitimacy to the illegitimate Free State partition parliament which together with Stormont, under the Treaty,  had replaced the All-Ireland Parliament elected in 1918.

The extreme capitulation to austerity by the Labour Party and trade union leaderships after the 2008 banking crisis was in line with the fundamental pro-capitalist position taken by them in the years immediately after 1922. Capitalism was again in danger and the leaders of the labour movement were on call yet again to avert the danger!!

Meanwhile the Six-County nationalists were left to the tender mercies of the Unionist majority in the six-county partition parliament. The Treaty is at the root of the problems faced by workers generally and nationalists in the six-counties to this day. The Partition facilitated the maintenance and reinforcement of a privileged upper caste of workers and farmers represented by Unionism politically and marked out by religion. This weakens the whole Irish trade union movement and the Irish working class generally until this day.

From Liam Mellowes Days Before His Execution by the Free State as a Reprisal-Dec 3   1922 

“Labour played a tremenduous part in the establishmen of the Republic (First All-Ireland Dáil 1919). Its leaders had it in their power to fashion that Republic as they wished-to make it a Workers and Peasants Republic. By their acceptance of the Treaty and all that it connotes-recognition of the British Monarchy, The British Privy Council and British Imperialism, partition of the country and subserviency to British Capitalism, they have betrayed not alone the Irish Republic but the Labour movement in Ireland and the cause of the workers and peasants throughout the world”—–From Article by Frank Gallagher in Sinn Féin, Dec 20, 1924

Treachery of Trade Union and political leaders of workers , particularly in wealthy countries, is a well established phenomenon. It is analysed in writings of Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.

Engels, Lenin and Trotsky developed the concept of an aristocracy of Labour-a narrow layer of well paid and privileged workers who favour the retention of capitalism. Lenin and Trotsky considered this layer to be have been given a privileged position in the home economy  from the super-profits of imperialist capitalism. Union leaders were generally part of this layer and protected it’s interest against the general mass of workers. Above all these leaders sought to ensure the continued existence of the capitalist system at the expense of workers generally.  This model fits the circumstances in the United Kingdom, France and Germany. The situation in Ireland is more complex.  The whole of Ireland remained an integral part of the United Kingdom until 1921. The all-island ITUC, which was formed in 1985, was composed almost exclusively of craft workers in local unions which were mainly Irish branches of British-based ‘amalgamated’ unions. At the time it was not unusual for some craft workers to consider themselves socially above general workers. When the Irish Transport and General Workers Union was formed by Larkin, it was considered to be a “breakaway” from the British-Based National Union of Dock Labourers. There was heavy engineering industry in the Belfast basin comparable to those in UK. Shipyard workers, were generally pro-Unionist Party(linked to British Tories) and considered themselves British. There was widespread discrimination against nationalists in hiring workers in these industries.  The Unionist population effectively constituted a privileged caste. There are many cases of colonial powers using favoured castes, tribes, ethnic groups etc to dominate colonial peoples.

The effective support of the Irish Labour and trade union leaders for the British backed “Free State”  side in the Irish Civil War( 1921 to 1923), Is the Irish equivalent of German Social Democracy voting for the war credits to enable the German capitalist state to fight a world war with its imperialist capitalist competitors . That action by the Geman social democrats represented a definitive going over to the side of “their own” capitalists.  A section of the leadership of the British Labour movement also supported “their own” capitalists in the first world war. British Labour Party leader, Henderson joined the War Cabinet. Likewise the action of the Irish trade union and Labour leaders in supporting the Free State side in the civil war was a definitive going over to the side of Irish capitalism.  Anybody on the left who persists in not accepting this will become an obstacle to a successful socialist revolution in Ireland and currently(2020) the great majority of prominent left-wing political representatives do not accept this. The British armed Free State army not only enforced the reactionary anti-democratic  partition of Ireland but also put down the rebellion of workers, farm labourers and small farmers, which had its highest point in the Munster Creamery “Soviets”.

The 26-county Irish capitalists, through supporting the enforcement of the Treaty, effectively agreed to become a subordinate part of the British capitalist class. The Irish Labour and trade union leaders went along with “their own” capitalists.

Trade Union Corruption

There has always been whispers about bribery of trade union officials going back to the beginning of the 20th century. But it was very difficult to get evidence of this as the state and the pro-employer media traditionally averted their gaze.

Today, rewards for compliant full time officials are structured into the system. Full time officials get Post Retirement Jobs from the state. The more compliant the official, the bigger the job they receive. Serving officials also serve on state bodies. These positions attract expenses and many allow for foreign travel, so-called “junkets”.

( see my blog piece:


 The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) was represented on the board of the Central Bank of Ireland  whose failure to adequately regulate Irish Banks led to the Banking Crash of 2008)

The articles printed below give a taste of the degree of absorption of trade union officialdom into the capitalist state in modern Ireland.  In 2008, there was a structured system of “Social Partnership” in place.  This is reflected in the composition of groups participating in the “junkets” highlighted below–Trade union officials, representatives of management of state agencies, senior civil servants, officials of Quasi-Non-Governmental organisations (QUANGOS) etc

The beginning of this process lay in the support given to the Free Sate by the Irish Union Leaders in the civil war. These leaders helped the Irish rich to save capitalism and to defeat the surge of the masses towards a workers and small farmers republic.

Services Industrial and Professional Union(SIPTU) is by far the biggest union in Ireland. It is a re-amalgamation of the Irish Transport and General Workers union and The Workers Union of Ireland, which followed James Larkin out of ITGWU in the nineteen twenties

siptu boss paid for five sun holidays on union credit card

Irish Independent, April 30, 2013

Full Article:  https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/siptu-boss-paid-for-five-sun-holidays-on-union-credit-card-29230058.html

SIPTU-HSE-DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH SLUSH FUND : A UNION official used a publicly funded credit card to pay for five holidays in Lanzarote costing more than €8,000 – all of which was repaid – a new watchdog report has revealed.The credit card was part of the state-funded “SIPTU slush fund” aimed at providing training for low-skilled workers.
A report by the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG) has uncovered new details about the fund which has been at the centre of major controversy in recent years. It confirmed that the senior SIPTU official, Matt Merrigan, who administered the fund, used its credit card “in error” to book five trips to Lanzarote which were not business related.Mr Merrigan told the C&AG that the payments incurred in the Lanzarote trips “had been fully refunded”.The Lanzarote jaunts are among a previously undisclosed set of 18 foreign trips, costing a combined €46,000, uncovered by the C&AG.Destinations also included London, Frankfurt, Barcelona, Milan and Zurich in Europe, as well as Orlando, Texas and California in the US.’The newly identified junkets come on top of the 56 foreign trips to places like New York, Australia and Hong Kong already identified by the Health Service Executive, which contributed to the fund. Other funding came from the Department of Health and the Local Authority National Partnership Advisory Group.

Spending watchdog will get to bottom of Siptu junketeering

Union Official, Matt Merrigan has yet to appear before The Public Accounts Committee (PAC)


Irish Independent, June 23 2013

It was early 2008 and controversial Siptu official Matt Merrigan sat at his desk in Liberty Hall. There, he picked up the phone and contacted some of the most senior health officials in the country, including Barry O’Brien, now one of Health Minister James Reilly’s chief lieutenants in the HSE.

“Hey, there is a trip to Savannah, Georgia, in March and you’re invited. The flights (tickets) will be waiting for you and your wife at the airport, so just collect them when you are there,” was his message.

The seven-day jaunt, from March 13 to 20, was one of six “highly inappropriate” trips over the St Patrick’s Day holiday that Merrigan and his invited guests went on to the United States between 2004 and 2009.

Merrigan was one of two signatories of an unauthorised Siptu bank account relating to a fund set up in 1998 as part of social partnership, aimed at upskilling workers and union officials.

The Skill and Health Service National Partnership Forum were two of the ‘collaborative arrangements’ put in place to further social partnership in the health area and were the conduits for the money from the State.

But by the mid-2000s, Merrigan and his fund were out of control and nobody was paying attention or asking any questions about what he was up to.

On arrival in Georgia, Merrigan would make a cheque out to cash in order to get a sufficient amount of dollars to fund expenses for those who travelled. He also had free rein on a credit card, which, in addition to paying for all the flights, was used for hotel bills and entertainment. The bills for such largesse ultimately ran to almost €1.1m and, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), were totally “outside the scope of the fund’s original objective”.

The itineraries for these trips were more suited to the No Frontiers television travel programme than to State businesses.

It was a familiar routine for the man who himself travelled more than 40 times, who ultimately organised a total of 74 foreign trips and who ultimately oversaw a €4.4m “slush fund,” as described by Fine Gael TD Simon Harris at the Dail’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Merrigan lived the high life across the world at the taxpayers’ expense.

New documents obtained show that Merrigan travelled to New York in March 2004, again in January 2005, again in March 2006, again in February 2007, again in November 2007 – with his spouse – again in March and June 2009.

He also went to Georgia in March 2008, Brisbane in October 2008 and took five separate private trips to Lanzarote between January 2007 and July 2009, all of which were paid for on the fund’s credit card.

Merrigan only later refunded the monies relating to these trips and others “where there was insufficient documentary evidence to support the business element of the trip”, after gardai had begun to investigate the matter.

Recently, other trips uncovered by the Comptroller and Auditor General that Merrigan “possibly went on” include destinations such as Orlando in April and October 2007, California in early 2008, Texas in August and November 2008 and February 2009.

The new documents obtained for the first time allow us to show the full extent of the extravagance enjoyed by a small elite of 19 “of the most senior public servants”, trade union officials, other health personnel and their spouses.

But more alarmingly, the Sunday Independent can reveal that on 10 trips five serving Department of Health officials and a retired official, Frank Ahern, went on the ‘study trips’.

So the taxpayer was paying for a retired official – who had previously been responsible for the allocation of money to this fund from the health budget – to attend ‘study trips’ aimed at allowing people do their job better.

Worse still, another department official, Bernard Carey, the senior official who sanctioned the handing over of the cash to Merrigan’s fund, travelled on five of the six US trips around St Patrick’s Day.

Again, based on the documents obtained, we can reveal today that Mr Carey travelled to New York in March 2004 and March 2006, Boston in 2007, Georgia in 2008 and New York again in 2009 and that all trips were paid for out of the Siptu fund.

At the PAC, Ambrose McLaughlin, secretary-general at the Department of Health, defended Mr Carey’s unblemished record of public service over 35 years and said no evidence had been found that merited sanctioning any of his officials.

However, members of the PAC, particularly Simon Harris and Labour TD Derek Nolan found it “incomprehensible” that no sanctions had been brought against any individual.

“I am getting fed up of things being blamed on systems,” said Harris. “There were people involved here and we need to hear from them as to how this happened.”

Today, we also reveal the names of civil servants, trade union officials and other personnel who were present on these trips (see panel on the facing page).

In total, 28 trips to the United States occurred; 25 to the UK; the five trips to Lanzarote; two trips to Australia in 2005 and 2008; two trips to Barcelona, both in 2008; two trips to Stockholm in 2002 and 2004; two trips to Brussels in 2005 and 2009; as well as trips to Canada in 2003; Frankfurt in 2006; Milan in 2008; Zurich in 2007; Moscow in 2004; Lyon in 2007 and Paris in 2008.

Indeed, as the country fell off the cliff in 2008, Merrigan’s foreign activity peaked, with 18 separate trips occurring that year, according to the new documents obtained.

“I am lost for words,” Derek Nolan said at the PAC hearing on Thursday. “This was the perfect crime. It is like events were created to justify this.”

The documents also show that in total €598,000 was paid out of the fund’s accounts on travel, including business-class flights and accommodation. One travel agent made €388,000, while in total €108,000 was spent, as Simon Harris said, on “wining and dining” in Dublin and across the globe in swanky restaurants.

Documents obtained show that between 2002 and 2009, Merrigan had two credit cards relating to the funds, which racked up spending totalling €335,000. Alarmingly, no bank statements relating to these cards before 2004 could be found.

Indeed, records show that payments totalling €46,000 were made to one single eatery and bar over the period.

While the foreign travel and the entertainment were clearly excessive, the Sunday Independent can reveal some other issues on Merrigan’s watch.

The documents again show that 27 cheques, totalling €42,000, were made out to cash, many of which were impossible to trace, in what PAC members have suggested was a means to avoid paying tax.

Indeed, it has been confirmed that the matter is now with the Revenue Commissioners, having been referred by the C&AG. It is also subject to a garda investigation.

We have also found that cheques to enable Merrigan and his invited guests have sufficient expenses money while abroad totalled €37,000.

It has also been confirmed that only when the scandal broke in 2010 did those who had travelled with their spouses on the trips begin to refund the cost of the flights in large numbers. In total, €125,000 was reimbursed and of that, 28 refunds were made in 2010, amounting to €82,000. This compared to refunds of just €3,200 in 2007.

But, the question has to be asked – how was this allowed to happen in the first place?

But the scandal has also been the source of great tension between the HSE – the chief funder – and Siptu. They have blamed each other for failing to call a halt to the ‘slush fund’ much earlier.

Siptu’s Joe O’Flynn said at the PAC that he found it incredible that the HSE had never sought any documentation or any review documentation when it was handing over all the money, year after year. He also accused the HSE of leaking damaging details of the case to the media when the story first broke in 2010.

While the HSE and the Department of Health certainly tried to lay the blame solely at the feet of Merrigan, O’Flynn and several members of PAC, including Simon Harris and Derek Nolan, said such suggestions were “totally inconceivable”.

“I cannot simply accept that this was all the fault of one man,” said Harris.

Dr Geraldine Smith, head of internal audit with the HSE, who has spent four years trying to get to the bottom of the scandal, highlighted in some detail the difficulties she had encountered in obtaining information from Siptu.

Merrigan has refused to co-operate with either the C&AG or the PAC in their investigations and has also repeatedly refused to release the €76,000 Grant Thornton report that he commissioned in order to defend himself, once gardai had begun their own investigations.

However, in a bizarre twist, the fund account, which Merrigan had intended to use to pay for the report, was frozen – yet he still assumed ownership of the report.

Siptu bosses, shocked that this fund had run for years without their knowledge, attempted to get hold of the report but ultimately agreed to pay Merrigan’s lawyer €76,000 just for ‘sight’ of the report.

They entered into a legal agreement that they would not copy it nor reveal its contents to anyone else. O’Flynn defended this decision by saying that even obtaining sight of the report was “useful”.

PAC chairman John McGuinness said it was “farcical” that Siptu did not get a copy of the report, having paid for it, and called on the union to attempt to obtain the report now. Grant Thornton failed to respond to calls from the Sunday Independent this weekend.

It has been confirmed that the PAC is to meet in private session on Tuesday to discuss with its legal adviser how to compel Mr Merrigan to cough up the report and also to get him to appear before the committee, given the serious nature of the scandal, in which he is the central player.

Another key individual who has also been uncontactable is Alan Smith, head of the Skill programme. He retired from the health service in 2009 “just as we were going through the audit process”.

According to the documents and to testimony at previous PAC hearings, Smith “travelled on all of the trips”.

“He would have been a close link in regard to the operation of the Skill programme from its inception, prior to being in the HSE and the Office of Health Management, but he has not co-operated with any of our investigations or indeed our details,” Sean McGrath of the HSE said.

Despite the ongoing investigations, the undocumented spends of monies, the excessive trips around the world, only Merrigan has been sanctioned by Siptu.

No official in the HSE or the Department of Health has faced any disciplinary action for their involvement in the junketeering. Both Ambrose McLaughlin and HSE boss Tony O’Brien said they found “no evidence” to merit sanctioning any of their staff.

Yet again, “catastrophic systems failures” have been blamed and individuals have so far escaped punishment, but the PAC is determined to get to the bottom of it.

This saga is a long way from being over.


Revealed: ‘the perfect crime’ of indulgence, avarice and greed . . . all paid for by the taxpayer

By Daniel McConnell


* In total, the fund was given €4.4m, but actually spent €3.85m before it was shut down in 2010. After refunds, the staggering net cost of the “slush fund” to the taxpayer was €3.15m.

* €1.1m of the total spend, including €348,000 on marketing and promotions, €598,000 on travel and €99,000 on hospitality were “outside the scope of the fund’s original objective”.

* €598,000 was spent on “wining and dining” of officials and public servants and their spouses around the world. €76,000 related to airline tickets, €79,000 was spent on hotels and €108,000 on restaurants during this time.

* Those who went on trips included: Siptu officials Matt Merrigan and Jack Kelly; Aiden Brown (HSE); Michael McDonald (HSE); Barry O’Brien (HSE); Alan Smith (general manager of Skill training scheme); Larry Walsh (Health Services National Partnership Forum); Se O’Connor (HSE); Caroline O’Regan and Ann Judge (SKILL); Marian Larkin (HSE); Tom Dowling (Department of Finance); retired Department of Health official Frank Ahern; Bernard Carey (Department of Health); Conal Devine (described as an IR practitioner); Frank Kelly (Local Authority); G O’Brien (NI Disability Forum); Peter Bunting (ICTU); P Harvey (North West Health Board); and three unidentified individuals Brian Bird, John O’Dowd and Paul Donnelly.

* “Events were created” to justify such lavish spending – Derek Nolan, Labour TD and PAC member.

* Between 2002 and 2010 – 74 trips to destinations including New York, California, Australia, Orlando, Boston, Savannah in Georgia, Milan, London, Hong Kong, Brussels, Texas, five trips to Lanzarote, Frankfurt and Zurich.

* Merrigan ran up charges of €335,000 on his credit card – including charges of €46,000 to one bar/restaurant.

* Officials invited on trips often “simply had to collect business-class tickets at the airport”.

* Six trips between 2004 and 2009 to the United States coincided with St Patrick’s Day.

* One HSE official, Bernard Carey, who sanctioned payment to the unauthorised fund himself, travelled on five out of six foreign trips to the US around St Patrick’s Day.

* Another civil servant, Frank Ahern, pictured right, travelled on several foreign “study trips” at taxpayers’ expense, despite being retired.

* €583,000 was paid to 250 individuals rather than businesses for “reimbursement of expenses, education grants or the provision of services”.

* €422,000 was paid in grants to trade unions, while the fund also made “bizarre” donations of €49,000 to charitable organisations including the Special Olympics. Such payments have been described as “outside the scope of the objectives of the fund”.

* 27 cheques totalling €42,000 were made out to cash, many of which were not adequately documented for. The matter has been referred to Revenue for investigation by the C&AG.

* Cheques totalling €37,000 were used to purchase foreign currency, which was used to “cover expenses on foreign study trips”.

* Payments totalling €58,000 could not be identified as payee names on cheques were not “legible”.

* A massive spike in refunds from spouses who travelled occurred in 2010, but only when the scandal about the trips first broke. In total, more than €139,000 relating to spouses’ travel has been paid back – €82,000 was paid back in 2010 alone compared to €3,200 in 2007.

* “Unauthorised Siptu slush fund” was set up by Matt Merrigan, above, with Jack Kelly (being the second signatory on the account) in Bank Of Ireland branch on December 3, 1998. Siptu claims it had no knowledge of it.

* Bizarrely, Siptu paid Merrigan’s lawyer €76,000 just to see a Grant Thornton report he commissioned to defend his role in the fund, amid Garda enquiries, which Merrigan is refusing to hand over.

* “Proper books were not kept”, incomplete invoices and “no evidence” that goods and services bought were procured properly.

* Most shockingly, no sanctions brought against any HSE, Department of Health or Siptu officials, despite a “catastrophic failure” in governance.

Source: HSE internal audit reports, C&AG reports and documents from the PAC.

Irish Independent








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  1. May 21, 2020 at 12:31 pm

    Reblogged this on Socialist Fight and commented:
    More excellent analyses.

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