Parliamentary assistant to Donegal TD claims unfair dismissal

Joan Blackbyrne is taking case against Independent TD Thomas Pringle and the Houses of the Oireachtas

Tue, Jun 18, 2013, 20:42

A woman employed as a parliamentary assistant to Independent TD Thomas Pringle has claimed she was unfairly dismissed.

Joan Blackbyrne is taking a case against the Donegal deputy and the Houses of the Oireachtas. Counsel for the Houses of the Oireachtas has claimed Ms Blackbyrne was an employee of Mr Pringle only.

Ms Blackbyrne began work as parliamentary assistant to former Kerry South TD Jackie Healy-Rae in March 2001. Initially taken on to cover a six-week period of sick leave, she was not told to leave. She did not sign a contract. Mr Healy Rae had told her that in addition to his parliamentary secretary and his son Michael who was his parliamentary assistant, she would remain as “the extra person”, she said. Ms Blackbyrne said she “didn’t know of any other TDs that had three people”.

Ms Blackbyrne told the inquiry that prior to the general election in 2002, she asked Mr Healy-Rae what would happen if he wasn’t re-elected.

“He said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll get elected. If I was you, I’d stay working, they won’t be long telling you if they don’t want you’. So I stayed working there.”

Mr Healy-Rae was re-elected and Ms Blackbyrne continued to work for him until 2011.

Ms Blackbyrne recalled receiving a phone call from the Houses of the Oireachtas personnel department in 2003. “They realised that I’d been working there. They hadn’t realised it. They sent me an employment contract.”

When Michael Healy-Rae took his father’s seat in 2011, appointing his brother Danny as his parliamentary assistant, Ms Blackbyrne said Michael Healy-Rae told her she could not stay on. Hearing that Thomas Pringle needed a parliamentary assistant, she approached him, was interviewed and was offered the job.

Ms Blackbyrne signed an employment contract in April 2011. She said she was told by the Houses of the Oireachtas personnel department that she would lose four weeks wages if she did not sign it within a month.

Ms Blackbyrne said as the Houses of the Oireachtas paid her wages, she thought that it was her employer and that her employment with them had been continuous since 2001.

Ms Blackbyrne said she and Mr Pringle “got on very well”. In November that year, she fell over wires on the office floor and Mr Pringle brought her to hospital.

Ms Blackbyrne said she knew Mr Pringle “wasn’t pleased” when she told him she would have to take sick leave. She said she received a Christmas card from him on December 16th, enclosed in which were expenses owed to her and “a little bit extra for Christmas”. She said she was “completely devastated” when days later the TD sent her a letter of termination.

Phoning the Houses of the Oireachtas personnel department, she was told that Mr Pringle could terminate her contract if he wanted to and there was nothing it could do.

“I wanted someone to say I should not have been dismissed”, Ms Blackbyrne told the tribunal tearfully. “I should not have been sacked or dismissed like that.”

Mr McGreal put it to Ms Blackbyrne that the fact that she had approached Mr Pringle for the job, had been interviewed by him and her employment contract named him as her employer suggested that he was her employer, not the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Solicitor for Ms Blackbyrne, Brendan Frawley of Kennedy Solicitors, said Mr Jackie Healy-Rae had “abdicated responsibility for either dismissing her or keeping her on by telling her to keep her head down and she would be kept on”.

Mr Frawley said that if the tribunal found the Houses of the Oireachtas to be her employer, he was seeking that they re-employ her. If she was remained unable to work on health grounds, he said, she should be retired on health grounds. The hearing resumes in December.