‘Controversial’ to put Brendan Ogle’s name in organisation chart after grievance, Unite officer says

Tom Fitzgerald testifies to Workplace Relations Commission as trade unionist pursues grievance about allegedly being sidelined at work upon return from cancer treatment

A senior union official has told a tribunal it would have been “controversial” to include Brendan Ogle’s name in an organisational chart after the trade unionist lodged a grievance about allegedly being sidelined at work upon his return from cancer treatment, as it could have been interpreted as “suggesting” his duties.

Tom Fitzgerald of Unite was testifying to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) again on Wednesday, the final day of witness evidence on a complaint of disability discrimination by Mr Ogle against Unite under the Employment Equality Act 1998.

Cross-examining Mr Fitzgerald, Mr Ogle’s barrister, Mary-Paula Guinness BL, said the witness’s position on what exact job Mr Ogle was to return to after his cancer treatment was at odds with the testimony of his then-line manager, Jackie Pollock, the former Unite regional secretary for Ireland.

Mr Fitzgerald, whose evidence in chief was heard on Tuesday, had been promoted to regional co-ordinating officer at Unite’s Dublin office during Mr Ogle’s sick leave, a grade equivalent to the complainant, the WRC was told.

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Mr Ogle later accused Mr Fitzgerald of “attempting to take my job”, a claim repeatedly denied by the official, both in contemporary correspondence in the spring of 2023 and again in evidence yesterday.

Ms Guinness, instructed by Peter Murphy of McInnes Dunne Murphy, said her client’s position was that after inquiring about taking on a less senior post in Unite’s Dundalk office during his recovery from chemotherapy, Mr Ogle had ruled it out in December 2021.

Former Ireland regional secretary Jackie Pollock, line manager to both Mr Fitzgerald and Mr Ogle, had been “adamant in his recollection” that Mr Ogle told him he wanted his “full role” back during a return-to-work meeting on July 22nd, 2022, counsel said.

However, Mr Fitzgerald said that when he was promoted in June 2022, he was “operating on the basis that Brendan was going to be a regional officer” and going to Dundalk – but that “at some point” Mr Pollock had told him “Brendan doesn’t want to go to Dundalk”, referring to issues with travelling.

After that, he said, he understood that Mr Ogle was still to take up the role of regional industrial officer, but that he would work from Dublin, he told the WRC.

“The premise of it all was that Brendan was stepping away from the senior role; he’d [spoken] in the public domain about stress... I was operating on the basis [that when] myself and Brendan were having a conversation, it was about what would he be doing into the future,” Mr Fitzgerald said.

Mr Fitzgerald’s position was that their line manager, Mr Pollock, had asked him to “speak to Brendan” and “have a chat” – adding that this was the basis for the “whiteboard meeting” in August 2022.

Mr Ogle alleged that Mr Fitzpatrick had told him during that meeting that the union’s new general secretary Sharon Graham wanted a new strategy for the Republic of Ireland drawn up, and that she had made a “directive” that Mr Ogle was not to be part of it.

“Sharon Graham never said that to me, and I’ve never said it to Brendan,” Mr Fitzgerald said on Tuesday.

“I have to put it to you that exactly what Mr Ogle said happened, happened,” Ms Guinness said of this meeting. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating... we have been provided with a plan which you said you told him nothing about, which was presented in December 2022, and he’s not on it,” counsel said.

She quoted a July 13th, 2022, email from Mr Fitzgerald to Ms Graham with the subject line “Re: ROI plan”. In it, Mr Fitzgerald had referred to “shaping a plan for the Republic of Ireland”.

“Were you asked to draw up a plan by Sharon [Graham]?” Ms Guinness asked.

“No, I wasn’t,” Mr Fitzgerald said. He said the discussions at the time were about securing extra resources and that the work he was doing was about “contributing” to a regional plan.

Counsel put it to Mr Fitzgerald that he had drawn up an organisational chart for the Republic of Ireland which was presented on December 20th, 2022 – and put it to the witness: “Mr Ogle is nowhere in it.”

“Putting Brendan in this would have been, to my mind, controversial,” he said, adding that a view could be taken that he would be “suggesting” what Mr Ogle’s duties were if he had included the complainant’s name.

“Mr Ogle has told us at all times you were creating this plan. Is he in the plan, Mr Fitzgerald?” counsel asked.

“It’s not a plan,” the witness said. “Is he in this document?” counsel asked. “No, for reasons I’ve explained,” Mr Fitzgerald replied.

“Is this the document when you were emailing Sharon Graham in July? The Republic of Ireland plan, is that a different one?” Ms Guinness asked. “No,” the witness said.

“Where’s the plan, Mr Fitzgerald, that you were referring to in your email of 13th July to Sharon Graham?” Ms Guinness asked. “I didn’t produce a plan, I produced an organisational review,” he said. “So, is that document the same?” counsel asked. “It ultimately becomes this document,” Mr Fitzgerald said.

“Thank you Mr Fitzgerald, that’s what I was trying to get to,” Ms Guinness said.

The tribunal also heard on Wednesday from the union’s former chief of staff, Gail Cartmail, who had been involved in meetings with Mr Ogle and his then-representative, ex-Mandate general secretary John Douglas, in connection with the dispute.

Mr Ogle’s evidence was that he had backed another candidate publicly when Ms Graham stood for election as Unite’s general secretary, while Mr Fitzgerald had been a supporter of Ms Graham.

He said Ms Cartmail told him: “Sharon operates on the basis of loyalty” – adding that Ms Graham “was very supportive to officers who supported her, and gave broad discretion to how those officers used her office and name to get the job done”.

Barra Faughnan BL, junior counsel for Unite with Mark Harty SC, instructed by Karyn Harty and Tiernan Nix of Dentons Solicitors, asked Ms Cartmail whether she said this. Ms Cartmail replied: “I did not.”

Addressing the point again under cross-examination, Ms Cartmail said: “I didn’t say that and it isn’t true, and anybody that knows the general secretary Sharon Graham will know that she is absolutely opposed to nepotism.”

Ms Cartmail also gave evidence on having suffered a serious and potentially fatal illness herself during her employment with Unite, from which she has now retired. The press was directed by the adjudicator not to report specifics. Ms Cartmail said the union had been “very helpful” to her when she returned to work.

“The idea that I would personally, or be part of, a conspiracy to collude against a colleague for reasons of their cancer, I find offensive,” Ms Cartmail said. Ms Guinness said there had never been such a suggestion.

The taking of evidence in the case has now concluded and the matter has been adjourned, with one more day set aside by the WRC on June 18th this year for closing arguments.