Arts Council to put response about Colgan into Oireachtas record

Council’s director questioned at committee about friendship with Michael Colgan

The Arts Council is to be given the opportunity to read a response into the official Oireachtas record after its director, Orlaith McBride, was asked at a committee meeting whether her friendship with the former director of the Gate Theatre, Michael Colgan, represented a conflict of interest. Ms McBride, who denies any conflict, was not given the opportunity to respond at the time.

The chairman of the committee has been advised by the clerk of the Dáil, Peter Finnegan, that the council should be given the opportunity to read a response into the official record.

The council's legal representatives contacted Mr Finnegan following last Thursday's meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which was discussing harassment in the arts, arising from a number of accusations of inappropriate and bullying behaviour against Mr Colgan. Ms McBride and Arts Council chairwoman Sheila Pratschke attended alongside representatives from the Department of Culture and Irish Equity.

During the discussion, Sinn Féin Senator Fintan Warfield said to Ms McBride that "it has been reported that during your time on the board of the Arts Council that you had a friendship with Michael Colgan."

Ms McBride was on the board of the Arts Council from 2003 to 2011, when she became its director. As director, she does not sit on the board.

Mr Warfield was interrupted by the chairman of the committee, Peadar Tóibín (Sinn Féin), who said it had been agreed in advance not to mention “people outside the room”.

Mr Warfield persisted, asking Ms McBride whether, as a board member dealing with such large allocations of public funding, “did that represent a conflict of interest? And if so would you have removed yourself from those board conversations?”

No chance to respond

Following two further interventions by Mr Tóibín, who said the matter might be sub judice and that he wanted to “safeguard any victims there may be in the whole process”, the Senator moved on to another line of questioning.

“Having reviewed the relevant extracts of the draft transcript of the meeting, I note that you immediately intervened to stop the line of questioning and informed the Senator that it was not appropriate to discuss or name individuals in this way,” Mr Finnegan wrote to Mr Tóibín last Friday.

“However, there was no opportunity afforded to the director of the Arts Council to make a statement in response during the meeting. The contribution of the Senator will remain on the official record of the committee as there is no mechanism for the official record of an Oireachtas Committee to be expunged.”

“In the light of the nature of the concerns raised, I have brought the matter to the attention of the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad. They are of the view that the Arts Council or its representatives should be afforded the opportunity to read a response statement into the official record of committee debates in public session at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Mr Finnegan has written to the representatives of the Arts Council suggesting they submit a response statement to Mr Tóibín, who he has asked to arrange a meeting of the committee “at the first available opportunity” to facilitate his decision.

Speaking on Monday, Ms McBride said she just wanted to set the record straight. “I will be saying there was no conflict of interest with the Gate Theatre”, she said.

“What we will be saying is we were invited into the committee for a discussion about dignity in the workplace and the abuse of people, and I was asked a question which wasn’t appropriate,” she added.