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The Abbey: Shadow of a controversy lingers at Ireland’s national theatre

Two investigations surrounding events at the theatre have cost over €200,000 between them, with an independent review of governance, in particular, incurring escalating costs

It is well over two years since the current directors of the Abbey took over at the national theatre. But as they power ahead with a strong programme, events that occurred more than four years ago, during the tenure of the former co-directors, still cast a shadow over Ireland’s national theatre. Ongoing costs associated with controversial payments at the Abbey may have now surpassed €1 million in total over the past few years, and are still rising, according to a source very familiar with the matter. That figure includes high legal expenses believed to have been accumulated by the Abbey board over the period.

The events include significant termination payoffs to the outgoing directors Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, despite their five-year term having run its course, and also an extended investigation of complaints. Those payouts cost the Abbey €693,000 and neither issue has been satisfactorily explained. That €693,000 was incurred by the end of June 2021, and in the months after that, according to the source, legal costs continued to build up as the Abbey managed providing information requested by the Arts Council, an independent review and FOI requests from journalists.

Additionally, two investigations surrounding these events have cost over €200,000 between them, with an independent review of Abbey governance, in particular, incurring escalating costs when it was found the terms of reference provided did not identify all the issues they needed to explore. It is believed a settlement with Revenue arising from tax on settlement payments has added to the overall total.

In the meantime, well over half of the 20 per cent of this year’s funding which was withheld from the Abbey by the Arts Council has been released to the theatre, on a month-by-month basis, despite the fact that conditions for that funding were not met.


About €2 million – including €1.6 million, one-fifth of the national theatre’s state investment of €8 million for 2023 – was withheld at the beginning of 2023. It’s understood that all but about €700,000 has now been released to the theatre. Some 20 per cent of 2023 funding was withheld, dependent on receipt by the Arts Council of the Abbey’s audited 2022 accounts plus two Abbey Theatre reports; an audit of the culture of the organisation; and an investigation of governance and the controversial handling of a “HR investigation” and the change of directors. Receipt of the reports was the condition of this year’s funding; action on any recommendations is seen as the next step in the process. The reports were commissioned by the Abbey but as this year drew to a close, the council released some of the withheld funds, though neither report had been received by the Arts Council. Back in early summer 2023, it was expected both investigations would be completed by the end of September. The council has also still not received the Abbey’s 2022 accounts, which have been delayed; this was also a 2023 funding condition.

The culture audit by external consultants DCU Business School, appointed in June 2023 after the Abbey Theatre sought tenders, is finished, it is understood, and is expected to be sent to the Arts Council imminently. The audit of the organisational culture of the national theatre involved all staff and board members, in focus groups and giving confidential feedback.

But the governance investigation has not been as smooth and ran into significant delays. The Abbey advertised in September 2022 for tenders to conduct an independent review of internal policies and procedures related to governance, including HR, legal and financial controls. This was expected to get to the bottom of the significant payments to the former directors and substantial associated legal costs. Crowe Ireland was appointed and the contract began on December 1st, 2022.

Nearly a year on, it is understood that the review involved much more work than originally envisaged, with key people re-interviewed multiple times, and legal involvement; the process became more complicated, with much to-and-fro. A different source has indicated to The Irish Times that the additional work has led to the cost to the Abbey of this review rising considerably, mentioning costs of over €150,000; it’s unknown whether this includes legal fees. Initial estimates from the procurement process were considerably lower, thought to be in the region of €50,000

The review is likely to have involved an extensive trawl of hundreds of documents going back years, interviews with former and current board members and the executive, including long-standing chairwoman Frances Ruane and board member Michael Wall, former Abbey Theatre co-directors Murray andMcLaren, and former finance director Gus McNamara. The report is understood to be nearing completion and some parties who have contributed to it have had sight of sections that refer to them, with an opportunity to comment. Murray and McLaren told The Irish Times last week: “We have not, as yet, received the current iteration of the report and therefore, believe it would not be appropriate to make any comments at this time.”

The completed Crowe report will next week finally go to an Abbey board sub-committee, set up specifically to deal with the issue, The Irish Times understands. Following that it goes to the full Abbey board, and after that to the Arts Council, as it is a condition of funding. It is keenly anticipated and many parties to these events hope it will shed light on what actions led to the Abbey making payments to its former directors, which cost the theatre €693,000.

The Abbey this week declined to confirm whether or not either report would be made public.

What it’s all about

The roots of all this go back to January 2019, when a public letter of concern from the theatre sector about negative impacts of the Abbey’s new model of production was followed in March 2019 by three complaints to the Abbey, from people formerly employed there, about separate incidents involving then co-director Graham McLaren.

Investigation of those complaints appears to have gone awry, and the process, which McLaren was initially told would take eight weeks, lasted more than two years. McLaren’s correspondence, seen by The Irish Times, details “extraordinary delays”, and fleshes out why the investigation into complaints about him eventually led to him taking action against the Abbey.

The Abbey ultimately paid a settlement to McLaren, following a “protracted two-year HR process, instigated by the board itself”, according to a protected disclosure made by McLaren and co-director Neil Murray to Minister for Culture Catherine Martin in June 2022 (the department rejected their calls for an investigation). The disclosure refers to an “unreserved written apology” from the board to McLaren, expressing “deep regret ... for the distress and suffering he experienced”.

The investigation never reached a resolution for the complainants.

An unpublished March 2022 report by consultants Mazars, commissioned by the Arts Council and seen by The Irish Times, later confirmed the Abbey Theatre spent €693,000 on costs (including substantial legal fees) associated with this, which is euphemistically referred to as the “HR investigation”, as well as the unexplained termination payments for the former co-directors, McLaren and Murray.

Despite the HR reference, it’s understood the investigations were handled at board level. McLaren’s correspondence refers to making a statement to a partner at the theatre’s law firm, Arthur Cox, alongside a board subcommittee of chairwoman and former director of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) Frances Ruane and barrister and board member Michael Wall.

The termination payments arose from how the recruitment of new directors was managed when joint co-directors Murray and McLaren’s five-year term ended. Their protected disclosure letter refers to it thus: “Following concerns we raised with the Board of the Abbey Theatre regarding their recruitment process to restructure the leadership team of the National Theatre, we were offered redundancy packages by the board.”

The outgoing directors received €165,256 in termination payments (plus €11,000 in legal costs).

None of these controversial payments were disclosed by the Abbey to its main funder, the Arts Council, which learned from other parties, in June 2021, about the termination payments and costs associated with the “HR investigation”. Over several months the council was unable to get satisfactory information from the Abbey chair board, as reported in The Irish Times. Eventually, in November 2021, the Arts Council, concerned over a long period about Abbey governance and the large unexplained payments, commissioned the Mazars review of the Abbey’s financial controls and governance.

Mazars confirmed the €693,000 on the payments and legal fees, and recommendations included an “external review of the entire investigation process”, which is where the Crowe review of internal policies and procedures related to governance comes in.

Frances Ruane’s five year term as Abbey chairwoman ended in May 2022. After a three-month gap without a chair, she was reappointed by Minister for Culture Catherine Martin in August for a further two years.

Releasing some withheld funding

From correspondence and documents, reported on by The Irish Times, it is clear that the Arts Council has for some time been concerned about governance and frustrated with the Abbey over its handling of, and unsatisfactory responses about, the controversial payments, but its arms-length relationship as principal funder limits its powers to actions such as part-retention of grants.

The first step in dealing with the issues involved is seen as receipt of these reports, which may include recommendations on action.

Meantime, as 2023 drew towards its close, access to the remainder of the €2 million may have become more important for the Abbey’s cashflow; although it has box office and some other income, the Arts Council grant is by far its largest source of funding. The Abbey’s current artistic director Caitríona McLaughlin and executive director Mark O’Brien had a successful Dublin Theatre Festival, with runs recently wrapped up of Nancy Harris’s Somewhere Out There You, and Pulitzer-winning Ironbound by Martyna Majok. This winter’s programme includes Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow, directed by Tom Creed, and the world premiere of HAMMAM­ (co-produced by ANU Productions), written and directed by Louise Lowe. All this involves significant outlay, as well as the theatre’s ongoing bills.

While life moved on at the Abbey, past deeds have to some extent over-shadowed O’Brien and McLaughlin, who had nothing to do with them. The chair and some board-members pre-date the current directors’ tenure and were in place through the controversial period.

Last year’s Abbey funding, too, had several conditions attached and the 2022 funding decision was delayed till mid-way through the year; correspondence released under FOI indicated the difficulties this delay created for the new Abbey directors in planning last year’s theatre’s work.

Releasing some of the withheld funding may have been a dilemma for the Arts Council. It needs to see the reports in order to move on and deal with any outfall, but it couldn’t impede the Abbey’s core work and cashflow.

In response to questions about releasing funds, however, the council was tight-lipped, limiting its comments to saying “all grant aid is conditional on funding agreements. As a matter of course, any discussion that happens between the grant-aided organisations or individuals and the Arts Council regarding drawdown of funding per the contract, is not public.” The council added it “looks forward to receiving the commissioned reports to better inform future funding discussions”.

The Abbey itself is not forthcoming on the matter either, when asked about costs of the report, telling The Irish Times “the culture audit and the independent review of governance, policies and internal controls are both still in progress. As both are still underway, we are not in a position to provide further comment or give the next steps just yet.” When the Irish Times sought comment from the Abbey chair and board this week, this response was reiterated.

Another protected disclosure

Meantime, following the protected disclosure made by former co-directors McLaren and Murray to Minister Catherine Martin in June 2022, it is understood a second complaint was made by another former Abbey employee before summer 2023.

The former staff member worked at the theatre over the period of the payment controversy. It is believed the Office of Protected Disclosures received a complaint about governance and financial failures at the national theatre, making specific allegations about the handling and costs of €693,000 for both the controversial “HR investigation” and redundancy payments to the two former directors when their contacts ended.

The whistleblower is believed to have previously written to Minister Martin about their concerns. The Department of Culture declined to investigate the issues raised and following this outcome the protected disclosure was lodged.

The disclosure is understood to be critical of the performance of the Abbey chair and of Minister Catherine Martin. Comment was sought from the Abbey board, Ruane and Martin. The Department of Culture said protected disclosures received by the department are “processed in accordance with the relevant legislation” and “in accordance with confidentiality requirements”, and it makes no comment in response to queries about them.

The Office of the Protected Disclosures Commissioner was established in January 2023. Ombudsman Ger Deering was appointed as first Protected Disclosures Commissioner. Its role is to send reports of wrongdoing to appropriate organisations to investigate, but the Commissioner can also investigate complaints separately.

While the culture audit, which is expected imminently at the Arts Council, may contextualise how these events happened at the Abbey, the governance review, when it lands, should shine some light on the matters at issue in the protected disclosures, and the unexplained payments which cost the national theatre nearly €700,000 initially, now totalling over €1 million.

At the time of writing, neither report has been received by the Arts Council and the total costs of the events and their outfall is likely still rising.