Subscriber OnlyEnvironment

The civil war within Inland Fisheries Ireland

Five of the eight board members resigned in the past year, prompting the Minister to remove the remaining three members and stand down the board

Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI) has been in the throes of a civil war for 18 months, with divisions between the board and the executive, differences of opinion between board members, and a series of protected disclosures that are now on the desk of Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan.

Over the past year, the board has sheared off a majority of its non-executive members. There have been five resignations, including a chairman and the succeeding chairwoman. In January, only three of the non-executive board members remained. The three remaining members found themselves inquorate and powerless when it came to making key decisions relating to the body.

Last week Ryan pressed the nuclear button and stood the three remaining members down, as well as the other two employee directors. While all three ordinary members were removed by the Minister on a no fault basis, it was received by some on one side of the dispute as the Minister taking the other side.

Senator Seán Kyne, a former minister of state, who had responsibility for the body, was furious at the decision. Speaking in Seanad Éireann, Kyne accused the Minister of targeting the board and getting rid of it.


“There will be celebrations in IFI headquarters in City West today, and in the department headquarters in Adelaide Road. The house, it seems, always wins. The victims are ordinary board members,” he said.

At the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting last Wednesday night, former minister for rural affairs Michael Ring and Kyne were among a group of TDs and Senators who vociferously criticised the decision.

One of those present at the meeting said a number of Fine Gael parliamentarians “vented” angrily. Kyne has disclosed that he had made a protected disclosure in relation to the IFI. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the meeting that Fine Gael Cabinet Ministers suggested to Ryan he could appoint emergency board members rather than stand down the existing board, but, ultimately, the Minister had the right to proceed as he saw fit.

It’s a messy situation with a dispute that has polarised opinion and led to a situation that had become intractable. The Minister needed to act. Whether the decision he made was right or wrong depends on what side of the dispute people are on.

During 2022, a number of protected disclosures were made in relation to alleged irregularities within the body. The department subsequently commissioned solicitors McCann Fitzgerald to investigate complaints made in relation to various individuals and various alleged practices. The investigation is understood to be ongoing.

For now, Ryan has appointed two former chief executive officers of county councils, Tom Barry (Carlow) and Séamus Neery (Donegal), to perform the functions of the board until a new board has been appointed.

The IFI is the State agency charged with the protection, management and conservation of inland fisheries in Ireland. In the distant past, a constituent part of the work was in patrolling for poaching and for illegal net fishing, but those practices have subsided a lot in recent years. The agency produced an impressive corporate strategy only two years ago with a slogan “It’s about the fish.” It placed an emphasis on sustainability and conservation, and away from some of the more traditional protection activities of the IFI. It was jointly signed by then chairman Fintan Gorman and the new chief executive, Francis O’Donnell.

However, after the strategy was adopted, some board members felt there was reluctance within the agency to alter work practices in response to the changed agenda. One member, ecological consultant Marie Louise Heffernan, said the IFI needed to pivot towards habitat enhancement. Staff training was required to achieve the end but there was continual resistance to it, she said.

A number of irregularities came to the board’s attention. All predated O’Donnell’s appointment. It emerged that 16 IFI vehicles were uninsured and one of them was involved in a car crash in Co Donegal. It then came to light that a Victorian lodge owned by the IFI at picturesque Aasleagh Falls in south Mayo had been leased to a staff member on an informal basis. The staff member had operated it as a guesthouse.

There were further allegations about dormant account money being allotted to an angling club that did not exist. In the Dáil in June last year, Ring also stated that “in the past year, the protection crews in certain coastal areas did not do any work, resulting in the need to mobilise a mobile response unit at a considerable cost”.

Furthermore, information that was discussed at board level was leaked and ended up being published in the Connacht Tribune. A number of the protected disclosures made in 2022 involved allegations of unauthorised use of IFI equipment and vehicles by staff members. There was a dispute surrounding the dismissal of a staff member and, later, a complaint about the procedures surrounding an appointment.

By mid-2022 relations between the chairman, Gorman, and the chief executive, O’Donnell, had deteriorated.

In response to the by-now open war in the IFI, Ryan asked Senior Counsel Conleth Bradley to review the operations of the board of the IFI, to determine if there were grounds for removing members of the board from office. In a 50-page report Bradley concluded there was no such basis. However, he made a number of recommendations to improve governance, including a review of the structural relationship between the board and the chief executive, amending standing orders, and adding new standing orders.

By that stage, Gorman and another board member had resigned of their own volition. In the autumn, Heffernan resigned, and in December and January, another two members of the board, including the new chairwoman, Prof Frances Lucey, resigned. It left only three ordinary members remaining.

However, while some have claimed Ryan has sided with the executive over the boards, he has said the situation inside the body is complex and has indicated a deeper restructuring may be required. He has instructed Barry and Neely to prioritise the full and prompt consideration of the protected disclosures. These could not be progressed by the board of IFI as a result of the recent resignations. As appointees, both men will also be mandated to take any follow-up actions that may arise from the protected disclosures processes.

He has also instructed Barry and Neely to oversee the preparation of a governance review of IFI to be delivered within a period of three-six months.

The whole area of inland fisheries is a tricky thing to manage at the best of times. As well as conservation and protection, the IFI also promotes angling. That is a difficult task as different angling clubs fishing different species are often at odds with each other, and also often at odds with the IFI in terms of its policies.

It should be about the fish, but it seems it has been everything else except the fish over the past 18 months.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times