Mental Health Commission chief ‘flippant’ on closure of Co Cork residential centre, committee hears

Commission inspection reports cited by HSE in decision to close Owenacurra and move 19 residents to other settings considerable distances away

Chief executive of the Mental Health Commission (MHC) John Farrelly

Chief executive of the Mental Health Commission (MHC) John Farrelly was, accused of being “flippant”, “not using [his] powers very well” on the closure a residential centre for people with severe mental illness in Middleton, Co Cork, at an Oireachtas committee on Thursday.

Appearing frustrated during some exchanges with members of the committee on disability matters, Mr Farrelly said at the start he was “not going to speak about the Owenacurra centre”. He said he could not discuss the Health Service Executive’s (HSE) decision to close Owenacurra as doing so could prejudice any regulatory enforcement on it.

The MHC inspected Owenacurra in the last fortnight and awaits a HSE response.

MHC inspection reports have been cited by the HSE in its decision to close Owenacurra and move the 19 residents, most of whom are from the area, to other settings considerable distances away. Though due to close in June 2021 a campaign by local residents and public representatives has kept Owenacurra open, albeit with far fewer staff and just six residents.


Pat Buckley, TD (Sinn Féin) said the HSE had “spun” the situation “to blame the commission for Owenacurra’s closure”.

He asked: “Why don’t you have the gump? Will you correct the report? Can ye go back to the HSE ask them to clarify the commission never asked for its closure?”

Mr Farrelly said the commission had never contacted the HSE about what use they made of their reports, and would “have to think” about corresponding with them on it.

Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan said the commission should “take ownership of your own reports” adding while she would in the past have been supportive of broadening the commission’s powers, “not based on this session because I don’t see that you are using your powers very well”.

She told Mr Farelly the commission should have provided the committee with “evidence” in advance of the meeting of the reasons it could not discuss Owenacurra.

“You cannot come to a committee and say, ‘Ah there’s something regulatory going on. We’re not talking about it’. No, I am sorry. Committees don’t work that way and you don’t get to come in here and say, ‘We’re not talking about that’. You have to give reasons,” she said.

Mr Farrelly replied: “This is not a court of law. Where do you think you are?”

“I am at, I am at an Oireachtas committee that has a statutory footing,” said Ms Hourigan. “You have privilege when you sit in here and it is very serious and what is happening to those people is very serious. So you can be flippant about it if you want but it is very serious.”

Ms Cairns said the commission had been very critical when rights were infringed in other centres but had been “silent and not inclined to take action” on the moving of Owenacurra residents from their community.

“Do you think it’s called into question the commission’s oversight of these things?,” she asked.

“You obviously have a view and that’s your view,” replied Mr Farrelly.

Commission reports had led to improved mental health services across the state, he added. While it had power to deregister and close a centre, it had “no powers to stop a provider closing an approved centre”.

The commission’s powers were “minimal” and needed to be extended. He called for a legal compulsion on state bodies like the HSE, to maintain “state assets” like mental health facilities.

“We have to invest in the services and there has to be a compulsion in law that you can’t neglect something over time. But that’s not in the law.”

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times