Maynooth University cancels students’ visit to Leuven institute

Concerns arose over role of Malachy Vallely, who was convicted after fatal 2014 fire

The Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe, in Belgium

The Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe, in Belgium

 

Maynooth University has cancelled a visit by some of its students to the Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe because of concerns over governance at a Belgian facility.

The concerns centre around the role of Malachy Vallely, a key figure in the institute, who last year was convicted by a Belgian court in relation to a fire in which two students from Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) died in 2014.

Mr Vallely was then a director of the institute, which is based at the former Irish Franciscan College in Leuven, and has since become its chairman.

The two students who died – Dace Zarina (22) from Longford town and Sara Gibadlo (19) from Oranmore in Galway – were working at the college, gaining experience in hotel and catering management.

While there, they lived in a Leuven apartment block that was owned by Mr Vallely and for which he was paid rent by the Leuven institute.

During the trial, Mr Vallely was described by a prosecuting lawyer as “a slum landlord” who used his apartment as a “cash cow” for 23 years by renting it back to the institute. Both Mr Vallely and the institute were convicted of fire safety breaches by the Leuven correctional court.

Malachy Vallely, who last year was convicted by a Belgian court in relation to a fire in which two students from Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology died. Photograph: YouTube
Malachy Vallely, who last year was convicted by a Belgian court in relation to a fire in which two students from Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology died. Photograph: YouTube

Prison sentence

In September, Mr Vallely was given a one-year prison sentence, the term sought by the prosecution, suspended for five years and fined €6,000. The court found the institute responsible for the deaths and fined it €60,000. Neither Mr Vallely nor the institute has appealed against the verdict or sentence.

Shane Bracken (22) from Co Offaly, who was staying at the same residence, was found guilty of causing involuntary deaths due to a cigarette and sentenced to a suspended three-month jail term and fined €600.

Students from several third-level institutions in the State and North have spent time at the institute in recent years. Some went there for employment experience, with others attending seminars and visiting European Union institutions and historic sites.

Thirty students from Maynooth were due to go for a week at the end of January. They had been booked to stay in the institute and to study EU institutions through lectures in Leuven and by visiting EU-related locations in Brussels.

Role

However, following the fire and court convictions, together with what emerged during the trial, staff at Maynooth’s centre for European and Eurasian studies became concerned and last autumn sought information from the institute. The centre asked what role, if any, Mr Vallely continued to have at the institute.

However, the question was not answered and, in the absence of an assurance that Mr Vallely was no longer involved, the university’s centre for European studies decided just before Christmas to cancel the upcoming visit.

Maynooth cancelled “because of concerns about governance about the institute”, the university’s Jean Monnet professor of European integration, John O’Brennan, said.

A spokesperson for the centre explained further: “The governance of another institution should not normally be of concern, and certainly not a matter for investigation or judgment by Maynooth University.

Caution

“But, as a consumer and as a body with duty of care for its employees and its students, the university must always err on the side of caution and, in this instance, take note of the judgment of the Belgian courts.”

The Irish Times also asked the institute, and Mr Vallely himself (through a Naas-based firm of solicitors that in the past had represented him to the newspaper), for comment on Maynooth’s cancellation.

A separate legal firm, defamation solicitor Paul Tweed, responded by saying it was the institute that had cancelled the Maynooth visit because it refused to exceed to Mr O’Brennan’s “demands”.

Mr O’Brennan rejected this. “They have absolutely reversed the truth,” he said. “That’s almost in Trump territory.”

Staff at University College Dublin have also expressed concern about the institute. Ben Tonra, professor of international relations at the UCD school of politics and international relations, said: “I absolutely share his [John O’Brennan’s] views about poor governance [at the institute].”

A source at the UCD school of politics and international relations said there had been concerns, following the trial and conviction, about sending students to the institute. However, following assurances from Leuven, a party of students would be going there shortly and future relations with Leuven would be reassessed after that trip.

Fire safety certificates

David Grant, the Leuven institute’s chief executive, has assured UCD that all fire safety certificates were held by the institute and Mr Vallely “does not have any executive authority or day to day involvement in the institute’s operations”.

Students visiting Leuven on work placement and staying outside the institute were no longer put up in accommodation owned by Mr Vallely, Mr Grant said.

“No board member of the Leuven institute, nor anybody associated with the institute, has any interest in these properties or this commercial organisation.”

Students from GMIT studying hotel management will not be going to Leuven this year. A spokeswoman for Galway institute said that at present, “there are no arrangements in place”.