Troubled passage of Irish college into cultural centre


A new management board has been appointed to oversee the revival of the Irish College in Paris as a premier cultural centre abroad.

Correspondence obtained by The Irish Times shows that the appointment of the board last Monday was the culmination of a protracted and bitter struggle for control of the college.

Since 1985 a non-profit Dublin-based company called College des Irlandais Paris, had been overseeing the running of the college, along with the Catholic Hierarchy in Ireland.

In May 2000 the Minister of State, Mr Martin Cullen, announced the Government would spend £7 million to restore the 18th-century college. Ireland's Ambassador to Paris, Mr Patrick O'Connor, then drafted a report on the management of the college, which reached the Office of the Taoiseach.

In the document, which Mr O'Connor never intended to be made public, he pleaded for "an adequate system of governance". Under a 1991 French decree, the Irish Ambassador was supposed to nominate the seven Irish members of the 14strong Franco-Irish council which has ultimate authority over the college.

"In theory," Mr O'Connor wrote, "the nomination procedure for the Irish side allows for the possibility of a strong, direct Irish State input."

In practice, the Dublin company, headed by the former chairman of Ulster Bank and former chancellor of Trinity College, Dr Frank O'Reilly, appointed the Irish representatives. Two of seven seats were reserved for church nominees.

Since the State was funding the reconstruction and development of the college, Mr O'Connor wrote: "It would now seem both appropriate and desirable that it make a more active input to the nomination process". He insisted that the Dublin company "does not appear to have any legal standing in this context".

"That's rubbish," Dr O'Reilly told The Irish Times yesterday. "We've worked with this for 15 years."

In a letter to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, in April, Dr O'Reilly wrote that "the directors [of the Dublin company] feel upset and offended, and are anxious to receive some explanation for the recent actions. . . . The directors have, in fact, been involved in the day-to-day management and running of the college throughout".

In January the Taoiseach's special adviser, Mr Gerry Howlin, had written to Mr Cowen, saying that the Taoiseach "agrees with the ambassador's proposals and requests that streamlining the organisation should take place immediately".

In view of the Taoiseach's interest, Mr Howlin asked Mr Cowen to watch over the project. Although Dr O'Reilly's resignation from the council and the Dublin company was to have taken effect on December 31st last, he wrote to Mr O'Connor in February 2001 on College des Irlandais headed note-paper to ask that Mr Simon Coyle be appointed to the council.

The Ambassador did not respond. Mr O'Connor was eager that the State should choose replacements for Dr O'Reilly and Mgr Brendan Devlin of Maynooth, who were retiring from the council. Furthermore, he wrote in his report: "It is not clear that all of the five remaining nominees on the Irish side have contributed much, or have much to contribute, to the administrative council."

On March 20th Mr Cowen announced that five of the seven Irish representatives on the council had been replaced. New members, who also sit on the larger management board created this week, include Ms Jennifer Campbell, who chairs the Friends of the Linen Hall Library in Belfast; Mr Seamus Crimmins, the head of Lyric FM radio station; and the criminal lawyer Mr Patrick MacEntee SC.

Only two of the previous seven Irish representatives, the retired banker Mr William Glynn and Father Hugh Connolly, the vice-president of Maynooth, remain on the new council.

Mr Cowen's private secretary wrote a final letter to Dr O'Reilly on May 16th, saying that the Minister was "fully satisfied that in this matter all the legalities have been properly observed".

Three of the 14 members of the new management board are women: Ms Aine Ades of Bord Failte and the arts consultant and broadcaster Ms Doireann Ni Bhriain, in addition to Ms Campbell. There were no female Irish representatives in the previous structure. The writer and historian Mr Pierre Joannon, Ireland's honorary consul in Antibes, is also a member.

The younger, more broadly representative group will meet for its first plenary session next month, under Mr Glynn as chairman.

In the meantime, the Department of Foreign Affairs has appointed Mr Fiach Mac Conghail, who supervised Ireland's presence at last year's Expo in Hanover, as programme manager for the college until 2002.

Mr Mac Conghail is to recruit a chief executive/director for the college. He and several of the board members toured the college site yesterday. The British company Davis Langdon is overseeing the renovation.