Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 15 December 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs
Mary Robinson Centre: Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.
The next issue on the clár is the proposed Mary Robinson centre in Ballina, County Mayo. I will start on that. This is a very important issue because Mary Robinson is one of the most important political individuals to come out of this country in the past 100 years and one of our most important Presidents. Many people throughout the country are very proud of the legacy she has left behind in all her roles in her service to the State and internationally. There is no doubt the archive she leaves is of great interest and value to many people. There is also great logic to locating that archive in an accessible space in the region where she comes from. The desire to have it located in Ballina in County Mayo was a good and logical desire and one that this type of committee would, in general, be in favour of. Unfortunately, the issue got bogged down in a number of difficulties when it came to financing. The first major difficulty was that it was a break in precedent. All former Presidents gifted their archives to the State so that people could access them. This break with precedent meant there was going to be a tax relief drawn down from the State for the archive. The Minister's Department played a pivotal role in this entire process. It is clear the process was not going to work because there was a reversal of the process that was initially laid out by the Victoria House Foundation.
Was due diligence carried out by the Department when it decided to fund this particular project? Although the particular building in hand was going to be purchased by the county council, it was understood to be far more expensive than the value that was put on it. A local Garda station, which had closed down right beside it, with equal, if not more, space was on sale a few years ago for far less money. The council entered into a kind of blank-cheque situation whereby it came to the Department and said that if there were any unforeseen costs, it would cover them. There was confusion over the value of the property. It also emerged that the property was in a structural condition which would necessitate significant investment of hundreds of thousands of euros just to make it ready for use for the project. The other issue that came into play was the manner in which the Department made the decision to provide this funding. Normally, funding would be measured and decided upon within particular sectors, projects or areas within the Department but I understand this does not fall into any of those. Will the Minister address those particular issues. Was there due diligence? How did the Minister feel about another State organisation writing a blank cheque and entering into a project in circumstances where the building was not in good structural condition and where the costs would be borne by the State?
To be clear, the council, not the Department, was the project promoter. It was not considered necessary to carry out due diligence because we were not the promoter of the project. The project was being assessed by the Department and the grant approved on a set of standard conditions. These conditions were put in place. Mayo County Council was the promoter and it conceived, developed and procured funding for the project because there were other funding sources coming forward. It was to be responsible for the centre's operation when the project was complete. As the project promoter, Mayo County Council is responsible for employing a competent design team, the quantity surveyor and the project manager and would have the control to ensure that the project went according to plan.
There have been a number of projects that my Department funded in a similar way. People came forward with a number of different schemes. One of the major projects awarded grants in recent years was that relating to Wexford Opera House, which got €31 million. It all comes out of the A7 subhead of my Department by means of which capital infrastructure is funded. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and its 15 centres were given €19 million; the Athlone Little Theatre was given €30,000; Boston College Active Research Limited got €25,600; Druid Theatre in Galway got €1.1 million; the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin got €7.8 million; and the Gate Theatre got €2.1 million. There are a number of different projects that have come in over the years that were funded in that way. Most recently, we worked with the GPO and funded it to the tune of €7 million but it was responsible for the project. It was the same with the National Archives and the National Concert Hall. That is the way we work with different organisations. We assist them in bringing forward projects.
As the Chairman said, this project was in Ballina and I went to visit the town. I met with the county manager and felt this was an opportunity to move such a centre outside of the city. The Chairman can appreciate that was attractive when looking at the project because it was something in rural Ireland. It would allow people to come to Ballina. Mary Robinson is very well known in terms of human rights. It was looked at because it was her family home. The place where it was located was important in her childhood and formative hears so it was certainly a good location.
Tosnóimid arís i seisiún poiblí. Before we were interrupted, I was trying to get answers from the Minister to a number of questions. It is important not to conflate these problems with the value of the archive and the location to which it is going. There is nobody on the island who has any difficulty with its value or location. The questions relate purely to the due diligence the Department had in respect of the entire project. As the Minister knows, the Galway arthouse cinema is a major difficulty and, I am sure, a thorn in the side of the Department. It is standing there unused after millions of euro were poured into it and after the Department had to pour in more than what was initially estimated.
I am amazed that the Department would allocate €2 million to a project and not carry out due diligence. I understand that the Minister says that there was an assessment done. Would it be possible, in the spirit of new politics, that the assessment might be made visible to members of this committee?
The Department gave permission for the €2 million to be drawn down. At the same time, one of the key elements of the project was Ms Mary Robinson's application for tax relief on her archive. That application did not fit the criteria under the law. I understand from communications back and forth between the Minister's Department and the Department of Finance and reported on "Prime Time" that this particular archive was outside the strict criteria laid down under legislation because it contained more than documentation. In other words, it contained other elements as well. Other issues arose. There was a controversy over the value of the building in that there were alternatives in Ballina that were far cheaper. There were controversies regarding the disrepair of the building and it was going to need hundreds of thousands of euro more to actually make it fully stable and utilisable. A State organisation, namely, the county council, was entering into a blank-cheque situation whereby unforeseen costs would be loaded on the shoulders of the people of Mayo in the future. Was it not necessary for the State to have confidences regarding these issues before it gave the go-ahead for the drawdown of the €2 million?
First, I wish to clarify that there is absolutely nothing to hide here. This is a normal process. I wish to be clear about this. The onus on ensuring compliance with the public spending code as published by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform lies, in the first instance, with the project promoter. That, of course, is Mayo County Council. It must ensure compliance with the public spending code, end of story. Under the provisions of the code, a cost-benefit analysis is required for projects with a total cost of €20 million or more.
Given the financial parameters involved, a requirement for such an analysis did not arise for the Mary Robinson centre. My Department will ensure it is satisfied that the project is in compliance with the relevant requirements of the code before releasing any funding to Mayo County Council. There are checks and balances within my Department. All the funding has to be in place and we must be satisfied that everything is lined up before we pay out any money, and money has not been paid out on this project. Approval in principle was given to progress the project.
The application under section 1003 fully fitted the criteria.
I do not know which reports it is referring to but I know that this project did fit the criteria. I cannot answer that question but I know that it was properly assessed and that it fitted the criteria.
We would appreciate that because it would be beneficial for us to understand the steps and mechanisms the Department goes through in any of these projects. I ask that question because there is a responsibility on Deputies and Senators to have levels of oversight of the spending of State money with regard to such projects.
Another aspect that caused me some concern was the fact that some of the promoters of the project were also the people who were to benefit financially from it. Did that raise eyebrows in the Department? I refer to some of the individuals behind the project. I understand the project was promoted by a partnership of Victoria House, NUI Galway, the county council and so on and that some of those individuals were also the owners of the house in question which was to be the location of the library.
As far as I am concerned, the decision by Mary Robinson to take or not to take the tax under the law was for her to make. It is not of any relevance to the Department other than confirming that it falls under the Acts. It is a mechanical process. She was right to say that she would not try to claim it. I believe that the proposal made in the 1960s should be implemented, that is, that all presidential material should be donated to the State at the end of a presidency. It would be a good idea to follow through on that and make sure there is a presidential room or rooms in the National Museum of Ireland, as proposed by a former President, to which all the material should be left. Most of our former Presidents brought different gifts to the job and had interesting archives. As the gifts they get as President and the papers they collect are relevant to the job, the presidency papers should automatically return to the State in due course.
First, on the particular issue, I take it this project was site specific in that this was the location where Mary Robinson grew up. It is similar to building the interpretative centre for Pearse's cottage near Pearse's cottage because that is where it was located. There are constraints with regard to the sites at the location where one would choose to build the interpretative centre because that is where it happened. We are dealing with Moore Street currently, which is site specific also. The Minister might confirm if I am correct in that.
Second, I presume there is a procedure in the Department with applications under this particular subhead. The Civil Service, from executive officer or higher executive officer level upwards, gets an application from, say, Mayo County Council, the opera house in Wexford and so on. They prepare a file which goes through the various stages and is then sent to the Secretary General, certainly in the case of a big grant such as this one, who is also the Accounting Officer and is responsible for the process of spending, unlike the Minister who is responsible for policy. That then goes to the Minister to be signed off.
When this file came to the Minister, there was a recommendation either to sign off or to refuse the application for a grant. The Minister might confirm if there was a recommendation. We can get all this information through a freedom of information, FOI, request. The information the Chairman sought is not available. All any of us had to do was put in a FOI request. I did not bother to do so. However, the Minister can confirm today that a file came to her in the normal way that was prepared by the public service through the various layers. In most cases, Ministers would get a recommendation either to sign or not sign. The Minister could sign to grant even if it was recommended to her not to do so, although it is not very common. The Minister might confirm for us if a proposal came to her recommending that this grant be given, and she might also confirm the size of the grant.
The arthouse cinema in Galway has been mentioned. There can be cost overruns as issues can arise in any project, but I always took the view, and I took it with the Jeanie Johnston, that when we have gone as far as spending €12 million, we might as well spend €13 million and finish the project than leave nine tenths of the build lying idle. I hope the money will be put together to open the arthouse cinema to the public because currently it is a useless eyesore on a premium site.
We get very excited about some of these cases. I see the Jeanie Johnstonmoored on the quays, on which a fantastic job was done. Five years from now, will anybody be wondering whether the cost of that project reached €500,000, not because money was wasted but because it went over budget for one reason or another? That can happen on building projects. Many community projects go over target. I always took a sanguine view in that if something unforeseen arose, we should just deal with it. As long as there is not misappropriation of funds, so be it because the greater good would say that an open theatre is better than a four fifths finished theatre. The Minister might let us know if we are near endgame in terms of getting the arthouse cinema finished and opened to the public. Whatever innocent mistakes were made by the promoters, I am happy they did what they did for the best reasons. If they did not, there are many procedures that can be followed, including the Comptroller and Auditor General. If that is the problem and somebody believes there was misappropriation of funds, this issue should be dealt with by the Committee of Public Accounts, not this committee.
We have reached the stage where we have become great bean counters but sometimes we lose sight of the big picture. We need prestige cultural projects. They are not commercially viable. Most of these projects are loss leaders in that they will never pay for themselves, but they are incredibly important to the economy of a region. Taxpayers putting money into iconic features pays off in general tax revenue, on the Government's balance sheet and in terms of the cultural well-being of the people. I am very proud that Galway has been designated the European capital of culture for 2020. The Minister's colleague sitting beside her will be able to tell her how many millions-----
Most former Presidents have given their presidential records and other materials to different institutions. It is entirely up to the individuals concerned and not something in respect of which I wish to encroach.
To be clear, I am not talking about materials relating to the time before and after their being in presidential office. In the case of Mrs. Robinson, there does happen to be a lot of such material. The Minister will be aware of the proposal which was put forward that there be a presidential room in the museum where artefacts of the various Presidents would be stored and available for viewing. Many people who visit this country know something about our current and past Presidents. Some of the holders of the office have been quite iconic. Douglas Hyde, for example, was a chief author of the vision that led to the setting up of the Gaelic League and which ultimately led to the 1916 Rising, although he had no part in that event. Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh was one of our premier jurists. Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and the current President have many achievements to their names. The proposal to have a dedicated museum space for storing all presidential materials is a good one and worthy of consideration. One former President left all the artefacts to the museum but not the papers.
The question of having a particular museum space for the presidential records can be discussed with the management of the National Archives of Ireland in the context of the proposed redevelopment of its premises.
Yes, it was a recommendation to sign off on the proposal to establish a presidential library in the property where the former President was raised. It was a good proposal and a positive investment for Ballina. I am not sure exactly what happened to prevent it. Everybody seemed to agree that it was a good proposal and that the location was right. In February 2016 my Department, having assessed the proposal, offered a capital grant in principle to Mayo County Council for up to €2 million towards the cost of construction of the centre, subject to the standard conditions that apply to all such grants. The board of the Victoria House Foundation issued a statement on 28 November indicating its intention to review the option of developing the proposed centre in Ballina following the decision by the former President to donate her archive to NUI Galway. That review, the board indicated, would be completed in the first quarter of 2017. My Department is liaising with Mayo County Council on the matter and I will consider any proposals that emerge from the review.
It will be a pity if that happens. Although I represent Galway city, it would be better to have the library located in Mayo.
My final question concerns budgetary overruns. As I recall, it was standard procedure for projects to have plans in place to meet unforeseen expenses and so on. That certainly was the case in respect of community Gaeltacht grants, etc.
It is standard practice. In the case of the Picture Palace project, I very much agree it needs to be finished. It is the right thing to do, as I said at another committee meeting, and a lot of money has gone into it. The promoters had good intentions and did their best but unexpected issues arose, including difficulties with the site. It is expected that the legal issues will be resolved shortly and work will commence in the new year.
Regarding the proposed Mary Robinson centre in Ballina, I am from that area and people are very proud of the former President and all she has achieved. Perhaps Mayo County Council did not carry out enough analysis in respect of the project and things were not fully thought through. In the case of all concerned, their heart was in the right place and they did the right thing for the right reasons. I am sorry that matters are at an impasse but there is no indication of misappropriation of funds or anything sinister or clandestine like that, regardless of what might have come out on "Prime Time". That was not necessarily the whole truth. What options are open to Mayo County Council at this stage? Unlike the Department, which only gave a promise of funding, the council is significantly out of pocket. Can the council reapply for funding under some other process? Perhaps the matter is outside the Minister's remit.
As I said, a review is under way. I gave a commitment to provide assistance of €2 million towards construction of the centre. That money is sitting there pending the outcome of the review. It is up to the council to come forward; I do not have any input whatsoever into that.
There are questions to be answered in respect of the oversight of the Picture Palace development. I agree that the project was well-intentioned but there are concerns as to how that funding allocation happened, why it ran over in the way it did and so on. Moreover, those concerns will persist because several of the same players are involved in the preparations for Galway's role as a European Capital of Culture in 2020. It is a great initiative for Galway but we need to be very careful about how moneys are expended. I understand there are issues with Galway City Museum, for example, even though a great deal of money was spent on it. Will the Minister comment on that? The €1.8 million plus that was spent on Galway's bid to be a European Capital of Culture for 2020 seems a colossal amount of money. Research I have done shows the average spent by other cities in Europe, including the successful ones, was €300,000. We need much greater transparency around that. It is a huge project and will be a very positive one if it is run properly. We must ensure robust mechanisms of oversight, management and corporate governance are in place which will enable Galway to get the best possible return, not just culturally but economically. It is important that the moneys spent have a positive cultural impact rather than just providing an economic gain for Galway and the region. We might discuss this issue at a future date. Several capital projects are being discussed around the 2020 bid and it is important to know where the moneys will come from, what discussions have been had with the Department and what commitments are given as we proceed. We must prevent overruns on those projects.
I have no responsibility for Galway City Museum. My Department has not expended any funding on Galway's bid to be a European Capital of Culture in 2020.
I have been in Galway. I do not have to tell the committee how good the Galway Arts Festival is and how successful. I remember speaking at an event at it. The two weeks in Galway when the arts festival takes place are worth somewhere in the region of €23 million to the local economy, which is absolutely wonderful in terms of what it does for Galway and the wider area. There is a commitment that Government funding will be made available for the European Capital of Culture 2020, but that will be subject to assessment and the requests that are received. It will go through the necessary checks. I am due back before the committee to discuss the Revised Estimates and I will go through the Picture Palace in more detail at that stage, if the committee wishes. I have discussed it with the committee before but I am happy to go through it again.
We are not arguing that it has a huge economic impact. A lot of money comes into Galway and there are many bed nights, etc., during the arts festival. However, it is the cultural legacy that I am worried about. How much does it benefit local artists and local communities and how much does it get disadvantaged communities involved in the whole project? That is hugely important if it is going to be very successful.
Galway has just been named European Capital of Culture 2020 ahead of many other cities. It is the cultural capital of the country in one way. I know what the Senator is saying, but Galway is the seat and platform for great culture, innovation and arts.