It is unlikely that the controversies which have rocked the Kildare and Wicklow Training Board (KWETB) in recent months would have emerged but for the persistence of Newbridge Councillor and unsuccessful Fine Gael general election contender, Fiona McLoughlin Healy.
Her efforts in exposing the questionable decisions by the KWETB have been followed by the early retirement of its chief executive, Sean Ashe, in November and the resignation of the chair and vice-chair of the board, Jim Ruttle and Brendan Weld, in early December, though they both remain Count y Councillors.
Weld is a member of Kildare County Council for Fine Gael and Ruttle an independent on Wicklow County Council but their political futures may ultimately depend on investigations currently underway into governance and alleged conflicts of interest at the KWETB.
The National Economic Crime Bureau (aka the Fraud Squad) and the Health and Safety Authority have also weighed in with their own inquiries into related matters while claims of serious wrongdoing have been made in the High Court in a case involving building company, K&J Townmore Construction Ltd and the Wexford-based concrete products supplier, Drumderry Aggregate Ltd.
Meanwhile, work on a new extension at St Conleth’s secondary school in Newbridge has been halted pending a number of investigations into the quality of the columns, beams and other materials used in the construction work which are at the centre of the court action and which ultimately affects the safety of pupils who are due to enter the building in the new year.
Fiona McLoughlin Healy is a member of the KWETB and its audit committee and is also on the board of the school and has been to the fore in raising concerns across a range of issues since first elected as a Councillor for Fine Gael in the 2014 local elections. Her hard constituency work and high profile led to her selection as a candidate for the party in the 2016 general election but since then her political ambitions have been thwarted, not least by her own Fine Gael colleagues.
Raised in Castlerea, County Roscommon, by her parents who were psychiatric nurses, McLoughlin Healy studied nursing herself before qualifying with a degree in politics and law at UCG in 1998. From there, she obtained a Masters degree in Public Relations, Communications and Advertising in Ulster University which assisted her when she went into marketing. She first worked in the charity sector with Cerebral Palsy Ireland, employed to manage its successful rebrand as Enable Ireland.
A stint in the US introduced her to the world of private property sales and as the boom looked set to go on forever she set up a website, Privateseller.ie, which cut out the auctioneering middlemen and earned her steady commissions and a media profile. Her web-site was hacked days after she was elected as a Councillor.
She made regular appearances on the TV3 breakfast show, Ireland AM, and in the Star newspaper, and was a committee member of the chamber of commerce in Newbridge. Her standing as a successful local businesswoman brought her to the attention of the local FG branch which identified her as a potential political flag-waver for the party and approached her with a view to a future, in first local, and then national politics. Married to Bernard Healy, a GP in Newbridge, with a young family, McLoughlin Healy fitted the new politics promoted by the up-and-coming Fine Gael generation led by leadership hopefuls, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, and the growing number of women in the party seeking Dáil seats as gender-balancing rules were introduced.
After topping the poll for Fine Gael in the Newbridge area in the local elections with 1415 votes, just ten short of a quota on the first count, McLoughlin Healy looked certain to make waves in the next general election and was identified as a good prospect by party stalwarts, including Frank Flannery and Tom Curran. They saw two seats as a distinct possibility in the south Kildare constituency. While she was streetwise enough to insist that she would not be “a pawn in someone else’s political game”, she entered the fray with enthusiasm with an eye on a Dáil seat, sometime soon.
However, her optimism was not shared by sitting TD, Martin Heydon, who is based in Athy, and who was not about to concede any ground to the new arrival, clearly a potential vote getter in the more populous suburban, northern, end of the county. Before that particular problem surfaced, McLoughlin Healy first found herself at loggerheads with the long-established male hierarchy on Kildare County Council, led by long-sitting FG Councillor, Brendan Weld.
Not long after her election to the Council in 2014, controversy erupted over the botched move by then leader, Enda Kenny, to appoint Donegal-based party hack, John McNulty, to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA). The appointment was made just days before McNulty was nominated to the Seanad. The IMMA appointment was clearly intended by Kenny to ensure McNulty’s election to the upper house but instead the Donegal man was forced to withdraw from the contest. McLoughlin Healy was censured by the party for her vocal criticism on local radio of this blatant act of cronyism by her leader and her call on Heydon, as sitting TD, to vote against McNulty’s appointment.
Whatever about taking on the FG big brass, it was nothing to the opposition she met from a number of her eight male party colleagues on Kildare County Council. Her first bruising encounter, however, was with the then Mayor of Kildare, Fianna Fáil Councillor Fiona O’Loughlin, with whom she clashed over the way funds were allocated by the Decades of Commemoration Committee of the Council. As reported extensively in Village, McLoughlin Healy raised the not insignificant award of a €600 grant to a company of which the Mayor’s brother was a Director, for the Buskers and Bluebells festival he was running in memory of their late father. While the Council ethics committee and subsequently the Standard in Public Office Commission rejected McLoughlin Healy’s allegation of a potential conflict of interest, for no explicable reason, the controversy did more damage to the whistleblower than the whistled at.
At her first Council meeting and as elected members put themselves forward for committees they would prefer to work on for their five-year term she met considerable resistance both from within and outside her own FG group. They sought to block her attempt to win selection for the economic development committee of the Council, an understandable ambition given her background in business and support from the chamber of commerce, and the housing committee. The old-boy network in both FG and FF was blamed for preventing her appointment to the economic committee while there was also a cross-party effort to block her selection for the KWETB. A similar and successful blocking effort took place in Wicklow when Greystones Councillor, Tom Fortune, was prevented from taking a position even though he had won more votes than Jim Ruttle who was subsequently appointed to the board.
Her tendency to ask awkward questions soon put McLoughlin Healy in open conflict with other KWETB board members including its then chairman Weld and vice-chair Ruttle as well as the powerful CEO, Seamus Ashe. With a budget of over €116m annually and responsibility for 23 schools, over 23,000 students and various training centres across the two counties, the KWETB turned out to be a lucrative source of income for a wide range of companies, professional advisers and indeed elected politicians, as McLoughlin Healy was to discover.
When, over several months, she raised questions about the way in which people, including Councillors, were allocated to school boards of management, she found that some 80% of the allocations were made by just three of the board members, Ruttle, Weld and Fianna Fáil Councillor, Darragh Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick had the misfortune to be identified by an RTÉ ‘Prime Time’ programme last year as one of those Council members across the county who had failed to declare no less than six directorships in his declaration of interests.
In late 2015, she was selected to stand for Fine Gael in the upcoming general election. Despite the objections by the Dukes dynasty and other Heydon supporters to a two-candidate strategy, McLoughlin Healy soldiered on and won a nomination at the rowdy party convention in the Keadeen Hotel, Newbridge. In a local newspaper, one senior local party member likened FG to North Korea for insisting that a woman should be on the ticket.
The Heydon camp did not relent, however, and continued to obstruct McLoughlin Healy’s prospects. Their campaign, coupled with constant sniping from Fianna Fáil candidate, Fiona O’Loughlin, over the grants complaint served to push McLoughlin Healy out of the race. Indeed, tallies showed her Fianna Fáil rival got more number twos from Heydon than his party colleague such was the level of duplicity employed by her supposed FG allies.
Back on the Council, she pursued a motion of no confidence in its chairman, Brendan Weld, who had repeatedly refused to meet her to discuss his attempt to ensure that all her motions would be blocked because of the row over the decade of commemoration grants. She had learned that there had been an orchestrated attempt by her FG adversary to garner the support of other party leaders in the Council in effect to boycott her. The no-confidence motion in Weld, the Mayor, was defeated when the two main parties again colluded against her.
She then had the FG whip removed from her by party Councillors for bringing the party into disrepute and failed in an appeal to the party headquarters against her alleged ill treatment. Among those who sat on the disciplinary committee which rejected her complaints was national executive member, Barry Walsh, who was recently forced to resign his position after his abusive and sexist texts against women of his own party and other political persuasions, were publicly revealed. McLoughlin Healy herself delivered a copy of a book entitled ‘Everyday Sexism’, soon after she was first elected to the Council, to a fellow party member whom she believed was discriminating against her because of her gender.
McLoughlin Healy also raised awkward questions about Council failures to register developers as lobbyists and international town-twinning travel, documented in Village articles earlier this year.
When the controversy over alleged conflicts of interest involving the CEO, Sean Ashe, emerged in September last, following an alarming report by the Comptroller and Auditor General into the financial governance of the KWETB, only McLoughlin Healy once again raised the most pertinent and urgent questions on the matter. It emerged that Ashe had allowed his daughter, Jennifer Ashe, to rent a property owned by the Board in Naas, for her company Postbrook. Another company in which she was involved, Ashton Engineering, was awarded a significant contract for mechanical and electrical services in the St Conleth’s extension. There were questions raised over the use of vehicles owned by the KWETB and, more seriously, over the contracts awarded to a number of companies involved in school building and extensions, and about some professional advisers.
In October, Ashe announced his decision to retire later this year following the appointment by education minister, Richard Bruton, of an independent expert, former president of Sligo DIT, Dr Richard Thorn, to examine issues raised in a report by the C&AG. Thorn discovered that there was a number of pressing issues not included in his terms of reference including allegations of fraud involving the issuance of safety and other certification for work on St Conleth’s in Newbridge.
One of the businessmen at the centre of the certification row at St Conleth’s contacted McLoughlin Healy over his concerns. Sam Deacon of Drumderry Aggregate, whose company supplies columns, beams and other materials used in the construction of schools, nursing homes and other buildings told her he was refusing to certify certain works done in the extension. He claimed that they did not meet the standards required. He made serious allegations, now under investigation by the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation, including that his company notepaper was wrongly used to sign off on work which in his view did not comply with required quality standards.
K & J Townmore, the contractor involved in the construction work at St Conleth’s went to the High Court to force Deacon to supply the required certificates. On 8 December, a notice was served on Townmore by Conor Finnegan of Tullamore-based architects, MCOH, to cease all work on the site pending the provision of necessary certification and other documentation.
Chairman, Jim Ruttle, and vice-chairman, Brendan Weld, had resigned from their positions on the KWETB a week earlier. Ruttle said he had no involvement with the issues under investigation which he said pre-date his role as chairman which commenced in October 2016. The former chairman, Weld, expressed “regret” and “shock” at the behaviour under investigation. Their resignations came just a day after McLoughlin Healy wrote to them asking why they had not addressed the issues she had raised, over many months.