Irish Rail says standby drivers and locomotives might be needed in key locations after failure of single train caused chaos on network

Irish Rail was bombarded with complaints from passengers after one of their intercity services ended up taking more than seven hours with most passengers not arriving at their destination until 2.30am.

In emails to the rail operators, members of the public wrote of being left standing in the pouring rain on a platform as they waited for another train.

The delay happened in February when a service between Dublin and Cork was hit by a “fatal failure” of a water pump, according to an internal investigation report from Irish Rail.

It said delays for passengers on board, and several other services also hit, were “very significant” and that lessons needed to be learned from what had happened.

The report also said that the line was likely to get even busier over the next few years so that standby locomotives and drivers might need to be in place at key locations to avoid similar incidents.

In a barrage of complaints and requests for compensation from passengers, one wrote of the “dreadful experience and conditions” they had endured on their journey.

Right to Know wins case over access to secret briefing paper for Justice Minister Helen McEntee on resumption of deportations

A secret briefing paper from the Department of Justice said the state urgently needed to resume deportations as the majority of applicants for international protection were economic migrants.

It said without a robust system for deportation, the state had very little ability to ease pressures on the immigration system or deter “inappropriate applications”.

The briefing for Minister Helen McEntee also said that countries which failed to cooperate with Ireland when it came to removing failed asylum seekers should be penalised.

The Freedom of Information request for all records on departmental discussions over resuming deportations had originally been made in the summer of 2022.

The Department of Justice failed to respond however, leading first to an internal review, and later an appeal to the Information Commissioner under FOI laws.

Officials agreed to send redacted versions of the records in November 2022 but said full release could compromise law enforcement and public safety as well as Ireland’s security, defence, and international relations.

The most controversial parts of the documents were withheld, and the Information Commissioner’s investigation continued.

In December 2023, the Department of Justice released yet more material; however, parts of certain documents were still being redacted.

Last month, the Information Commissioner issued their decision ruling the Department of Justice should release the information note for Minister Helen McEntee in its entirety.

The decision said: “The Department said the information in question was redacted from a public safety perspective.

“It argued that the release of the information may increase a negative sentiment amongst the general public and endanger genuine applicants for International Protection.”

The Information Commissioner said they fully accepted that in the current climate there were “strongly held views and heightened emotions” around immigration.

However, the decision added: “Nevertheless, it seems to me that the observations in question would not come as a surprise to the wider public to the extent that the release of the information could, of itself, reasonably be expected to endanger the lives or safety of international protection applicants generally.”

You can read the full decision at the following link:

Overcrowding in jails will cause increased tensions and spill over into violence, Department of Justice said in request for higher budget

The Department of Justice warned that prison overcrowding was going to spill over into violence in a plea for additional funding from the Department of Public Expenditure.

A submission said the Irish Prison Service was currently experiencing “record high risk overcrowding” as prisoner numbers shot up following the COVID-19 pandemic.

It said coping with the rise in numbers would be extremely challenging and was likely to lead to “increased tensions” that would inevitably lead to a risk of physical assaults and increased dangers for both staff and prisoners.

In their pre-budget submission, the department said they needed at least €48 million in extra funding for prisons as they warned that overcrowding was only likely to get worse.

At the time, there were over 4,700 people in the prison system; however, since the submission was sent, that has risen even further and, on some days this year, has almost approached 5,000.

The submission added: “In addition to the acute risks this brings to staff and prisoners alike, overcrowding also severely curtails rehabilitation services, including access to schools and workshops.”

These records were only provided to Right to Know following an appeal to the Information Commissioner.

Defence Forces feared that new rules on wearing of beards and grooming for soldiers would be weaponised by bigots and xenophobes

The Defence Forces were worried changes to their strict guidelines on personal grooming and appearance could be hijacked by the far right and result in “toxic behaviour” from bigots and xenophobes.

Earlier this year, the military announced they were easing restrictions on how soldiers could present themselves, including the wearing of beards, jewellery, and less rigorous restrictions on hairstyles.

In an internal discussion document, the Defence Forces said that many armies around the world were modernising their outlook on how soldiers could look.

The memo said Ireland was undergoing transformational change, was becoming more diverse, and that there was “a requirement of [the] organisation to reflect the society in which we have the privilege to serve”.

It added: “If Ireland has become more diverse, then we are obligated to ensure any citizen who wishes to answer the call to service, shall find the DF [Defence Forces] as a welcoming place.”

The document, prepared by a senior chief petty officer in the Defence Forces, warned however there was a risk of the changes being seized on by Ireland’s growing number of far right and fascist extremists.

It said there was a “small yet vocal section of our society which will make their bigotry and xenophobia loudly known” if the changes were too closely linked with religious beliefs and ethnicity.

“This toxic behaviour could undermine a positive action, and therefore it would be preferred that any changes be presented in terms of accommodation to the expectations of the youth of Ireland today and the adoption of a more progressive policy, with diversity as a central tenet,” said the discussion paper.

HSE warned of “sup-optimal” uptake of measles vaccine and risk of disease spreading in crowded accommodation for asylum seekers and refugees

A HSE risk assessment warned of a high risk of measles spreading in asylum seeker accommodation and direct provision centres as uptake for the vaccine across Ireland was described as “sub-optimal”.

A presentation from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) said healthcare services were likely to come under significant pressure from the highly transmissible disease, which was very likely to cause outbreaks in non-immune populations.

The risk assessment said the lowest rates of vaccination were in Counties Louth and Meath where immunisation rates were below 80 per cent while uptake of below 85 per cent was reported in Counties Sligo, Leitrim, and Donegal.

It said no local health office in the country had met the target of 95 per cent uptake of the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella.

The slideshow said that a recent study had estimated that just over one in ten people aged eighteen to thirty-four were “non-immune” to measles.

This rose to a figure of 17.9 per cent for males that were aged either eighteen or nineteen, indicating a “significant non-immune population” among adults.

The HSE said there was an “increasing likelihood” of measles taking hold in Ireland, particularly with the extent of travel between here and the United Kingdom.

Enterprise Ireland said it was losing out on hiring key staff because of government red tape

Enterprise Ireland told government it was missing out on highly qualified staff because it was taking so long to get official sign-off to hire them.

A memo to the Department of Enterprise said they were also facing difficulties in trying to move employees around to respond to specific challenges like Brexit or to support the Global Ireland project.

It said a process that required every single hire to be approved by the department was taking too long even though the contracts involved were usually standard templates.

The memo from last autumn said the system was leading to “significant delays” and creating a “significant administrative burden” that added no value for the taxpayer.

“This is leading to loss of identified candidates in a tight talent market and poses a risk in terms of constraining our ability to deliver a full service to clients and meet our strategic goals,” said the briefing document.

It said the inability to be flexible in transferring staff between offices was also compromised even though it involved no change to Enterprise Ireland’s headcount.

Enterprise Ireland said that process was lengthy too and affected their ability to “respond to business and market needs”.

The document added: “[Department of Enterprise] current requirement to review and approve individual local overseas contracts when the contracts are standard templates, which have been legally reviewed and appropriate due diligence has been completed by Enterprise Ireland, adds a significant time to hire in a tight talent market, leading to multiple instances of our losing candidates.”

Unpublished tax settlements worth nearly three quarters of a billion euro paid to Revenue Commissioners in 2023

Almost €750 million was paid last year to Revenue in unpublished tax settlements with more than €200 million of that linked to the finance and insurance industries.

The Revenue Commissioners said the twenty largest settlements – specific details of which are not made public – accounted for €383 million in tax payments, or an average of around €19.2 million each.

Altogether, there were 57,873 cases settled by Revenue in 2023 where companies or individuals reached agreement over underpaid tax without their identities or names being listed in defaulter lists.

Figures released under FOI show that of the €749 million in unpublished settlements made last year, most cases related to companies with payments totalling €612 million.

There were a further 18,804 cases involving individual taxpayers, which accounted for €121 million of the tax paid as part of agreements on arrears.

Another €6.1 million was paid by 1,215 different partnerships while 213 “trusts estates” paid up just over €5 million, according to the figures.

There were also 828 unincorporated bodies that made settlements totalling €4.1 million as well as a small number of other miscellaneous cases.

The Revenue Commissioners said they would not provide any further detail on the twenty largest settlements apart from the €383 million total that was paid.

They said any further breakdown of the figures could serve to identify the companies or individuals who were involved in the tax agreements.

Irish ‘golden visa’ scheme shut down over fears of money laundering, tax evasion and extreme difficulty of doing “due diligence” on applicants

A review of a controversial golden visa scheme found that 90 per cent of applicants were from China with “no identifiable link” to Ireland and were being signed up through agents who specialised in finding people for the immigration scheme.

Secret memos from the Department of Justice said that the Immigrant Investor Programme (IIP) had an “elevated risk profile”, that such schemes carried the risk of being used by individuals engaged in money laundering and tax evasion, and that it was very challenging to do “due diligence” on applicants.

Senior officials warned that granting a visa to a person as part of the IIP scheme could be taken as state confirmation of an “individual’s bona fides” or an endorsement of any investment they made in Ireland.

The records, release of which has long been disputed by the Department of Justice, said there was “an underlying and strategic reputational risk” for Ireland through continued operation of the scheme to raise funds.

The Department of Justice had originally refused access to the records in their entirety saying that release could impact on the security of the state.

However, they were ordered to release a redacted version of the memos following an appeal by Right to Know to the Information Commissioner.

A doubling of costs and unrealistic timelines: behind the scenes of fast-track project to provide modular housing for Ukrainian refugees

A fast-track government project to provide modular homes for Ukrainian refugees contained unrealistic timelines while the cost per housing unit ended up being nearly double what was originally estimated.

In internal emails, senior officials said a calendar provided to government on when the homes would become available for use had not proved even close to accurate.

The records also said there were issues over the “credibility of cost forecasts” with a price of €200,000 per unit put forward during early planning.

An email from a senior civil servant in the Department of Public Expenditure said: “Clearly, as things have evolved this is not the case. In particular, the costings for [an] additional 200 units appear to have almost doubled from this original estimate.

“This underscores the need for costs to be fully interrogated and have a high degree of confidence in the numbers we put forward to government.”

The Department of Public Expenditure also said there were now major questions over value for money and whether the modular units had ultimately proved any cheaper than other more permanent types of housing.

In a lengthy email to the chairman of the OPW early last year, the department’s Assistant Secretary General John Conlon also said delays and rising costs made it unclear whether modular housing would be a useful model for providing social housing.

It said: “The government decision for Ukraine modular units was exceptional – it provided fast track and prioritisation on all fronts (e.g. procurement, ESB, local authorities, etc).

“A social housing proposal would not be afforded the same prioritisation so taking all these issues into consideration the timelines presented in your document [for social housing] need to be re-evaluated.”

The Department of Public Expenditure said they also needed certainty on how long the modular units would last and what was involved in maintaining them.

The email said: “I appreciate you indicate that it is sixty years. What sort of maintenance requirements do they have versus traditional builds, is there greater upkeep costs etc?”

Records released by the Department of Public Expenditure also reveal how the OPW fast-track project was beset by other difficulties with 70% of sites put forward proving unsuitable for use.

A further update from last October from the Office of Public Works said 310 units would be made available during 2023 but acknowledged there had been delays as well as “upward pressure on costs”.

The briefing document said: “The early sites made available for development have been less than optimal and have resulted in significant site works and abnormal [costs] e.g. invasive species (Japanese Knotweed) in Mahon in Cork City, and other works.

“Consequently, [they] have required considerably more preparation than originally envisaged.”

Another email from a senior official queried how the cost had escalated so significantly from the original government announcement of 500 modular units being delivered at a cost of around €140 million.

The message said: “I have just seen a note from … colleagues that indicates the estimated cost of delivering 700 modular units is now €237 million e.g. €338,571 per unit.

“Crucially the additional 200 units (increasing from 500 to 700) now appear to have an average cost of €407,500 per unit.”

Over €1 million in spending on secretarial allowance scheme for Ministers, TDs and Senators but little transparency over payments

Ministers and TDs paid out more than €186,000 last year through a little-known allowance to cover the cost of public relations, communications, and digital marketing.

Payments under the Special Secretarial Allowance included a sum of €15,375 to Prize Nerd Limited, the company of the well-known writer and actress Stefanie Preissner.

She was contracted by Anne Rabbitte, a Minister of State at the Department of Health with five separate payments of €3,075 made to Ms Preissner’s firm through the scheme in 2023.

In the past, some ministers and TDs have made use of the allowance to hire family members or colleagues from their political party.

However, the Oireachtas – at a time when politicians have been clamouring from greater transparency in organisations like RTÉ – has adopted a policy of redacting details of all expenditure unless the money is paid to a company rather than an individual.

The allowance was used by multiple senior officeholders in 2023 with Minister Helen McEntee paying around €8,600 to a company called GN Digital Marketing.

Access to details of a further €9,200 in expenditure by Ms McEntee has been refused by the Oireachtas on the basis that it is personal information.

Payments by junior ministers included €10,000 to Communique International by Jack Chambers and €1,530 to the UCD English Language Academy by Jennifer Carroll MacNeill.

Transport Minister Eamon Ryan paid €3,056 to Sherpa Event Production while the minister at the Office of Public Works Patrick O’Donovan incurred costs of €2,200 with a company called R&F Marketing.

The former minister Robert Troy also paid €1,500 to Yewtree Infotainment, according to records released under FOI by the Oireachtas.

However, details of the majority of the €186,759 that was spent by ministers and TDs under the scheme have been withheld apart from the amount involved.

Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton paid more than €20,000 to service providers under the Special Secretarial Allowance but the identities of those paid have been blacked out in the records.

Similarly, Junior Minister Thomas Byrne incurred costs of over €16,000 through the scheme but no further detail has been provided with any identifying information withheld.

Under a separate related scheme for secretarial assistance, Ministers and TDs ran up a bill of €786,000 hiring temporary staff to work in their offices or constituencies.

The payments ranged from just €886 to almost €45,000 but once again access to details of those employed has been refused by authorities at Leinster House.