Centre for Public Inquiry closes, staff are let go

The CPI has failed to get alternative funding and has laid off its staff. Colin Murphy reports

The Centre for Public Inquiry (CPI) has closed down. Its funding from Chuck Feeney's Atlantic Philanthropies was withdrawn in December 2005, and the centre has failed to get alternative funding.

The centre's staff have been laid off and have received redundancy payments out of the centre's funds for 2005.

However, Frank Connolly, the centre's director, would not comment on the closure. "When we're ready to make a comment, we'll make a comment", he said.

The centre was preparing a report on the development of land alongside the Liffey at the point when its funding was withdrawn. It was reported in December 2005 that the centre was investigating property transactions in Dublin's Docklands.

The CPI was set up in early 2005, with €4 million in funding (over five years) from Atlantic Philanthropies, a charitable foundation set up by American philanthropist, Chuck Feeney. It was run by Frank Connolly, a former journalist with the Sunday Business Post and Ireland on Sunday. The chairman of the board was Feargus Flood, the former chairman of the Planning Tribunal and a retired High Court judge. The other members of the board were Enda McDonagh, a professor at Maynooth, Damien Kiberd, a broadcaster with Newstalk 106, and Greg O'Neill, a solicitor.

In December 2005, Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, alleged in a written reply to a Dáil question that Frank Connolly had travelled to the FARC-controlled region of Colombia in April 2001, using a false passport and in the company of former IRA member Padraig Wilson. McDowell said this information had been provided by the Colombian authorities to An Garda Síochána.

Michael McDowell had given information from the Garda file on Frank Connolly to Sunday Independent journalist Sam Smyth and had shown information from the file to Chuck Feeney at a meeting in September 2005. Following this, Atlantic Philanthropies withdrew funding.

Following the withdrawal of funding, the centre's board met and unanimously agreed to support Frank Connolly. A statement released on 16 December said Michael McDowell's statement that Frank Connolly or the centre "could pose a threat to the security of the State is entirely without evidential basis, unsustainable, and totally untrue".

In the statement, the board said a letter issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on 15 December stated that the DPP had decided in March 2003 "not to prosecute Mr Connolly in relation to allegations, which he has consistently denied, that he used a false passport".

The board said Michael McDowell had "unleashed" a "private and public blackening" of Frank Connolly's character, which showed "a signal departure from principles of fair dealing and respect for justice to the individual citizen by the State which are absolute, save in the most exceptional cases and where legislated upon by the Oireachtas".

An earlier statement by Frank Connolly, from 7 December, said he had "issued forthright denials" of the "false and malicious statements" that he had travelled to Colombia using false travel documents.

He said the CPI had "been targeted by certain elements in Irish society who are hostile to a body established to carry out independent scrutiny".

The Sunday Independent and Irish Independent newspapers had run a series of stories throughout 2005 attacking the CPI and its members. On the occasions of the centre's launch and of the publication of each of its two reports, the centre was attacked in one or other newspaper.

The Sunday Independent reported extensively on comments made by the Unionist peer, John Laird, under privilege in the House of Lords: John Laird said Frank Connolly was one of Phil Flynn's "principal allies... well-known to the police in many countries" and that the CPI was "widely believed to be Sinn Féin's intelligence-gathering operation in the Irish Republic".

More recently, Eoghan Harris in the Sunday Independent has written a number of articles attacking Damien Kiberd and Newstalk 106. On 12 March, he said "a strong smell of political sulphur hangs around" Damian Kiberd, some of which comes "from his board membership of the Centre for Public Inquiry (where he defended Frank Connolly)".