A team of senior gardai have been assigned to work on an investigation into alleged financial irregularities at the former Tipperary Hostel Project in Tipperary Town, which closed in controversial circumstances three years ago.
Extra Garda resources have been allocated to the three year-old investigation in recent weeks.
The move has been welcomed by the Hostel Action Committee, which is campaigning to get the transformation of Tipperary’s old workhouse into self catering tourist accommodation resumed and finished and is seeking answers as to why it closed in May 2010.
It has also been welcomed by Independent TD Mattie McGrath, who raised the Tipperary Hostel Project issue in the Dail this month. He criticised the slow progress of the investigations into its closure, particularly the delay in publishing the report on the FAS investigation into the running of project.
Gda. Insp. Pat O’Callaghan based at Tipperary Garda Station confirmed there was a divisional Garda team comprising officers from Tipperary Town and elsewhere in the county working on the investigation.
“There are resources on this investigation full time at the moment and they are working towards a swift conclusion,” he said.
Hostel Action Committee member Maurice Crotty told The Nationalist it was heartening news to learn that a comprehensive Garda investigation is being conducted into the Hostel Project by high ranking gardai, who possess vast knowledge and specialised expertise in this area.
Mr Crotty, who is a retired garda sergeant, said there was overwhelming support for the Garda investigation and he paid tribute to Fine Gael Cllr Mary Hanna Hourigan for her efforts over the past three years to establish the truth about the Hostel Project’s closure.
Cllr Mary Hanna Hourigan, who is involved in the Hostel Action Committee, said the Tipperary Hostel Project had been a great opportunity to bring tourists to Tipperary, a town designated as disadvantaged with huge unemployment, and it was very disappointing to see the building and site closed up and weeds growing up around all the work carried out there.
She pointed out that many local people donated money towards the hostel project and the project’s workers had been very passionate about it.
“I feel I would be negligent in my duty if I didn’t try to get it re-opened. I met a man outside the hostel site recently and he said it was a shame that no one can do anything about it and that nobody cares.”
The Tipperary Hostel Project was overseen by the development company, Tipperary Hostel Limited, and it closed in May 2010 after the government funding body Pobal suspended its funding to the project and demanded the return of funds incorrectly claimed.
FAS also decided to discontinue funding to the Jobs Initiative Scheme at the Hostel as a result of an audit report it conducted into the project.
An estimated €4m of tax payers money and public donations were invested in the project over a period of nine years and 23 FAS Jobs Initiative Scheme workers lost their jobs when it closed. Former Tipperary Hostel workers have estimated another year and a half of work is required to finish the hostel.
A Garda investigation into the use of false invoices to claim nearly €60,000 from government funding body Pobal for the Tipperary Hostel Project has been ongoing since September 2010.
That garda investigation was launched after Pobal forwarded to the Gardai the contents of the investigation its auditor carried out when the false invoices amounting to €57,373 were brought to its attention by the Tipperary Hostel Board of Management.
FAS has conducted its own internal audit and investigation into the running of the Tipperary Hostel Project but it has still to produce its report three years on.
Independent TD Mattie McGrath criticised the slow progress of the Tipperary Hostel investigations in the Dail on May 15 but welcomed what he described as the “reinvigorated” Garda investigation and praised the bravery of Cllr Hourigan in highlighting the Tipperary Hostel Project issue.
He said he was delighted with this development and hoped the Gardai would get to the bottom of the matter.
Deputy McGrath said it was “shameful” and it “beggared belief” that over three years have passed and there hasn’t been any result from the investigations yet.
Deputy McGrath complained he was promised last September that the FAS report on the Tipperary Hostel Project would be available by April this year but now it wasn’t going to be available until the summer.
Deputy McGrath asked Minister of State Ciaran Cannon whether something was being hidden from the public.
Minister Cannon responded that FAS decided to discontinue funding to the Jobs Initiative Scheme at Tipperary Hostel in June 2010 as a result of findings from an audit report into the project.
The investigation into the findings of that audit was ongoing and was expected to be completed by the end of June.
The minister said it may be that the matter will then be referred to the Gardai.
“The deputy will understand that I cannot comment or speculate on the possible findings or outcomes from these investigations at this time,” he concluded.
Deputy McGrath was unhappy with the Minister’s response and asked who was holding back the FAS investigation and why?
“The bottom line is honesty, openness, transparency and good governance and the implications for tax payers must be dealt with. FAS says the matter might be passed on to the Gardai but it is already in the hands of the Gardai.
“Why is FAS unable or unwilling to deal with it because a huge amount of taxpayers’ money was involved and a wonderful project is lying idle with the crows flying in and out of it while innuendo permeates the town.”
Deputy McGrath told Minister Cannon to also go back to the Minister for Environment, Community & Local Government, about the Pobal investigation into the hostel.
Minister Cannon acknowledged the FAS audit report noted “serious deficiencies” in the running of Tipperary Hostel Limited and Deputy McGrath was right that they must be forensic in their investigation and analysis of how these deficiencies occurred to ensure they do not happen again.
He assured Deputy McGrath he would do all he could in his limited powers to ensure the investigation concludes as quickly as possible.