The Irish Mail on Sunday
Bus Éireann’s investigation is a whitewash
EVERY single day of the school year, in every corner of the country, some 135,000 primary, secondary and special-needs students are ferried to and from their schools in a fleet of thousands of school buses.
Many of these services are run directly by Bus Éireann; but others are contracted out to private operators. It is a vital part of the country’s social and educational infrastructure for which the taxpayer pays some €160m a year.
It is now more than six months since this newspaper revealed allegations of bribery in connection with this scheme – allegations that have profound implications both for the public purse and, ultimately, for child safety.
In February, Bus Éireann claimed that the whistleblower had withdrawn his allegations. We then revealed a secret tape-recording of an interview given to an internal Bus Éireann inquiry that appeared to contradict that claim.
It was on foot of that second revelation that Transport Minister Leo Varadkar ordered the second report, which was published last week.
From the outset, however, the scope of this ‘investigation’ was narrowed down by those themselves under investigation.
As such, it is fundamentally flawed. It is a report into the background to the allegations – not the substantive issues that we raised and that the minister asked to be investigated. As such, it appears designed to kill legitimate questions rather than get to the truth.
Our own reports are dismissed by the company as ‘full of holes’ – an outrageous slur on 15 months of investigation in which we spoke to bus operators, contractors and Bus Éireann officials in numerous counties.
Indeed, there could not be a starker contrast between the internal investigation – in the course of which none of the original whistleblowers were interviewed – and our own investigations, which uncovered documentary proof to substantiate the allegations.
Today, not only do we publish a line-byline rebuttal of their claims about us – but we publish interviews with an official who admits taking sweeteners, and with the contractor who paid for them.
Our intent, despite what the company claims, has never been to undermine Bus Éireann; our only interest is in getting to the truth. Surely Bus Éireann’s primary responsibility should be to ensure value for the taxpayers’ money, and the safest possible service for our children?
This is a firm that enjoys all the legal privileges of a private company and none of the commercial risks. It is dependent on a massive State subvention and yet is not subject to normal public sector rules.
Their allegation that we are the puppets of a private American-owned bus firm that seeks to take over the entire scheme is yet another slur. Yes, we had contact with a company associated with the issue in the course of our inquiries – as any proper investigator would do.
Every allegation we have published was fully investigated. From the outset, we have made it clear that they remain only allegations – but allegations of such a serious nature must always be investigated. Today, we publish new evidence that lends damning, further credence to the allegations. What the taxpayer now needs is a full, independent and public inquiry – not yet another whitewash.