JUST after 3pm on Tuesday afternoon it seemed that the six month wait for a new chairperson of Shannon Group was about to end, with the announcement that agri businessman Aaron Forde would be appointed. However less than seven hours later there had been a sensational U turn, after details of tweets written by Mr Forde emerged.
On Tuesday evening the Department of Transport released a statement saying that Minister Eamon Ryan would not proceed with the appointment and that in a phone call to Mr Forde, the Minister had indicated to him that his “use of social media was below the standard expected of the chairperson of a State board”.
While Mr Forde’s Twitter account has been deleted, some of his tweets are being shared widely. In one, he wrote a reply to a news story about the introduction of public Services Cards and asked “Do the knackers who are collecting multiple SW payments have one?”
In another tweet about the Travelling community, he refers to its members “stealing, intimidating, illegal parking etc.”
Ironically, given that a Green party minister later invited him to chair a State board, he tweeted that the party “are clueless about agriculture, climate and lots of other issues”.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has been targeted with the #LeoTheLeak hashtag on Twitter for some time, and Mr Forde used it in at least one tweet. It has also been reported that he described the Tanaiste as a narcissist.
At 10pm on Tuesday night Mr Forde released a letter, which he had sent to the Transport Minister following the earlier phone call between the two. “Further to our conversation this evening, I have reflected on my position and decided to withdraw from my appointment as chairperson of Shannon Group Plc.
“I wish to apologise unreservedly for remarks I made on Twitter which have become the subject of focus. The language used in a particular Tweet was wrong, insensitive and needless. I am truly sorry.
“In particular, I wish to apologise to people from the traveller community. I wish to also apologise to you personally and your government colleagues for the inconvenience and distraction this has caused at what is a crucial time for the country.”
Regarding the organisation which had been set to chair, he wrote, “I wish everyone associated with Shannon Group Plc every success. It is a crucial organisation with an important regional, national and international remit. I will continue to be a strong supporter of the team’s efforts into the future.
“In conclusion, thank you for giving me the privilege of being selected to serve as a chair of a State authority. I extend once more my regret and apologies.”
The tweets from Mr Forde were obviously missed by any due diligence process that had taken place, even though they came to light within hours of him being identified as the new chairman of a State board.
While much attention this week will be on the racist and politically partisan nature of the tweets, another unfortunate reality is that Shannon Group still doesn’t have a chairperson, at a time when the airport is going through a massive crisis.
On Wednesday afternoon Clare TD Michael McNamara raised the matter in the Dáil with the Taoiseach, criticising the long delay in appointing a successor to Rose Hynes, and also claiming that even if Mr Forde’s appointment had gone through, he had no relevant experience. “Taoiseach, the Shannon Group has been without a chair for six months now at a time of unprecedented challenge to the group. There are no planes going in and out except for US military planes, which of course are causing their own controversy, because they seem not to have to adhere to Covid rules. The tourism sector is on its knees and the Shannon Heritage sites are shut, the commercial property side faces its own challenges.
“Yesterday’s fiasco where a man with no ostensible experience in any of these areas was appointed really undermines any claim that the Government has of commitment to Shannon or the wider region, and Shannon is instrumental right across the west of Ireland. When will the Government now appoint somebody with the required experience to provide strategic direction to the Shannon Group?”
The Taoiseach did not give a timeframe, but said the Minister would deal with the matter quickly. He also indicated that three people had been interviewed, prior to Mr Forde being selected.
Clare TD Joe Carey wrote to Minister Ryan on Tuesday night, saying he wanted “an urgent meeting with you together with Government Oireachtas members in the Mid-West Region”.
In his letter he criticised the selection process which saw Mr Forde identified despite the existence of the tweets, while he said the outcome is bad for Shannon. “The events of this evening are extremely disappointing to say the very least. It is incredible that a person selected for such an important role would have to step down just a few hours after his appointment. This sorry saga does not reflect well on the selection process and is another set-back coming at a critical period for Shannon Airport.”
He said that Shannon had not been performing as it should even before Covid-19 and there is a need for a new chairperson to help arrest the slide. “Long before the fallout from the coronavirus was felt it was clear that the airport was not reaching its potential.
“We need an extremely capable person to take on the role of Chairperson of Shannon Group, somebody who understands that Shannon is much more than just an airport, who can chart a course to recovery and develop plans to deliver on its potential adding more passengers, more routes and more destinations.
“A new Chairperson of the Board must also have the ability to bring stakeholders together in the interest of Shannon Airport and the Region.”
Whoever the next person appointed is, they can expect their social media accounts to have been forensically examined before any announcement is made, after this week’s embarrassing debacle.