Johanna Lowry speaks out on TD’s, employment rights and her search for justice
Some time ago I wrote an article outlining a case where James Bannon TD had dismissed his parliamentary assistant. After this I was contacted by several people with stories of TD’s abusing their position and treating parliamentary staff unfairly. Unfortunately, due to party loyalties or the fear of being ostracised they did not want to put their names to any story. In recent weeks Sean Conlon TD has faced a case for unfair dismissal and caused media attention to be turned back on the matter.
I met with Johanna Lowry, the former assistant dismissed by James Bannon and she told me her story. I must point out that in the past and again this week I have contacted Fine Gael who declined to comment and despite my efforts have been unable to get Deputy Bannon to tell me his side either.
However, Johanna paints a story that is deeply worrying and raises many questions about the system. She has endured much hardship and stress as a result of the loss of her position as she described it to me ‘The loss of a job is a form of bereavement. When that loss is sudden and inexplicable, the impact is considerable. The failure to achieve closure is intensified by any action that curtails the right to redress in the appropriate forum. Access to the Labour Court or Employment Appeals Tribunal is not something that should be subject to manipulation. In this regard, the use and abuse of political position to block my case against James Bannon TD being heard has been blatant. The stress caused to me is immeasurable.’
‘If things had gone according to the norms of procedure without interference, the hearings in my case might have well been concluded by now. In fact, I am involved in two different cases, one contractual and the other, unfair dismissal; both have seen numerous obstacles put in the way of resolution’
This process has been a long one for Johanna and there seems little hope of resolution in sight. Indeed it is highly likely there will be a general election before the matter is dealt with. I asked her to outline the history of her experience and how this case came to arise.
‘I worked with Mr Bannon for eleven years. The difficult situation in which I found myself started in the aftermath of General Election 2011, which was strange given that I had helped him through elections previously. Leaving aside the on-going extra work which started before the Selection Convention 2010, the four weeks leading up to the General Election of 2011 had, as in the 2007 General Election, brought an excessive extra workload and a huge level of responsibility for briefings, press releases, speeches, articles, surveys, opinions, policies, e-mails, etc, on which so much depended.’
‘On Tuesday 01 March, 2011, four days after the election, Deputy Bannon, who had not been in touch with me about the result of the election of the previous Friday, arrived unexpectedly in Leinster House and asked me to go to the Longford Constituency Office for two days, out of my five day week, while continuing to work in my role as Parliamentary Assistant. I live in Dublin, I was studying at night there and the travel would be difficult and at my own expense. In fact to be totally accurate he said that ‘our leader’ had said that I was to go to the constituency office. The fact that Enda Kenny was involved in difficult negotiations at the time to form a government, made this assertion seem somewhat bizarre. However, this was not unusual, as Mr Bannon was prone to ascribing a variety of matters to Enda Kenny and not all of it complimentary .’
‘It is important to note that he did not state that if I did not accept the offer, he would reduce my 5 day-week – but he was essentially making it impossible for me to work for two of the days, particularly as he stated that no travel and subsistence would be paid. A letter dated the following day Wednesday 02 March 2011 from Deputy Bannon, then offered me three days in Leinster House only. Mr Bannon had not waited for a written response to his request to go to the constituency office.’
It should be noted here that TDs are entitled to a parliamentary assistant, paid for by the taxpayer to assist with parliamentary work in Leinster house. They are also entitled to a secretary who can be based in the constituency and this is also paid for by the taxpayer. In theory these two roles are very different and recognised as such by the expenses system. Johanna outlined to me how Mr Bannon proceeded to reorganise his office staff.
‘Mr Bannon offered the secretary in the constituency office, a five day week from her previous 2.5 days. Another staff member, who had shared the secretarial role with her, was subsequently promoted to Parliamentary Assistant to job share with me and two of my days were given to this employee. Under the contract for 2011 agreed by SIPTU and Houses of Oireachtas Commission, PAs are to be based in Leinster House. This staff member continued the role in the constituency as before.
At no time during or before the election campaign did Mr Bannon say that there would be any change in my position. In other words he waited until the work had been done and the election was over to change my working hours. From this point, I continued to work with Mr Bannon for a further two years. The expectation on his part was that five day’s work would be fitted into three, which was incredibly stressful. Tue/Wed/Thu are Dail sitting days and the work is mostly reactionary – matters arising, speeches, press releases, briefings for radio, motions to be written; Order of Business question to be selected and written, news sites monitored etc. Allied with the excessive workload, the reduction in my salary left me with the same financial demands, but less than two thirds of my previous salary to meet them. Despite mentioning to Mr Bannon that the reduction in my salary was causing severe financial difficulty, he just made light of the situation.’
On Friday 08 March 2013 a letter of suspension, following no norms of procedure, was delivered to my home. It intimated that dismissal would follow. A number of bizarre incidents had culminated in this abrupt communication and subsequent dismissal three weeks later. What made the matter particularly strange was that two days prior to the letter, Mr Bannon had said that we should put everything behind us, as we worked very well together. I can only wonder what would have happened, if he didn’t, as he said in his letter of 02 March 2011, ‘hugely value your work, and appreciate your loyalty, commitment and support’.
Getting a hearing for her case has also proven difficult for Johanna. The following is a timeline of the events, hearings and arguments for deferrals that were made:
04 February 2013: Contractual case heard in Rights Commission.
02 August 2013: Hearing re same in the Labour Court adjourned on foot of letter (Dail headed paper) by Deputy Bannon, that he couldn’t attend the hearing as he would be in Egypt. This turned out not to be the case on the day and was compounded by a letter from the Chief Whip, Paul Kehoe TD, on Dail headed notepaper, backing up Mr Bannon’s contentions.
12 November 2013: Hearing adjourned following recommendation to my side by Chairman of Labour Court who had stated on 02 August 2013 that he wasn’t prepared to rule on a case with collective implications, although he later amended this and said there was a case to be heard.
19 December 2013: (First hearing of Unfair Dismissal Case). Adjournment given on basis that Mr Bannon contended certain legislation would be taken in the Dail on the 19th, when that was impossible to predict. Mr Bannon also stated that he is the only sitting TD for Longford/Westmeath he needed to be in the Dail. He is in fact one of four.
07 January 2014: Attempt to have the case dismissed by counsel for Mr Bannon on so called technical point. Rights Commissioner took a number of weeks to decide if case would go ahead or not.
03 March 2014. Hearing scheduled following a ruling by the Commissioner that he had jurisdiction in the matter (as raised by counsel for Mr Bannon on 07 January 2014) and was hearing the case. Mr Bannon strangely got leave at the last moment to appeal directly to the EAT, for which there is a wait of over a year.
Johanna Lowry is a strong and impressive woman. She has endured much in her quest for a fair hearing. I do not know what Deputy Bannon or Fine Gael think on this matter but they consistently refuse to comment in any way shape or form, despite the fact that it is possible for them to do so in at least some capacity. For Johanna, the wait goes on and the stress and pressure continues for as long as the system continues to allow it.