I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important matter and I thank the Minister for attending in person to hear what I have to say. Tonight I raise the issue of the plight of two female employees of the University of Limerick, who have spent the last number of years on half pay and who are now suspended and in receipt of social welfare payments. These are dedicated, hard-working and courageous women who performed their duties in an exemplary manner. One might well ask what nefarious crime they committed to find themselves in this unfortunate situation? They blew the whistle on blatant wrongdoing and exposed wasteful, wrongful and wanton expenditure of taxpayers' money.
They have been vindicated by a number of independent reports, they have been vindicated by the Comptroller and Auditor General and, importantly and perhaps astonishingly, they have been vindicated by their employer. On 23 November 2017 and on 15 March 2018, the University of Limerick acknowledged that their suspension between 2015 and 2017 was wrong. It went on to apologise for describing their complaint as malicious. Last year the university wrote to these employees thanking them for bringing important matters to the attention of the university and recognising their courage in doing so, courage which it said was greatly valued. Despite this, they are still suspended and are now, as I have said, reliant on the tender mercies of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Apparently the university is prepared to apologise to them privately. It should apologise to them publicly.
When they were vindicated, the Department or the Higher Education Authority, HEA, organised a mediation process to get them back to work. Mr. Kieran Mulvey was appointed as the mediator. They only had one meeting with him and he told them he was delegating the matter to a consultant, Mr. Sean O'Driscoll. On various occasions they were promised by the university that a transition process would be put in place whereby they would be able to take a course in the university, for which the university would pay, while at the same time they would be gradually reintroduced to work. Of course, they would not be sent back to the finance department, where I personally know that there is a great deal of hostility towards them. It would not be possible for them to go back to the finance department. Suddenly, in July last year the university unilaterally withdrew these promises and directed them to go back to the finance department, giving them literally no choice. It was the modern version of Cromwell's injunction to the dispossessed Irish, to hell or to Connacht. It was to hell or to the finance department. The Minister should believe me that it would be hell for these people to go back to the finance department. I know what I am talking about because I have represented that constituency for many years and know all the various actors in this particular drama.
This issue brings into question the efficacy of the whole whistleblowing system. It is fatally flawed if two genuine whistleblowers can end up being treated in this fashion. I also remind the House that the University of Limerick recently conferred an honorary degree on Ms Vicky Phelan for having the courage to tell the truth and to do the State some service. The attitude of the university to its own employees who have also told the truth and done the State some service is radically different. This is intolerable and unacceptable. It makes a mockery of the whistleblowing process for which the Government claims so much kudos for introducing. What action does the Department or the HEA intend to take in respect of the plight of these women?