Junior minister Martin Mansergh: 'I fully acknowledge that what has happened is messy'

AT LEAST 16 archivists could have been employed by the Office of Public Works (OPW) for the €420,000 it has controversially cost for an historian to write just two chapters of an uncompleted book on the organisation's history.

The huge fee paid to historian Desmond McCabe has become a cause célèbre for those who claim waste is rife in the public sector. Claire McGrath, the chair of the OPW, has defended the high fees for the project, claiming McCabe had spent much of the past decade archiving material for the project.

She also explained that a "catalogue" of the OPW's history will now be put up online instead of a book because of the huge volume of information on the OPW's history. She said that "the office has obtained value for what has been given" and even claimed the contract had saved the OPW money because of the valuable archiving work that has been done.

However, according to the most up-to-date figures available for the Fás 'Career Directions' service, the annual salary of an entry-level archivist is €25,000. On that basis over 16 archivists could have been employed for one year to carry out the archival work that has delayed the historian in completing the OPW book.

When the OPW chair appeared before the Dáil's public accounts committee (PAC) last week, Labour party TD Pat Rabbitte accused McCabe of being "a bit slow at the old writing", as he has been paid €420,000 since 2000 to write the book, dwarfing the amount paid to many best-selling authors.

News that McCabe has spent years archiving material has raised questions about why the OPW did not hire a team of archivists instead of a historian to do the initial 'donkey work'.

"You would expect an organisation like the OPW that is now concerned with procurement to be able to procure a historian to do the job for which he was recruited," said Rabbitte.

Martin Mansergh, the junior minister for the OPW, has "fully endorsed everything that was said by the OPW chairwoman at the PAC" and added: "This project started long before my time but we are well down the road and he [McCabe] has done a lot of valuable work. If you are most of the way there, then pulling the plug on it could mean all that good work goes to waste. I fully acknowledge that what has happened is messy but at the same time I would defend the value of what has been done and its future use."

Mansergh said he has seen some drafts of work for the book and he read one chapter on St Stephen's Green in Dublin which was "very interesting".

McCabe has previously worked at the University of Leicester, on the Irish Famine Project at Trinity College, and on the Dictionary of Irish Biography published by the Royal Irish Academy.

Other book deals worth less than the OPW history

Gerry Ryan

In 2008 it was reported that the late radio star was paid €100,000 by Penguin Ireland to write his autobiography. It was the biggest-ever advance given by an Irish publisher to an author.

Bertie Ahern

Rights to the memoirs were reportedly secured in a €400,000 deal with Cornerstone Publishing and historian Richard Aldous was recruited to help him write it.

David McWilliams

In 2006 it was reported that the economist signed a two-book deal worth €100,000.

Ryan Tubridy

Tubridy is also said to have signed a two-book deal with HarperCollins worth more than €100,000. The first of his books is about US President John F Kennedy's 1963 visit to Ireland.

'Joe Soap Journalist'

The average amount earned by an Irish journalist is usually somewhere between €3,000 and €20,000, with the average book netting under €10,000 for the author.