The Chief Executive of Louth County Council Joan Martin has said she is “not remotely embarrassed” about the controversy surrounding Dundalk’s World War 1 Memorial.
he faced a grilling from councilors over the memorial after the official unveiling was called off when American artist Sabin Howard threatened to issue legal proceedings in relation to a potential copyright infringement.
The image of soldiers going to war, which formed the centrepiece of the memorial at The Crescent, was removed the day before it was due to be unveiled at the end of May and the large granite stone is covered by a blue tarpaulin.
The issue was raised at the council meeting on Monday by Cllr Thomas Sharkey, who asked for an update on the situation regarding the memorial and when it would be completed.
The Chief Executive told him that the council was waiting for an updated design from the contractor who put the memorial in place. This will be etched onto the stone and she hoped it would be completed very shortly.
Further questions were asked by Cllr Maria Doyle, who said she had seen a report stating that the council was “working constructively towards a satisfactory resolution with the artist”.
She recalled that she had been a member of the World War One committee which had held a number of meetings between 2014 and 2018 with the hope of constructing a memorial to commemorate those who died in the First World War. They were told in 2018 that the committee did not have the bureaucratic standing to proceed with the project which was handed over to the Louth County Council.
She felt that they should have been consulted about the memorial that was commissioned and said she had written to the Chief Executive on behalf of the committee back in March to indicate that they were unhappy about being excluded from the process.
Cllr Doyle also recalled that the committee had felt that a Celtic Cross would be “a good fit for Dundalk” as they didn’t want a military image because not all those who died were soldiers.
She understood from the response to a Freedom of Information request she had submitted that the contractor had supplied three images for selection.
“Who in the Louth County Council decided on the final image?” she probed.
The Chief Executive said she was “very, very disappointed” at the way that the matter was being raised.
She said the committee did not have any hand in the project, which was one of a number included in a submission for peace funding in Louth.
The WW1 committee ‘was not a Louth County Council committee ”and was not eligible to apply for funding as it did not have tax clearance.
Louth County Council had tendered for the project on the basis approved by SEUPB.
“How would anyone know where a piece of art came from?” she asked.
“Certainly I’ve never been to Washington,” she continued. “I would never have known it was copied or similar to something there.”
The tender had been awarded to a memorial company down the country and they were required to design the World War 1 memorial and to build it and put it in place.
“That was the job they took on.”
She said that “out of the blue” the council received correspondence by an artist based in the United States involved with a World War One memorial in Washington, saying the Dundalk memorial had copied an element of the project he was working on.
As a result of that conversation, the design was removed and the council was expecting a new design from the contractor to go in place of the one that was removed. It would be opened as soon as possible required by SEUPB.
It was a matter for the memorial company to make good and to replace the design, she added.
“I’m very, very disappointed that this is being raised in such a controversial manner,” she said.
“I don’t understand why people are making such a big deal of it.”
She also dismissed comments relating to the militaristic design of the memorial, saying that it was her understanding that it was a memorial to people who fought with the British Army during the First World War.
In response to further questioning by councilors as to why due diligence was not used in regard to the design, she asked how they could check that the artwork was original.
“There’s no way of checking something like that,” she insisted.
“You could ask for a declaration from the provider that this was original work,” Cllr Edel Corrigan pointed out.
Cllr Sharkey said that he did not believe that the council was diligent in relation to the commission and said it should have ascertained that the design was the contractors’ own work.
A single line in the tender could have avoided what he branded “an absolute embarrassment for Louth Local Authorities and how we spend European Peace money.”
“Someone has to take responsibility,” he said, adding that from what he heard the Chief Executive was “defending the indefensible”.
He would have expected to hear that lessons had been learned from how they were “hoodwinked into allowing the wrong thing to be erected in Louth”.
Ms Martin stated that she found the councilor’s remarks “offensive to me and my staff”.
“I’m not remotely embarrassed,” she declared. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. An issue arose with an artist over a piece of art. There will be no loss to the council or the peace funds. What are you asking me to do? ”
“Are you saying we can’t raise issues because you are disappointed?” asked Cllr Doyle.
“What are you asking me to do?” replied the Chief Executive.
“To do due diligence,” said Cllr Doyle, adding that she hoped there would be no loss to the county council or the tax-payer. She also asked that the council improve its communication with members.
She continued that she had seen correspondence from SEUPB that the World War 1 Committee was to be consulted but that did not happen.
“To me this was an error and we wouldn’t be in the position that we are now with a tarpaulin over it.”
Chairman Cllr Conor Keelan, who had been a member of that committee, said that the artwork that appeared on the memorial was different from the Celtic Cross that they had proposed.