The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holidays games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.

T.S. Eliot Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats

Eventually, of course, the registry became a distraction to UCD, and it was necessary to spin things off.The Irish Times of February 2000 seemed to feel that it was as a result of sustained pressure from the Department of Enterprise, but for various reasons, as we’ll see, this seems unlikely. This is where I came in for the second time, together with a considerably more ambiguous figure, Mike Fagan,
Mike, via Silicon Republic.
or to give him the name that the later court case recorded, James Joseph Fagan.See the Irish Times of Dec 18, 2002. But in the rest of this narrative, we shall call him Mike, because amongst the workers of the IEDR and the Internet community, that is what he was known as.

Someone said to me once that Mike was an accountant by profession. I have no reason to doubt it. He’d applied and succeeded in the interview process that UCD had held for a marketing manager for the registry.According to Dennis Jennings, although the first mention of Mike on the IEDR forum mailing list describes him as the “manager” from June 1998. It was generally acknowledged externally at the time – and the publicly available FOI documents seem to suggest that it was emphasised to Mike as a priority – that the first task for the registry was to successfully spin off from UCD and to be established as a going concern.(In fact, doing this had been discussed at least as far back as late 1997, when an IEDR consultation forum had informally agreed that a working group should look at the issue; see e.g. Antoin Ó Lachtnain: “I could be mistaken, but I believe the idea of having a working group to deal with this issue was discussed and informally agreed at the meeting on 11 December 1997.” See this mail from the IEDR-FORUM.) Mike even referred to this in a public mail:

A more precise comment would probably have been that the IEDR is currently receiving legal & financial advice on the best route by which we should proceed to “restructure into a not-for-profit body separate from UCD”. I’m not certain what’s meant by the “reporting to an independent body” bit as until we’re restructured it would be difficult to ascertain to whom we should be reporting but obviously we’ll be reporting to some appropriate body or agency.See this mail from the IEDR-FORUM.

The premises that were selected for the spin-off happened to be owned by an ex-UCD entrepeneurSee e.g. this brief profile in the Independent. Jim Mountjoy, who had been a co-investor in Euristix with Dennis Jennings. Unfortunately the premises was not greatly suited to actually being a modern office. For a start, the building was listed, meaning that standard office cabling, particularly including networking, could not be deployed for the initial move, leading to an unfortunately sub-standard and somewhat improvised wireless network. At that stage I was a I.T. contractor with specific focus on Internet technologies, and somehow (I don’t remember how), a meeting with Mike in UCD led to me being brought in as a contracting part of the I.T. staff to support the upcoming move. As any experienced I.T. contractor can tell you, all move projects are exciting, usually because lots of things go wrong, and this one was no exception. As well as coping with the exigencies of the unstable drivers available for the first generation of commercial WiFi, the Internet connection was “singly-homed” from day one – meaning that more or less any accident that Eircom could perpetrate would leave the registry cut off from the rest of the Irish Internet. This gave rise to a certain amount of (unwarranted) anxiety, since the move day went essentially without a hitchWhere cutting oneself sharply enough on an 802.11b PCI card to sprinkle blood over the top of a motherboard is defined as “without a hitch”. and the registry was able to make the 1 November 2000 deadline for independent operation apparently unscathed.See UCD News, although I believe the registry eventually had to move to wired connections because WiFi wasn’t quite reliable enough.

But not everything was as straight-forward as it had been, last time I was there. Indeed, during this period I saw how the new version of the registry worked. The staff of the registry were at odds with each other, for not entirely clear reasons. I suppose the moment that was made the clearest was the moment that, after discussing some relatively small data transformation that I said could probably be done for 90% of cases, and Mike said that the CTO had said it wasn’t worth doing, he spontaneously offered me, a contractor, the job of registry CTO.

The job was then occupied by my ex-boss and also friend, Dr. Niall O’ Reilly. I demurred to Mike, and then let Niall know what had happened as soon as I could: I still remember the slow look of shock that spread across his face as I told him what had happened in a local coffee shop. He resigned soon after. I didn’t accept the position but continued to be a contractor, probably because I was more concerned about the stability of the Registry. It was difficult to figure out what was going on, precisely because the staff still weren’t really talking to each other.

Over to David Curtin, now CEO of the registry:

What happened in that summer of 2002 is that the accountant, Declan Fitzgerald, who had been preparing draft accounts, became concerned that his drafts, when they were going to the board, were substantially different. The CEO was challenged at the board meeting about that – I think that was about July 2002 – and was given an opportunity to explain and to look at the financials and to revisit them and submit a revised set and given until the next due board meeting [to do that], as I understand it. It was that sort of pressure from – these days you’d probably call him a whistleblower – the accountant in terms of going to the board and writing to the board and meeting with the board to indicate what the issues were. Once that was raised of course [Declan] was fired, which only increased the board’s concern about what was going on. Eventually, when the board were not getting satisfaction from the CEO, they had to get KPMG to do a review and really that’s when things became very, very serious. The CEO was suspended without pay and the investigation continued. I suppose it is important to say that there was no evidence that fraud had been committed. But there was evidence of huge inefficiencies in administration.

Ah, good old “huge inefficiencies in administration”. In any event, whatever else was going on, under Mike’s direction the registry spent a lot of money on things which would have given even the most expansively-minded CEO pause. Furthermore, the auditor, Colm Watters, was jailed for over a year in late 2010 for fraud related to false tax submissions and fraudulent conversion of cheques.See e.g. the Irish Times of December 17th, 2010. Could happen a bishop, I suppose.


So far, so sordid. Indeed, the relative banality of the “huge inefficiences” would be nothing particularly surprising for other companies and other industries. Any company with comparable growth rates and with a governance culture that had historically relied on shared values among a limited set of known insiders would be vulnerable in a switchover period. There are, however, a number of features that made this particular episode somehow more objectionable – and simultaneously more revealing – than others.

It wasn’t just that I was personally, if peripherally, involved. It was a combination of factors: the notion of the registry as being somehow a national resource, which made the violation all the more severe; the unwarranted scrutiny over the tiniest of details, perhaps again facilitated by everyone thinking that they somehow had some responsibility for how the IEDR worked (as opposed to some stake in it prospering); the old-school Internet infrastructure attitude to stewardship, both noble and condescending; and finally, perhaps most difficult of all, the conflict between insiders and outsiders over a resource that not everyone sees is as potentially valuable as it is.

In this sense, it might be like a number of other problems that Ireland has had recently with money, with self-governance, with transparency, and the interaction between government and industry.

Let’s start with the question of oversight in the registry.

The Naming of Cats - December 1, 2015 - Niall Richard Murphy