The former director-general of the Irish Whiskey Museum claims she was called a “common thief” by her estranged husband, WRC hears

The former director-general of the Irish Whiskey Museum has claimed to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) that she was falsely accused of theft and labeled a “common thief” by her estranged husband, a founding partner of the tourist attraction.

Icola McDonnell said she had no choice but to resign because of her ex-husband’s behavior and has filed a complaint under the Unfair Dismissals Act against the Irish Whiskey Museum Ltd. submitted.

Keith McDonnell said his ex-wife’s claim was “solely financially motivated”.

The company disagrees that her employment ended with a layoff and claims she resigned voluntarily in November 2021 after requesting a layoff.

Mr McDonnell admits that he does not remember whether he paid Ms McDonnell money equal to the agreed settlement.

WRC referee Roger McGrath opened a hearing on the lawsuit yesterday afternoon, telling the parties he did not want to hear “personal” matters unrelated to the labor dispute.

Ms McDonnell said she moved out three weeks before the first lockdown in March 2020, leaving her husband over “irreconcilable differences”.

Continuing her duties remotely, she said she and her husband were “still moving forward” for now.

At an emergency museum board meeting in June 2020, she said she had been asked what plans she had for reopening – but when she asked Mr McDonnell what money was available, she was told it was none of her business.

“I believe the accused [Mr McDonnell] wanted me to fail,” she said.

Mr McDonnell later said at the hearing: “I asked Nicola to come to me with a budget. She could only ask me how much money I have.” He added that he made a business decision not to open the museum in 2020 or 2021.

From July 2020 to October 2021, Ms McDonnell said she was working on a project to refurbish the museum and enhance its exhibition with a €200,000 grant from Fáilte Ireland.

She said Mr McDonnell informed her in August 2020 that the locks on the site had been changed. If she wanted access, she would have to inform him and have a second person accompany her, she said.

“People were told I couldn’t be trusted, I couldn’t be left alone,” she said.

“To make matters worse, I found out later that the locks hadn’t been changed at all.

“I felt ridiculous that I had to ask for access to the building. I was the face of the Irish Whiskey Museum. I was the person being interviewed prime timein Business plus. I wanted to network to promote the museum,” she said.

In September 2020, Ms McDonnell made arrangements to send whiskeys to businesspeople attending an international conference remotely, some of which reached as far as Japan and Costa Rica.

She said Mr McDonnell had “pressed” her for information about the deliveries and when she told him the courier company had not yet provided the details, her husband blocked her from her work emails.

“The interviewee said he would call the guards,” Ms McDonnell said, adding that he called her a “common thief” and claimed she “stole whiskey”.

“I refused to return the whiskey until he let me back into my emails. I actually had to send him an attorney’s letter to have him put my email on hold,” she said.

In his testimony, Mr McDonnell disputed the sequence of events relating to the whiskey packets.

He said he gave Mrs McDonnell access to the distillery to get the whiskey and asked how and who would be paid for it – but that no reply came even after asking five or six times.

“I could only guess that it went into someone else’s bank account, but not into the museum’s,” he said.

He said the complainant refused to return the whiskey and he told her he would change the password to her email address if she did not return it, which he did.

He said he told her he would call the gardaí, after which she “reluctantly brought the whiskey back”.

Last year Ms McDonnell said she was still not being paid by the museum and was receiving a Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) – but that her husband threatened her with an “official warning” for not attending an online fair.

She said she had not received any child support payments from Mr McDonnell at the time and the warning made her “really stressed and really scared”.

“I’m alone with three kids, on HAP, and my life savings are gone,” she said.

She said she was “at a loss” about making arrangements for the museum to reopen this summer when Mr McDonnell would not meet her with one of the firm’s directors, she claimed.

Mr McDonnell said he did not want to discuss “personal” matters in the presence of an investor in the company.

“I stayed in anyway. I just couldn’t imagine being in the museum,” she said.

“It became more evident in August 2021,” she said.

She said Mr McDonnell emailed her earlier this month which said: “Social Welfare would be very interested in why I haven’t looked for alternative work.”

She said she applied for the company’s dismissal last October and Mr McDonnell agreed to pay a sum of €5,928.

At the same time, she submitted her complaint form under the Unfair Dismissals Act to the WRC, she said – with Mr McDonnell failing to pay the agreed severance payment on receipt of the complaint.

Mr McDonnell said his solicitor’s advice at the time was that an employee “cannot be unfairly fired and seek dismissal”.

He said dealing with a family member at work is “very different” than dealing with an unrelated employee, adding, “Sometimes they get away with stuff.

“We were obviously not making any headway, but I thought we could come up with a plan. She did a very good job there as managing director; I have never disputed that.

“The reality is we just couldn’t work together,” he said.

He said his wife’s demand was “solely driven financially, to line her pocket with money.”

Mr McGrath noted the applicant’s evidence that she had outstanding holiday and severance pay but not the agreed severance pay and asked Mr McDonnell if he had paid.

“I’ll have to get back to you – I can’t remember off the top of my head,” Mr. McDonnell replied.

“You should have checked that. I suppose a businessman like you would know if such a payment would have been made. It is truly unacceptable that you do not know such basic facts,” said Mr. McGrath.

“I will say categorically that I never received it,” Ms. McDonnell said.

Mr McGrath thanked the parties for the way they approached the hearing and said he would announce his decision in due course. The former director-general of the Irish Whiskey Museum claims she was called a “common thief” by her estranged husband, WRC hears

Fry Electronics Team

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