New start for Udaras na Gaeltachta

With its national board due to meet for the first time as early as next week and its all-important job-creation remit still intact, a new start seems in order for Udaras na Gaeltachta.

But controversy still bedevils the beleaguered organization with criticisms of misspending of public money and investigations into alleged petty corruption by former board members in Donegal hanging over its head.

Over the next few weeks, the Donegal News analyses the Irish-language organisation, with emphasis on its operations here, in an effort to understand whether it has accomplished its tasks with adequate self-governance or whether various criticisms it faces are justified. And what, if anything, can be learned from the findings.

On a positive note, Anna Ni Ghallchoir, from Arranmore, the newly-appointed national chairperson of Udaras, told the Donegal News, “We have a very committed team with varied experience on the board now and I have every confidence their combined efforts will lead to success.”

Udaras

Sean O’Cuirean, Falcarragh solicitor, manager of Donegal Volunteer Center, and new board member, added, “Selection of board members was via open, competitive applications. I’m really looking forward to working with my colleagues to build dynamic Gaeltacht communities.”

The two, alongside ten other members, including Eunan MacCuinneagain, manager of Westbic, in Kilcar and a yet-to-be selected Donegal Council representative, face what Ni Ghallchoir termed “some daunting and challenging tasks ahead.”

At present, several former Donegal Udaras board members are under investigation by respective public ethics bodies for allegedly padding their expenses.

Concern over board and employee expenses accrued came to the fore over the last week when TDs at an Oireachtas Joint Committee were told by Minister’s Jimmy Deenihan and Dinny McGinley that half this year’s budget (€9.8 million in 2012) goes towards paying pensions of 136 former employees. Details are forthcoming as yet as to how much of the remaining budget goes into salaries and expenses of the 90 full-time employees and board members. Sinn Fein Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh said, “I nearly fell off the chair when I heard that,” adding, this raises serious concerns regarding the levels of monies being paid. Mean salaries at Udaras are around 80,000 euro.

In addition, it has been revealed that five Donegal board members were paid more than half a million euro in fees and expenses over the five-year period, 2004 to 2009. In this regard, board member O’Cuirean  said, “It is a major step forward that we can save half a million euro on fees and expenses by reducing the board while maintaining full geographical representation and that the money saved can go towards worthy community or entrepreneurial projects.”

Frank McBrearty, Mayor of Donegal, bemoans the delay in having a council member appointed to the board. “It is a sad reality that investigations into former board members’ expenses, including our council nominee, David Alcorn, is underway but that means we are short one person on the Udaras board. That does not benefit the community here. It must also be remembered, those being investigated are innocent until proven guilty. I can understand Minister McGinley’s not wanting to have egg on his face by appointing someone until things are clarified.

Udaras has come under criticism in the past by various national bodies in the past including the Dail’s own multi-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which examines the spending of public monies. Bernard Allen, former Fine Gael TD and head of the PAC, who launched an examination of Udaras financial affairs that helped lead to the board’s restructuring, told the Donegal News this week, “I recall being very concerned about the lack of transparency in the accounts of Udaras, especially in terms of travel expenses and extra payments, both for trips within Ireland and abroad.” Those trips included, it was claimed, to Las Vegas, for officials to meet with representatives of the Irish Development Authority (IDA).

Speaking to the Donegal News, Liam O’Cuinneagain, chairperson for five years, defended his and the record of Udaras, “There was a lot of paranoia at the time about whether public bodies and semi-state ones were spending public money properly, a lot of exaggeration and misinformation. We have done a relatively successful job in helping Gaeltacht communities.”

New board members are reluctant to talk about the controversies, saying they occurred before their appointment. Chairperson Ni Ghallchoir, said, “I’d rather not comment on what went on before as I was not in any way involved with Udaras then, but to my mind, utter transparency is a given. Every citizen is fully entitled to as much information as they wish about public bodies such as Udaras and as chairperson I will make sure they have complete access to the workings of the organisation.”

Falcarragh’s O’Cuirean added, “Everyone is aware of the lack of transparency in Ireland in the past on certain matters and the unfortunate results for the country as a whole. My commitment is that in future Udaras will be completely open in its dealings so that projects – whether in culture, language or economics – are selected on merit and need, not on who certain people know. Cronyism should play no part in its affairs.”

Published in Donegal News

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