Many challenges facing Donegal Gaeltacht and Udaras

Fresh from her first meeting recently as board chairperson of a revamped Udaras na Gaeltachta, Anna Ni Ghallchoir faces discouraging news – the number of fluent Irish speakers in Gaeltacht areas is falling and urgent measures are needed to reverse the trend.

“Without doubt, Irish is in decline, we must realise that and put in place a concrete plan to deal with it,” said Ni Ghallachoir, director of the Languages Centre at the NUI in Maynooth.

Meanwhile, a strategy, enshrined in the 2012 Gaeltacht Act and a 20-year strategy plan, is in place, with twin aims of promoting Irish and creating dynamic Gaeltacht communities. Minister of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, told the Donegal News he remains “open and flexible” in his approach. “If the system supporting the Irish-language and economic development in Gaeltacht areas requires streamlining or enhancing for greater efficiency and more effective use of public money, then we are certainly open to doing so.”

Promoting Irish

The proposed plan under the act has several strands, including support for Irish-speaking families and a greater role for community groups such as co-ops, schools, sports and music clubs in each Gaeltacht area, Ni Ghallachoir said, adding, “Local Gaeltachts must take ownership of the plan, be the foundation upon which growth takes place. With different socio-linguistic-economic factors in every Gaeltacht, each must be analysed and area-specific programmes initiated so they become pivotal drivers. ”

Referring to the act, Eoin O’Murchu, former political editor at Raidio na Gaeltachta  and a national commentator on Irish-language affairs, says, “all that reads well, may not be so,” adding, “It comes down to value for money, especially important in the present difficult economic times. Before, there was a lack of purpose from the State, with no clear vision. Co-ordination could have been more efficient with recognition of the specific differences in each Gaeltacht. Now, with a chance to implement a specific strategy, politics unfortunately has entered the fray and that opportunity is being missed.” Added Concubhar O’Liathain, board member of TG4 and former editor of La, the Irish-language newspaper, “Some appointments to important Irish-language boards such as national funding body, Foras na Gaeilge, are being made on party political grounds. People on boards should be challenging officialdom. Those interested in the language but not in party politics are more likely now to be overlooked.” Officials at Foras, who direct a multimillion euro annual budget, said all projects are selected on merit before funding.

Salaries, transport, board fees and pensions

O’Murchu also said what happened in the corporate world recently in Ireland now happens in the Irish-language one. “A small handful of the same people are on boards, each supporting one another’s projects. This prohibits substantive evaluation of Irish-language project proposals. A person is hardly likely to turn down another’s project for funding when they know that person may be voting on theirs at the next meeting. Such meetings are often merely a way to mark time, nothing more.”

Third-level education in Irish in Donegal is also a challenge. Ionad an Acadaimh, established in Gaoth Dobhair in 2004, has received generous funding but cannot recruit enough students. “It is a problem, we need improved marketing, better outreach,” said former Udaras chairperson, Liam O’Cuinneagain, whose language organisation Oideas Gael, which employs four full-time people, received over 350,000 euro from Udaras and more than that from Foras and other sources.

Jobs: tourism or industry

All those involved in Irish-language planning consider job creation key in preserving it, describing it as “an essential element of dynamic Gaeltacht communities.”

“If we don’t succeed in keeping Irish-speaking population in Gaeltachts, how can we possibly expect to maintain the language,” said Dinny McGinley, Minister of State for the Gaeltacht, saying he reduced the Udaras board from 20 to 12 because it was “too large, too expensive and too political.”

But what sort of economic development meets Gaeltachts’ needs? Lacking proper infrastructure especially rapid transport such as motorways, rail-lines and a multi-destination airport that major manufacturers require, the odds are against rapid employment pick-up in this sector in the Donegal one. “On supply chain factors alone, a long-term, job-creation strategy based on manufacturing was, and will be, insane,” said a leading Dublin-based academic whose research has focused on Udaras over several years. “Look at the fate of Fruit of the Loom to see the consequences. Many call centres have also failed, with some still owing Udaras lots of money on outstanding loans.” She added, “Much of what Galway-Connemara – where Udaras is headquartered – got, would help Donegal greatly. Many people there got clean, well-paying, long-term jobs in sectors such as IT, Irish translation services and media, while Donegal, the poor cousin, ended up with lower-paying, short to medium-term, conveyor-belt type jobs in factories.”

The consequences of manufacturing failure dot the Donegal Gaeltacht landscape today, with Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty pointing out that almost half of the industrial parks there lie empty, estimated to be around 45,000 square meters. “Manufacturing in the Donegal Gaeltacht is not sustainable,” he said. “We don’t have the necessary transport links and the government’s withdrawal from the Dublin-Donegal A5 project means we are hardly likely to get them any time soon. That means looking for alternative ways to encourage young Irish speakers to stay here and help create dynamic Gaeltacht communities. Broadband offers one solution. It’s like electricity and running water was years ago, ‘must-haves’ in today’s modern world. With it, the Gaeltacht here can chase the jobs the Connemara Gaeltacht got.”

Instead of easy-to-build ‘mortar and metal’ industrial estates, which analysts said made “fabulous profits for builders and developer,” Udaras chairperson, Ni Ghallachoir, board member, Sean O’Cuirean from Falcarragh and TD Doherty point to tourism, particularly the environmental and cultural variety.

For decades, west Donegal tourism relied on northern Irish holiday-makers flooding across the border, local officials said. That ended with the arrival of low-cost airlines. The entire hospitality sector in the Gaeltacht has declined rapidly since.

“Cultural and green tourism offer tremendous opportunities but its potential has not been exploited enough here,” O’Cuirean said. “Udaras has an important role in this, by supporting large and small tourism projects across the Gaeltacht. Compared to places like Galway and Kerry, we lag far behind. We should adopt environmental tourism models, Norway and Scotland, for example. Mayo hosts meditation retreat type holidays. Whether they are participatory projects in re-afforestation or archaeology, we should be offering them.”  Sabba Curran, an angling tourism entrepreneur in Dore, agrees. “We have all we need, the ocean, the islands, the fishing grounds, but we need Udaras help to develop the sector.”  Added Doherty, “West Donegal has so many tourism pearls scattered around – Errigal, Glenveigh, Dunlewey, Glencolmcille, Tory, Gola – but we have failed to make a necklace out of them. They can’t stand alone. With peace in the north and an all-Ireland tourism body established, now’s the time to act.”

Udaras staff in Donegal declined to talk about tourism development nor job-creation statistics here. When contacted, Micheal MacGiolla Easpuic, acting regional manager based in Gaoth Dobhair, told the Donegal News, “We’re a centralised organisation, you’ll have to call Galway.” But Siubhan Nic Grianna, Udaras communications director in Galway, also declined to provide details as did Gerry O’Smaolain, who oversees Udaras tourism projects here.

Budget constraints

Challenges to Irish-language development include a much-reduced Udaras budget, but also that most of its budget goes towards staff salaries, expenses and pensions rather than supporting job creation projects in Gaeltacht areas. Nic Grianna declined to give specific figures on pensions, even though it is public information. A Joint Oireachtas committee, however, learned recently that pensions of 136 people take up half the current Udaras budget. “Pay levels at Udaras are the envy of people in the Irish-language sector and the pension situation needs looking at,” said O’Liathain, “There could be less bureaucracy in terms of funding also. Udaras has its weaknesses, but it’s not so drastic it can’t be fixed.”

Those interviewed for this three-part series on Udaras na Gaeltachta over the last few weeks were agreed on one thing – Gaeltachts require continuing support. “Promoting Irish in the Gaeltachts may seem like selling coal in Newcastle,” O’Liathain said. “You’d think people would have enough of it. But it is very important in preserving our native culture and heritage.”

Published in Donegal News

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Udaras na Gaeltachta consider challenges of creating new jobs

Meeting for the first time this morning (Friday), members of the new board of Udaras na Gaeltachta face the challenging tasks of analysing the organisation’s performance and brainstorming on ways to accomplish the goals for which the Irish-language body was established.

One priority is employment in Gaeltacht areas. “Job creation and language promotion go hand-in-hand,” Anna Ni Ghallchoir, 55, the new chairperson, told the Donegal News. “With my new board colleagues, I will be examining very closely if past strategies have been successful and come up with innovative ones to help us move forward.”

Depending on whom you speak to, Udaras has either an acceptable record on job creation, or a very poor one, reflecting the age-old comment that statistics are like sausages – they look good but you’re never quite sure what’s in them.

New jobs versus lost jobs

With total funding of around one billion euro so far, Udaras reported it had created 6,970 jobs as of last year in what it terms ‘client companies,’ defined as any company receiving support. When examined in the context of unemployment in Gaeltacht regions, this represents 7.75 per cent of the population there. As of last year, Udaras’ website shows it supported 1,876 jobs in the Donegal Gaeltacht, which represents 7.89 per cent of almost 24,000 people. Donegal Gaeltacht has the second largest number of Irish speakers, but ranks fifth in jobs created among the seven Gaeltacht regions.

Liam O‘Cuinneagain, Udaras chairperson for the last ten years, told the Donegal News he is “satisfied with our job creation performance,” adding, “It’s not easy to get companies to locate to rural Ireland, in part because of its remoteness and lack of transport links and limited skill-sets there.” As evidence in Donegal, he points to sectors Udaras has invested in – seafood processing, call centres (VHI), IT, sea angling, boat repair, even potato-crisp/fast food manufacturing (Largo Foods).

Other business analysts, however, are less satisfied with Udaras’ performance, including Tom Fitzgerald, fluent Irish speaker and business owner employing 50 people at Bard na nGleann, his information-management company in Béal Átha’n Ghaorthaidh in the Cork Gaeltacht. “A strong, well-run economic development organisation is important for the preservation and promotion of the Irish-language and for job creation in marginalized areas such as the Gaeltachts, including Donegal, but there’s no shying away from facts, Udaras is an extraordinarily expensive organisation,” Fitzgerald, whose company has an annual turnover of between one and two million euro, told the Donegal News. “There is little evidence of effectiveness in the statistics. By normal business practice standards, Udaras’ record so far is very poor.”

Expenditure

Fitzgerald points to the fact that the total number of jobs Údarás says it created was lower in 2010 than in 1996. “Furthermore, there’s no indication that the amount of money spent by Údarás in a single year has any impact on job creation in the Gaeltacht.  For example: Údarás spent more than 84 million euro in 2002 according to its own annual report. Yet there is no corresponding spike in jobs either in that year or following years.”

O‘Cuinneagain says during his tenure as chairperson, “cost per job was around eight thousand euro.” However, a simple look at Udaras’s total expenditure for the last ten years (613.5 million euro) relative to the number of jobs it reports creating by the end of last year (6,970) equates to 88,000 euro cost per job. As only around 10 per cent of budget goes to language-cultural activities, the final cost per job figure may be as much as ten times higher than stated. In Donegal, a case study in job costs is Largo Foods, headquartered in Ashbourne, Meath, but with facilities in the Gaoth Dobhair Industrial Estate. According to Udaras, it has received over 6.2 million euro in funding between 1999 and 2011 – with another half-million euro to be paid soon for automated equipment. Udaras said last year the company employed 120 people. Taking those figures, that works out to be over 55,000 euro investment per job created, not considering funding from other bodies for Largo. Ironically, following the installation of the automated equipment earlier this year, media reported 36 jobs were lost at Largo.

As some of Udaras’s ‘client companies’ are also the ‘client companies’ of other organisations, foreign and domestic, from whom they receive additional support, it is difficult to evaluate what specific job numbers Udaras contributions amount to. “The term ‘client companies’ is a loose one, easily manipulated to suit purpose,” said Fitzgerald. “Some organisations that partly support companies in the Gaeltachts often claim all the jobs as their own making, which is quite misleading.”

O’Cuinneagain acknowledges that criticisms of Udaras for not supporting enough micro companies – entrepreneurs wishing to hire a handful of people – are valid. “We’re not getting what we should be getting – smaller businesses,” he said. “We’ve focused too much trying to get big companies that might employ hundreds. Even though the finance and support system is there, Udaras has not been welcoming enough. Staff have not been as pro-active as they should be, have not scoured their Gaeltacht communities to find such entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, we have remained in a culture of factory jobs.”

Asked why, the director of Oideas Gael, a language group in Glencolmcille, lay the blame on factors outside Udaras ranging from lack of business teaching in education “Greek and Latin instead of entrepreneurialism” to lack of bank finance. But he did not rule out the possibility that as funding a small company with thousands of euro amounted to nearly as much paperwork for Udaras staff as funding large companies with millions of euro, there may have be a Udaras propensity for avoiding small business applications. Asked if the push for larger companies could have been simply a strategy to keep employment figures up and for Udaras to retain its all-important job-creation remit, which accounts for most of its annual budget, he said, “That’s ridiculous, sounds more like a conspiracy theory to me.”

Fitzgerald’s opinion differs, “About the only goal that Údarás is measured on is the creation of 800 or so new jobs per year, so they focus on doing just that. The problem is that this strategy doesn’t take into account what kind of jobs they are. In theory, Údarás is better off creating jobs that disappear quickly so they can place the same people again in a year or two.”

Analysts also say the Udaras board members may not have had enough business experience to spearhead a successful jobs-creation strategy. Of the Donegal members on the previous board, none could be identified as having long-time corporate management experience. O’Cuinneagain waved aside concerns that the previous national board was too large, numbering twenty, which some analysts said made it unwieldy to manage and hampered decision-making. “I did not find our board meetings too difficult to manage, but then again my experience as a teacher in inner city Dublin for many years helped a lot,” he said.

Lack of fiscal clarity within Udaras concerns some observers.

“I spent several years studying the organisation and found its finances extremely difficult to understand,” one leading business researcher told the Donegal News. “I also found frequent errors in its calculations. Some figures on spending simply did not add up. There’s really no excuse for that when we have so many accounting software programs such as Excel at our disposal.”

When the Donegal News requested a breakdown of Udaras spending for the seven Gaeltacht regions, particularly Donegal, for the last three years, Siubhán Nic Grianna, national communications and marketing manager, responded, “The distribution of total monies is not segregated on a county by county or Gaeltacht by Gaeltacht basis therefore I cannot provide breakdown for Donegal for this period.”

Bernard Allen, former TD and head of the multi-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which oversees the proper spending of public money, told the Donegal News that lack of transparency at Udaras may have hindered job-creation efforts. “We found its expenses system to be incomprehensible and could not understand how it was spending so much money on trips for so-called job creation efforts.”  Referring to the scandal over misspending by another state body, he added, “Udaras’ expenses read like a mini-FAS and it seemed to stymy our efforts to find out the truth and avoid disclosing pertinent facts and figures to us, especially related to board member, staff and associated expenses. With better accounting practices, perhaps its job creation efforts could have been more effective. ”

Some questions concerning expenses, including 30,000 euro over two years on trips to Halifax, Canada, to look at seaweed projects, costly business-class flights, trips to many international cities including Las Vegas, Shanghai, Los Angeles and Chicago, and expenses for spouses – which is counter to existing regulations – have still not been fully answered, Allen said.

Nic Grianna said such concerns lack basis. Describing the first story in this newspaper series as, “a slanted view, full of insinuations,” she added, “There was no reprimand from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). We are very open and transparent and explained everything. There has been no abuse of public money.” In response, Allen said simply, “We did not get all our questions answered satisfactorily and a national election was called and the PAC disbanded before we could investigate fully.” Even though the information is in the public domain, Nic Grianna declined a request for a breakdown of pensions for 136 Udaras former executives costing around 4.3 million euro this year, half of this year’s current budget. Efforts to contact retired executives Cathal MacSuibhne in Donegal and CEO Padraig O’hAolain through Udaras for comment, were unsuccessful.

With allegations of cronyism and clintelism tainting many public bodies, O’Cuinneagain said he did not experience conflicts of interest while Udaras chairperson. “My organisation, Oideas Gael, did not receive any money from Udaras so I certainly did not feel the need to excuse myself from board discussions on funding, nor did any of the other board members as they did not receive any money either.”

As the Udaras board meeting gets underway this morning, Sean O’Cuirean, a new member from Falcarragh, remains optimistic. “A good thing about this board is that there are a new set of eyes looking at the situation. Such fresh perspectives often result in greater success and money well spent.”

Published in Donegal News