Public accountability? Or continued secrecy?

Recent focus on this blog on Udaras na Gaeltachta and its spending of public monies and particularly funding of a proposed Catholic Church-run addiction clinic near the main Falcarragh crossroads has obviously hit a nerve.

Local media editors have informed me over the last few days that they have been approached by Udaras officials both locally and from the organisation’s headquarters in Galway in an effort to have the tone of coverage changed, by seeking so-called ‘clarifications’ – a rarely used term that in actual fact means nothing, as something is either accurate or inaccurate – and free editorial space for what it termed ‘right of reply’ – which under Council of Europe guidelines is defined as: “offering a possibility to react to any information in the media presenting inaccurate facts … which affect … personal rights.” Ironically, articles published so far are trying to do just that – encourage Udaras to release information that affects key individual rights – ‘the right to know.’

For local media, defying such pressure can be extremely onerous due to present-day financial straits on both print and digital outlets and the less than media-friendly legal system in Ireland now. At the same time, independent journalism is a cornerstone of any democracy.

Unfortunately, Udaras has not – as yet – agreed to provide what is most needed for full, open public discussion – comprehensive information, specific responses to specific questions I – as well as other reporters and even our elected national political representatives – have asked repeatedly by phone, Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and formal, written TD questions in the Dail (see earlier stories in this blog).

If such action in leaning on editors, and inaction in not providing key information, is not obstructing freedom of information, then what is? It echoes the words of Ireland’s Information Commissioner, who said at a conference last week that Ireland’s public service bodies still operate in a veil of secrecy, which changes in our FOI laws have only partially eased. He added, “There is still a long way to go.’ I agree.

Lack of transparency by Udaras sadly brings back memories from 25 years ago while working as a foreign correspondent for The Irish Times and for London-based Daily Telegraph and other publications in eastern Europe. There, in countries emerging from communist regimes, media faced great difficulties obtaining relevant information from civil service bodies that had got so used to acting in secrecy it had become ingrained in their way of thinking.

So, dear reader in continued pursuit of transparency in public matters and in consideration of their stated pledges about greater openness on issues related to Udaras, I have sent the following questions to the Donegal-based members of the national board of Udaras, namely Seán Ó Cuireáin, Eunan Mac Cuinneagáin and Daithí Alcorn, as well as to its Arranmore-born chairperson, Anna Ní Ghallachair.

In terms of fairness, I have allowed a whole week for a considered response (the deadline for their replies is Wednesday, April 16). Their pledges for greater openness should be obvious in the responses, especially as one of the board members is running for local political office on behalf of Fine Gael in the upcoming council elections.

I also include a small sample of feedback I have received from readers of this blog who are concerned about the spending practices and strategy adopted by Udaras in Donegal. Such feedback makes speedy, comprehensive responses by the aforementioned officials all the more important, details of which I will share with readers when – and if – they arrive.

The Questions –

1. Please provide all documentation related to investment and/or financial payments by Udaras to groups or individuals involved in the operation of Ballyconnell House over the years (from the date of first Udaras involvement in development of this property until present). Please include names and details of the groups and individuals as well as exact amounts.

2. Please provide all documentation related to grants by Udaras to groups or individuals involved in the operation of Ballyconnell House over the years (from the date of first Udaras involvement in development of this property until present). Please include names and details of the groups and individuals as well as exact amounts.

3. How much investment is to be made in Ballyconnell House to convert it into a proposed addiction clinic? I consider an absolute accurately figure may not be possible at this stage, but an estimation should be, as such a figure must obviously be an important part of budget discussions taking place now.

4. To whom is Udaras directly involved with in these negotiations, meaning what named organisations or individuals?

5. I understand from what John Curran said on Highland Radio last week that he has already visited three times, the Cuan Mhuire center in Newry. How many other board or executive members have visited Cuan Mhuire centres with respect to the proposed center in Falcarrgh, Donegal? And what centres have they visited? Has Mr. Curran visited other centres or met representatives, individuals or groups, of organsiations regarding the proposed clinic? Which ones?

6. What other organisations or individuals will be funding the proposed addiction clinic in Falcarragh? And how much will they be contributing (an estimate is fine)?

7.  What other organisations or individuals will be involved in the proposed addiction clinic project? And in what capacity?

8. Please name the person at the Donegal Udaras office who is spearheading the addiction clinic proposal.

9. Have any open, public discussion forums been organised by Udaras regarding the proposed addiction clinic where the community can contribute its input? If so, where and when? Please provide evidence of this.

10. What is the company-by-company breakdown of jobs created in Udaras-funded companies in 2013 in the Donegal Gaeltacht comprising the total jobs figure released to the media in January?

11. Please provide financial details on pension payments and any other payments upon retirement to the former CEO of Udaras and the former regional manager of Udaras in Donegal, Cathal MacSuibhne as mentioned in previous e-mails to you.

12. Has there been any other project proposals put forward to Udaras for the Ballyconnell House estate? If so, please provide details.

 

Reader Feedback:

Reader One: “Found your article on the addiction centre brilliant.  But did you know that if the state funds the centre then state is committing an illegal act?

Reader Two: “Great article on Ballyconnell House. I regularly play golf down there and I think it’s a disgrace the condition that fine property and grounds are in. That area has massive tourism potential. Udaras should be ashamed of themselves.

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3 thoughts on “Public accountability? Or continued secrecy?

    • Thanks for your interest Paddy. I’m afraid obtaining information from Udaras is proving an uphill task – no wonder locals call it the ‘secret society’ – but I’m pushing on.
      While I received an email from Ms Siubhan Nic Grianna, she avoided giving answers to many questions, especially the key ones, adding in her e-mail that if I wanted further information, I should use the Freedom of Information (FOI) process. When I have used that particular avenue in the past, Nic Grianna refuses, quoting ad infinitum ‘data protection’ and ‘privacy’ reasons, a strange response considering the information sought relates directly to spending of public money. The fact that appealing an FOI denial costs a prohibitive 70 euro plus also probably enters her thinking.
      For example, I have asked repeatedly for a company-by-company breakdown of the jobs Udaras supposedly created last year in Donegal. Should be simple enough you might think as Udaras already put out a press release in January boasting about the total number of jobs it has created here. Not so. This is the fourth time I have asked for the breakdown and I am still refused this information. Either someone is not good at simple math or the numbers simply don’t endure scrutiny. What is your guess?
      Why is this figure important? Because Udaras is primarily a job creation organisation, the idea being to create decent (and not what some call ‘cabbage’ jobs, packing crisps, or working call centres either, but higher paid, career-minded ones, the ones Galway and other Gaeltachts get in abundance) to keep fluent Irish speakers living in the Gaeltacht, a noble reason indeed.
      It is a sad indictment of our society when a citizen has to jump through such hoops simply to obtain public information especially when there is a legitimate public interest (for example, the proposed Catholic Church-run addiction clinic in Falcarragh – if it goes ahead – will take up a big chunk of the annual budget of Donegal Udaras, leaving very little for cultural tourism and arts, projects board members of Udaras had promised when they took their positions two years ago and will mean restricted access to the beautiful surrounds of Ballyconnell House).
      I have also asked how much public money is being spent on pensions for Udaras executives. Again it wasn’t given.
      In conclusion I quote the words of Ireland’s Ombudsman and Information Commissioner, Peter Tyndall, in recent weeks, who said, “I believe that there is still some way to go in eliminating the remaining elements of the culture of secrecy and developing a positive mindset across the public sector in favour of openness and transparency in the pursuit of better governance.”
      I will put responses obtained from Udaras on this blog within the next week.

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  1. Pingback: Openness and transparency required: Udaras still has questions to answer | seanhillenblog

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