Cults, sects and mindless mayhem?

Before the elections, in a FRONT page editorial in the Irish Independent (a most unsuited and unprofessional place – see explanation at bottom of article), Fionnan Sheahan, group political editor of Independent Newspapers, described Sinn Fein as a ‘cult’ and a ‘sect’ whose followers were mindless.

Seeing that this particular political party has just won 157 local council seats nationwide in the Republic with 15.2% of the national vote (not to mention 105 council seats in northern Ireland with 24% of the vote), that’s a helluva lot of mindless people.

Will Mr. Sheahan now apologise to such people publicly in the same manner that he attacked them? Or will arrogance and pride prevent him and pave the way for a continued drop in circulation and quality of a once decent newspaper (one I proudly worked for at the start of my career 30 years ago)? Or is Fionnan’s job so dependent on the blatant bias of the media group’s dominant figures – Denis O’Brien (who was shown by the Moriarty Tribunal to have bribed former Fianna Fail Communications Minister, Michael Lowry, to win a mobile phone license), and Tony O’Reilly (who, after recently announcing bankruptcy, owes you and I more than four million euro after buying a luxurious holiday home in Glandore, west Cork with a loan he can’t now pay back) – that he will continue doffing his cap as a D4/ establishment spin-doctor and apologist?

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Can some political commentators not see the forest for the trees?

And not only.

A few weeks ago on Highland Radio’s Friday morning ‘Press Round-up,’ one of the so-called experts – a woman – said Gerry Adams should resign as Sinn Fein party president – and this was after Mr. Adams had just been voted in an ‘Irish Times’ opinion poll as the nation’s most popular party leader. Consider this unwarranted barb in view of the massive gains Sinn Fein has just won across the nation in this weekend’s local, national and European elections under this man’s leadership.

Will that particular woman now apologize? Not simply for a poorly-informed broadside but what is, in effect, blatantly obvious bias. Surely, Highland Radio, a station fighting for license renewal, can find more objective commentators than this person. As both chat-show program host and station managing director, Shaun should pay closer attention to what emerged from the ‘Media Freedom‘ conference I attended at UNESCO headquarters in Paris recently. Can anyone guess the identity of the woman in question?

But back to the recent elections.

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Turning of the tide?

Some commentators would have us believe they were astonishing.

Nothing could be further from the truth. They were quite the opposite – predictable – based on the trend already set three years ago when Sinn Fein went from four TD slots to 14. Of course, Sinn Fein and Independent generous gains in this week’s elections were accelerated this time round by the abject failures and litany of broken promises by Labour and Fine Gael. With the smell of Fianna Fail corruption still rank in our nostrils, and the ‘old guard’ still there in abundance, it hardly provided an alternative, indicated by its abject failure to have anyone elected in the two by-elections and Pat the Cope ‘(the Pope’ as RTE miswrote in a news Twitter) Gallagher’s failure to hold his MEP seat.

A quick glance at some of the specific results indicates the extent of the triumphs of Sinn Fein and the Independents:

  • Four Sinn Fein MEP candidates – four MEPs elected: Liadh Ní Riada; Lynn Boylan; Martina Anderson and Matt Carthy.
  • Independent Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan topping the poll in the Midlands–North-West constituency;
  • Sinn Fein trebling its local council tally by winning 157 seats nationwide, and in the process becoming the largest single party on the Dublin city council;
  • Independent Marian Harkin defeating sitting MEP Pat the Cope in Midlands–North-West;
  • Sinn Fein securing the single biggest number of first preference votes in northern Ireland’s local government elections while winning 105 council seats;
  • Independents (including the Socialist Party, the Greens, and People Before Profit Alliance) won around 30 per cent of council seats, up from 18 per cent at the last local elections in 2009;

The list just keeps going on, including Sinn Fein winning local council seats it has not held since the foundation of the state, an incredible historic feat. It is something Donegal-based Pearse Doherty, Sinn Fein’s electoral director should be extremely proud of, especially in the run-up to the 1916 centenary commemoration celebrations.

So what happens now? Well-paid Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour spin-doctors – Charlie Flanagan, Pat Rabbitte and Timmy Dooley respectively – have already been out in force on RTE, and other media, this week. They allege – conveniently forgetting that this particular political party has governed alongside its arch-rival, the DUP, for 15 years in northern Ireland – that Sinn Fein cannot govern because it has not learned the art of compromise. In fact, it is one of the very skills Sinn Fein has learned and in the toughest classroom there is – the boiling cauldron of politics across the border. Maybe the faux pas made by Jan O’Sullivan, Labour’s junior minister, on RTE Radio 1 show last Sunday that her party ‘is a mudguard for Sinn Fein’ is more accurate than she cares to believe.

The spin-doctors also say the Independents are a motley group of disparate individuals, again conveniently forgetting that they all, in effect, stood together in unity against harsh austerity and for social justice and fairness – hardly irrelevant issues. Theirs is also a highly pompous and condescending comment to make about ordinary citizens who voted en masse for this so-called ‘motley’ group.

No doubt, Sinn Fein and the Independents will be in the crosshairs of examination over the next two years as the next general election approaches but their strength is that they are bonded by a common purpose. Watch carefully as they come together in unity and forge a partnership to create a more equitable society within Ireland. As they attempt to avoid being the victims of their own success, maintaining organization and structure will be a challenge.

It was also extremely heartening to see so many women win council and MEP seats. Four of Ireland’s 11 elected MEPs being female Sinn Fein candidates while in the two by-elections, Ruth Coppinger won Dublin West for Joe Higgins’ Socialist Party and Gabrielle McFadden of Fine Gael won the Longford/Westmeath seat previously held by her sister, Nicky. Well over 20 per cent of councillors elected are women; 32 per cent of votes cast in Dublin were for female candidates and in some areas 4 out of six councillors are now women. Over 30 per cent of Sinn Fein council candidates were women. Women won 197 out of 943 local seats with campaign group ‘Women for Election’ saying this represented a 33 per cent increase. However, even with this improvement, Ireland remains about 90th in world rankings in terms of women in politics.

However, at last, as this week’s election results show, Ireland is beginning to wake up to reality. We Irish may lack the passion, initiative and courage to go on the streets as did the Greeks and French but we are fortunate to have been given a second chance following our poor voting performance two years ago (echoes – as happened after the 1916 debacle) and have made our voices heard in the polling booths. Rejection of establishment politics and the obvious economic disparities between poor and rich here, has meant Ireland has finally, to a large extent, grown up, matured and begun to shrug off out-dated, horse-blinkered generational politics.

As for Lugh’s choices for my area of the Glenties here in northwest Donegal, I am delighted to say that the little Celtic hero predicted not just the winners, but also the exact order in which they came past the post, viz-a-viz

Marie Therese Gallagher, Sinn Fein

John Sheamuis O’Fearraigh, Sinn Fein

Micheal Cholm MacGiolla Easbuig, Independent

Ireland’s future suddenly seems brighter!

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A new dawn is upon us.

NB: Explanation as promised

In journalism, as a mark of respect to the intelligence of its readers, quality newspapers reserve their opinion columns and editorials for inside pages, designating the front page specifically for informed and – as much as possible considering we have human frailties – objective news upon which readers make up their own minds on key issues. Thus Independent Newspapers broke a golden, nay sacrosanct, rule of journalism, ignoring the fact that only idiots need to be spoon-fed like infants. That may have worked in the past. Not anymore.

Next week’s blog – Remaining on the subject of local elections: how is it a candidate, such as John Curran, failed to get elected in the Glenties to the Donegal council? Was it linked to the severe lack of transparency that has corrupted Irish politics for so long and that still hovers over the workings of Udaras na Gaeltachta of which Mr. Curran is a board member? Or simply that he was the Fine Gael candidate? Next week, I publish the responses from Udaras to questions regarding payments for executive pensions, a breakdown of job creation figures for the Donegal Gaeltacht and total investment in a proposed church-run addiction clinic in Falcarragh. As well as responses from Cuan Mhuire as to whether it shelters convicted clerical child abusers and will provide sex therapy as well as other treatments at the proposed centre.

To be or not to be (a Donegal councillor)

Lugh’s top three choices in the Glenties electoral area

What’s termed in America, ‘mid-term elections’ are coming up tomorrow (Friday) – and the results will indicate the future evolution of political parties and individual candidates, the direction country and counties will take and perhaps even leadership changes.

Living in Gaoth Dobhair, here’s Lugh’s take on his local area (from Dunfanaghy to Dungloe) within the Glenties Electoral area –

VOTE FOR:

Marie Therese Gallagher, Sinn Fein

John Sheamuis O’Fearraigh, Sinn Fein

Micheal Cholm MacGiolla Easbuig, Independent

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Lugh carefully analyses the candidates

Why?

Marie Therese Gallagher

Setting aside for the moment that there are simply not enough women in Irish politics today, thus a major loss to the political system as whole, Marie Therese has performed very well as a sitting council member (while, at the same time – multi-tasking comes so much easier to women than men – nurturing a delightful family). Reflecting Sinn Fein’s consistent stand on principles of fairness and social justice, she and her party colleagues remained firm against the council budget last year due mainly to Irish Water taking over local water services and people having to pay yet another government stealth tax. Fianna Fail, on the other hand, caved in, with Rena Donaghy, presenting a poor excuse for ducking the vote on the night and Independent, John Campbell, swapping sides to that of Fine Gael and Labour at the last minute.

On the issue of women in politics, Ireland remains in the Dark Ages – even more so with regard to women’s rights. Without Mary Robinson and her successor, Mary McAleese, we’d have been left with Fianna Fail’s Padraig Flynn, Charlie Haughey, Brian Lenihan’s claims that women belong in the kitchen peeling potatoes and in the bathroom changing nappies.  Yet, while some progress has indeed been made, still only 17 per cent of council seats across Ireland are currently filled by women, the worst record in Europe.

John Sheamais O’Fearraigh

John, married to Bernadette and father of three children, is a sincere, decent man, who has contributed much to the local community over the years, through his various roles, especially as a youth worker and on a number of local committees. His message is a simple one, a fine prescription for healing the wounds of society, and particularly here in Ireland: each to his abilities, each to his needs.

John spoke eloquently and passionately on national TV (TG4) a few weeks back about the urgent need for transparency and financial accountability from publicly-funded bodies such as Udaras na Gaeltachta (after the corruptive practices at the higher levels of FAS, the Garda Siochana and Rehab surely we’ve had enough of the particular Irish condition known colloquially as ‘cute whorism’). A vote for him is a vote for progress.

Micheal Cholm MacGiolla Easbuig

Micheal is both vocal and passionate about social justice and deserves credit for the way in which he has put his words into actions, including being a member of the ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign. He has organized a number of events, several of which I have attended, some of which I have enjoyed immensely. Local editors inform me he is persistent in pushing stories on diverse social issues, including anti-racism, and greater transparency on public issues, although it was bemusing that he declined to go on the air for TG4 recently to talk about spending of between one and three million euro by Udaras na Gaeltachta on a proposed addiction clinic in Falcarragh without proper benefit-investment information being presented for public analysis. Micheal has been described by some as irascible, but then again so has former Mayor and Councillor Frank McBrearty, a man who has brought up some extremely important issues in the council chamber rather than bow to that most common of Irish characteristics – aversion – a strategy that leaves truth as the ultimate casualty. Irascibility may thus be one of the most important qualities required in the chamber if councillors are to successfully fight for their corner, their supporters and their issues.

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Lugh seeks trusted advice from his elders

Candidates in the Glenties electoral area who disappointed me

 John Curran, Fine Gael

Running as a Fine Gael candidate instead of an independent (as he informed me he had been considering) has, unfortunately, been a mistake for John, making it harder for him to drum up enough votes to get over the line. Let’s be honest, John had no real choice in the matter as the party put him on the board of Udaras na Gaeltachta with an eye on propelling him forward on a rising political career, perhaps even successor to Minister of State, Dinny McGinley. The decision John took to run on a FG ticket – or was taken for him – has both pros and cons.

The cons are Fine Gael’s wretched record over the last three years and its list of broken electoral promises – ‘not another penny’ and ‘those guilty shall pay’ being its twin, pre-election mantra, which has obviously collapsed in a heap of rubble – is a hard sell. The pros – the party machine behind John’s electoral effort: more ad money; more people out canvassing; more and bigger posters.

To my mind, John had a golden opportunity to prove his individual worth – and blew it – over the proposed spending of millions of euro of public money on a church-run addiction clinic in Falcarragh. Instead of following through on the twin issues he promised as a newly-appointed Udaras board member two years ago – being a watchdog over the organization to create greater transparency and accountability on spending as well as promoting tourism based on our rich, native culture as a top priority – he has put loyalty to the organization ahead of loyalty to the people whose money it spends – some say, too wantonly and irresponsibly.

See his quote in a story published in the Donegal News: 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.

For example, John has made little effort to inform ordinary people how much the proposed addiction clinic will cost or detail the specific community benefits to Falcarragh (as it is proposed to be located where he now lives, he could also be accused of pork barrel politics). John’s initial assertion that the clinic would create a magic 45 jobs is a simple case of political flag-waving. Basic business sense says no jobs are guaranteed until an operation is up and running, (not to mention if any, or many, jobs, will be local), so this number is a figment of the imagination.

John dipped his toe into what he thought was the cool waters of local Irish politics and it came out red and roasting. I like John as a person, so much so I gave him my Croker All-Ireland hurling final tickets last year, with no favors asked and none given (I’ve also offered game tickets to other decent people such as the two local former Gardai, Martin Ridge and Seamus Corbett; Timmy Boyle, friendly Bunbeg restaurateur and boatman, and his brother-in-law, Sabba, one of the kindest men I have met hereabouts). John and I have sat down for dinner and coffees together and held long discussions on various subjects. He had my vote, then let it slip from his grasp. With his background, John would be a help to any local community but not as a political party hack. If he’s not his own man, then he’s nobody’s man.

Seamus O’Domhnaill, Fianna Fail

A win for him in west Donegal means once again developers and bankers will celebrate victory with raised champagne glasses.

Regardless that inappropriate lending and fat bonuses for bankers, as well as developers absconding with much of the loans, has led to national economic collapse and continuing austerity, these two sectors – feeding into each other – remain O’Domhnaill’s twin political platforms.

Considering the amount of money Fianna Fail has reaped from both sectors over the years and the fact that the ‘old guard’ of the party still rules the roost, it should come as no surprise that this strategy will continue to be O’Domhnaill’s remit for years to come. If he wins, and with his brother, Brian as a Senator, his supporters within Fianna Fail hope to dominate future proceedings in their local area of Falcarragh and Gortahork. Then again, some say if Fianna Fail put up a donkey in certain parts of Donegal, it would get elected.

In conclusion, my top three choices of electoral candidates are Marie Therese Gallagher, Sinn Fein; John Sheamais O’Fearraigh, Sinn Fein; and Micheal Cholm MacGiolla Easbuig, Independent. I now cordially invite you to join me in voting for them. We missed out on making the kind of radical political changes we should have made three years ago. Let’s not miss out on it now. If we do, we’d never forgive ourselves.

Owen Curran: well-respected Donegal community activist speaks out

Names his choices for local elections in the Glenties

Watching as stone cottages in England were leveled to make way for a nuclear power plant and seeing protestors trying to stop it being mistreated by police was the beginning of Owen Curran’s political awakening.

I was nineteen, living in England, but that planted a seed in me,” the 51-year-old explains simply during a recent two-hour interview at Lough Altan Hotel in Gortahork.

Owen, first from the left, looking at camera, displays his solidarity with protestors seeking greater equality and social justice.

In the intervening thirty-two years, that seed has grown into a sturdy tree, its branches used in the protection of basic civil and community rights and furtherance of a more equitable society. That’s why Curran, who was born in Glasgow but who grew up in Ray, west Donegal, and has lived the last 12 years in nearby Derryconnor, came to be one of the canvassers for a then aspiring Dublin political leader named Joe Higgins in the 1990s. That’s how he also ended up in the vanguard of the Cloughaneely ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign against the household and water taxes; among 15,000 people protesting outside the Fine Gael Ard Fheis two years ago in Dublin; and one of a small group of people behind the emergence of ‘May Day’ celebrations earlier this month in Falcarragh.

I suppose you could say I’ve always been involved in fighting for peoples’ rights and social fairness,” says the well-read, quiet-spoken Donegal county council employee. “These rights were hard-fought to get and keeping them is even more difficult, especially in times of economic crisis.

With the local elections but a few weeks away, Owen, who like many Irishmen before him has travelled to many places seeking work, including Neasden, Edinburgh, Bermondsey, Dunbar, Haddington and Port Seton, is eyeing the candidates with that view very much in mind. “I’m looking for people with genuine beliefs about social justice, the kind who get involved and don’t waver when things get tough, people like Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein, the best politician we’ve ever had in Donegal,” he says, before adding philosophically, “democracy is a living, breathing, thing and should be borne out to its fullest. We’ve been told there is an economic upturn, but we don’t see it. Most of our working people have emigrated or are simply unemployed. How can we talk about rural Ireland if we don’t put people back to work? We need to get back to basics, back to looking at agriculture, tourism, the environment. We need open public forums where people can have the right to their say in how the community in which they live should move forward. We’re not going to come out of this crisis automatically. That requires serious, long-term spending.

So why hasn’t that happened already? Why has there been so little protest from Irish people who have undergone such dire difficulties over the last five years?

There are many reasons,” he explains. “With our colonial past, including landlordism, there has been a ‘do-what-you-have-to’ attitude to survive. Also, the Catholic Church, while it has done much good, has left us over-deferential to authority. Further, emigration has always been Ireland’s safety valve. It lets pressure off. Those who would traditionally stand up are gone away.

Owen also believes history went amiss for the people of Ireland. “After the so-called revolution here, the wrong people grasped power, not the people who did most of the fighting, but larger farmers and those who were better off. Some people like to make a devil out of Éamon de Valera but he wasn’t alone. Some of what he and others beside him did was progressive but there has been an absence of social change. Ireland is a Republic in name only and even though the phrase annoys me, we are a ‘class conscious’ nation. In a country in which we felt we were in it together, resisting the might of the British Empire, we found we were no better, no worse, than them. The green flag is still waiting to be raised. There are still things to do.

That includes, according to Owen, “all people being given choices.” “People are not given their rightful place. Minorities should be able to voice their opinion. That is vitally important. Cutting them off is dangerous and we have to be ever vigilant that does not happen. We also need to relearn a lot of stuff, things we knew in the past, like solidarity and standing up for each other. Irish people like to say they didn’t like Margaret Thatcher yet we’ve taken many of her policies and applied them, thus the Celtic Tiger and the Charlie McCreevy’s of this world. Unions ‘in partnership’ with government? What does that mean? We cannot sit on both sides of the fence. It’s as if we are delighted to be allowed to ‘join the club,’ join the ruling classes. We have become so deferential to authority we let off those clearly guilty of white-collar crime. It has just become too easy for them.

Locally, Owen is passionate about the unfortunate situation at Largo Foods in Gaoth Dobhair. “This is a case where skills were honed over forty years, yet now, it’s all gone. Crocodile tears were shed by many politicians, but it took eleven days for Udaras na Gaeltachta to host a first meeting on the factory’s closure. It should have organized a special task force back in the 1980s when manufacturing was going down. I mean, has there ever been an audit of skills in the Gaeltacht community, not to mention a series of public meetings to find job-creation ideas or special training seminars on how to apply properly for funding? Udaras has spent hundreds of millions of euro of public money over the years and much of it has been wasted. It is long past time for greater transparency and much more public scrutiny of the way this organisation operates.

To whom does Owen owe such thoughtful and mature political thinking? “In Ireland, the lives and writings of people like James Connolly and Jim Larkin, and, of course, Joe Higgins, which is why I canvassed for him all those years ago, but others outside Ireland who were very influential during their time,” he says. Among these, Owen adds, are James Cannon in the United States, whom he sees as “an early stalwart of American socialism in the 1930s and who wrote ‘Socialism on Trial,’ which Owen considers “a masterful explanation of the ‘red scare,’ and even the writer, Jack London, who wrote ‘The Iron Heel,’ about the strength of the individual and the collective. Owen also greatly admires Barack Obama, who, he says, “has made a tremendous difference.”

With local elections up ahead, how does the local activist – with two brothers and two sisters and now married to Sheila – feel about the future?

I remain optimistic. I believe in people, in the human spirit. But we need to build peoples’ confidence, to encourage them to get involved in making their communities better. They will find they are well able but it’s a long process. However, it can work. There is not simply dark and light. There’s rarely an outright victory. The ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign, for example, made a number of people active. We all learned how to debate issues. In many ways, it was a model for local democracy within a group. I saw people who were too shy to speak, get up and chair a public meeting.

Regarding the ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign, Curran gives great credit to a number of people who he says “have been pioneers in the struggle for greater equality as well as anti-austerity stalwarts, including Theresa and Caroline Woods, founders of the group; Mary Bridget Sharkey; Mary Attenborough; Moire McCarry; R.J. McLean; James Woods;  Gerard Gallagher; and Martin McEhlinny.”

He continues, “Back to the issue of deference – some people on the left wasted an opportunity this economic crisis presented. They disengaged over spurious reasons. The landscape changed but they didn’t take advantage of the opportunity it presented. Forcing Fine Gael and Fianna Fail together would have made way for a stronger Left alliance….. but maybe it’s not too late.

Owen’s choices in the upcoming local elections for the Glenties area are –

  1. Michael McClafferty – “a decent, hardworking person who got involved in this election because he believes change can only come about if people go into politics and fight for it.”
  2. Cllr. Marie Therese Gallagher and John Sheamais O’Fearraigh of Sinn Fein “because that party has shown consistent loyalty to its principles, as well as strong discipline, especially at last year’s council budget meeting.”
  3. Seamus Rogers – “a genuine community activist, and a decent man.”

Openness and transparency required: Udaras still has questions to answer

Fueled by community concerns about lack of transparency and a concerted campaign by Udaras na Gaeltachta to squash attempts to extract information on its spending of public money (see related posts Udaras na Gaeltachta a secret society? and Catholic church-linked addiction clinic in Falcaragh, is this the best use of tax payers job creation money?) and, specifically its proposed spending of between one and three million euro on a church-run addiction clinic in Falcarragh, questions were posed to the four Donegal national board members, including the organisation’s Aranmore-born chairperson, as well as Udaras’ communications and marketing manager, Siubhan Nic Grianna (see: Public accountability? Or continued secrecy?)

In addition, having been invited to speak at a two-day international conference at UNESCO headquarters in Paris this week on access to public information, good governance, protection of journalists and whistle-blowers and media diversity, the overwhelming message was, as UNESCO officials clearly stated, “openness, transparency, access to information and freedom of expression, including press freedom, are essential to good governance.” See short video clip from UNESCO conference here.

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Professor Rosental Alves, UNESCO Chair in Communication, and I display media solidarity.

With this in mind, please find below a set of responses received from Ms. Nic Grianna at Udaras HQ in Galway to the specific questions put to her by me on the proposed addiction clinic in Ballyconnell House, Falcarragh.

You will notice frequent use of the term “confidential” to avoid giving pertinent information, and also some vital details missing from her responses (see list below). Her response, for example, to Question Nr. 8 is evasive (to accurately ascertain potential conflicts of interest, one needs to know who is conducting direct negotiations involving public money on the public’s behalf). If you notice other such attempts to avoid answering directly, please inform me. Your identity will remain anonymous if so desired.

  • Who or what group was paid 225,000 Irish Punts by Udaras for Ballyconnell House?
  • What other grants were given in relation to Ballyconnell House since 1988 and to whom – all financial details in questions 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 12 are either referred to a FOI request or stated as confidential. If this project is to benefit the community, as stated in Ms. Nic Grianna’s answers, why is Udaras so keen on keeping important information confidential?
  • As I have not been able to find a person who was invited and/or participated at the meeting described in point 9 yet, or find any document related to such a meeting, I hereby issue an open invitation to anyone to help provide such details. It would help shed light on what issues were presumably discussed then. If so desired, the identity of all responders will remain confidential.
  • It is also interesting to note that while Gearoid O’Smaolain, Udaras tourism officer (see post here: Fair or unfair? A nettlesome question of censorship) demanded an apology from Stephen Maguire owner of ‘Donegal Daily’ news service for a article I wrote for the service, saying ‘no proposals’ were ever made for Ballyconnell House, Ms. Nic Grianna states clearly that proposals were indeed received. She doesn’t, however, explain why these proposals were rejected in favor of the proposed clinic. (This contradiction to Mr. O’Smaolain regarding proposals was also made by Udaras board member and Fine Gael local council candidate, John Curran). Their disagreements with each other beg the question: who is being economical with the truth? And for what reason? Or is it that communication is so poor among Udaras executives and board members that they literally don’t know what is happening inside the organisation? If so, then – absolutely and without delay – greater transparency about the spending of millions of euro every year by it, scarce public money, is more than necessary.

Upon reading any of the above outstanding questions, if others come to mind, please send them to me by e-mail. Anonymity will be given if so requested.

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Getting ready to speak at the international UNESCO HQ conference in Paris, attended by several hundred journalists, editors, community leaders, diplomats and UN officials.

1. QUESTION: 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.

ANSWER: Background to Eastait Bhaile Chonaill In 1985 Udaras na Gaeltachta was approached by a local community group that were interested in purchasing Eastait Bhaile Chonaill for the purposes of developing the property as a facility/resource for the local community. In 1988 An Udaras purchased Eastait Bhaile Chonaill for 225,000 Irish Punts for community development purposes and with the agreement that the property would be leased to the local community group.  In 1988, a co-op – Comharchumann Eastait Bhaile Chonaill Teo was established by the local community, with 240 shareholders, for the purposes of leasing Eastait Bhaile Chonaill from Udaras and redeveloping the property as a community resource. 120,000 Irish Punts was approved by Udaras to the Comharchumann for restoration and development works. A 35 year lease was agreed.

By 1994 the Comharchumann was in debt due to being unable to sustain the running costs of Baile Chonaill.   The Comharchumann and Udaras agreed to set up a management company – Forbairt Bhaile Chonaill Teo, (with directors nominated by the Comharchumann and Udaras)  in an effort to develop Baile Chonaill as a sustainable cultural tourism business. A manager and administrator were employed. For a number of years Forbairt Bhaile Chonaill Teo managed the property as a tourism business, mainly providing hostel type accommodation and facilities for group bookings. Given the extensive space available, Baile Chonaill also housed tenants during that time, such as Foinn Chonallacha Teo (which ran accredited traditional music courses and boarded the students in Baile Chonaill) , Cumann Staire agus Seanchais Chloich Cheann Fhaola, which ran exhibitions of the local history/culture/heritage, and was open to tourists and the general public alike,  Teleteach Teo which provided IT training facilities/services to the local community and Eagras Failte Thar Chonaill, which operated a tourist information office and managed other tourist offices throughout the county.

During that period, various parts of the building were continuously deteriorating, the extensive size of the building meant that any refurbishment/restoration works were very costly.  The lack of financial resources required to carry out the necessary repair-works became a constant draw on any profits made.

A number of studies were carried out to assess potential development opportunities for Baile Chonaill. All proposals involved substantial investment.

In 2000, arising from an assessment by Peter Quinn & Associates, it was recommended that Forbairt Bhaile Chonaill Teo would cease trading, clear its debts and hand the property back to Udaras na Gaeltachta.  At that time, a number of open days were organised and members of the public were invited to submit applications in relation to possible projects for Baile Chonaill. No submission was received for the overall use of the property.

Also in 2004, and again in 2007 Udaras na Gaeltachta sought tenders from parties interested in acquiring Eastait Bhaile Chonaill for commercial use based on one, or a mix of uses. No proposals were approved by its Board arising from these open invitation processes. Expression of interest and submissions made by the parties are confidential.

In early 2009 An Udaras received enquiries from Cuan Mhuire in relation to Baile Chonaill.

Is it is matter of public record that Cuan Mhuire has expressed an interest in Eastait Bhaile Chonaill, with the aim of developing the property as a rehabilitation and treatment centre.  Please see http://www.cuanmhuire.ie for further information in relation to the charity.

At a meeting in 2012 (see answer to question 9 below), Cuan Mhuire representatives gave information about Cuan Mhuire, described what its general project proposal for Baile Chonaill was, informed that an in-depth feasibility study was underway, and gave an open invitation to any interested party to visit other Cuan Mhuire centres throughout the country and/or give their opinions on the proposal.

Talks are ongoing between Udaras and Cuan Mhuire in relation to their interest in Eastait Bhaile Chonaill. If you require copies of all documentation and other information in relation to this project, you are welcome to request such under the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003.

2. QUESTION: 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.

ANSWER: Please see answers to question 1 above.

3. QUESTION: 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.

ANSWER: Any discussions between Udaras and any of its clients are confidential.  Udaras’ decision to support any project is based on a full analysis and assessment of a detailed business plan/proposal. The decision to support such projects is made by the Board of Udaras na Gaeltachta.

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

ANSWER: Is it is matter of public record that Cuan Mhuire has expressed an interest in Eastait Bhaile Chonaill. Please see http://www.cuanmhuire.ie for further information in relation to the charity. As stated above, any discussions between Udaras and any of its clients are confidential.

5. QUESTION: 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?

ANSWER from Ms. nic Grianna: This is a question directed at the Board members.

(Please note while Ms. nic Grianna gave the above answer, board member Eunan Mac Cuinneagáin – the only one the four board members approached to answer in any way – wrote: In response to an invitation from Cuan Mhuire to Údarás na Gaeltachta, I visited the Cuan Mhuire centre in Newry on one occasion.)

6. QUESTION: 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)?

ANSWER: As stated above, any discussions between Udaras and any of its clients are confidential.

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

ANSWER: As stated above, any discussions between Udaras and any of its clients are confidential.

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

ANSWER: The Regional Manager of the Udaras na Gaeltachta office in Pairc Ghno Ghaoth Dobhair is Micheal Mac Giolla Easbuig.

9. QUESTION: 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.

ANSWER: On the 22nd of March 2012 a meeting was held in An tSean Bheairic, An Fal Carrach to which representatives of the local community groups/organisations were invited, including An tSean Bheairic Teo, Cumann Trachtala an Fhal Charraigh,  Pobal Eascarrach, CLG Chloich CheannFhaola, Cumann Gailf Chloich Cheann Fhaola, Pobalscoil Chloich Cheann Fhaola, Scoil Naomh Fionnan, Togra Solas, and Ionad na Seandaoine. The meeting was organised by Cuan Mhuire and Udaras na Gaeltachta and at the meeting the representatives were informed of the plans that Cuan Mhuire have for Eastait Bhaile Chonaill.

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

ANSWER: In 2000, 2004, and again in 2007 Udaras na Gaeltachta sought submissions from parties interested in redeveloping Baile Chonaill as a sustainable business. No proposals were approved by its Board arising from these open invitation processes. Such submissions are made in confidence.

A Better-Informed Donegal is a Better Donegal

Finally, greater public debate has begun about the financial operations of Udaras na Gaeltachta, an organization rapidly acquiring the sobriquet ‘the secret society,’ and more specifically about spending on a church-run addiction clinic in Falcarragh.

Udaras, having managed to keep the lid on potential spending of between one and three million euro on the centre at Ballyconnell House, had board member and Fine Gael political candidate, John Curran go on the local airwaves over the last few days.

Instead, however, of presenting relevant information on the proposed project’s costing and benefits, he used valuable airtime on Highland Radio to personalize what is a legitimate community issue and attempt to tarnish it as an isolated ‘Sean Hillen‘ one.

Let me make it perfectly clear, if I have not done so already: I am not against or for an addiction clinic in Falcarragh. I have no implication, financial or otherwise in this project (can pro-addiction clinic supporters say this, hand on heart?). Golden axiom in journalism: ‘follow the money.’

ripples

Ripples of democracy begin to spread.

Another axiom for journalists, ‘if they cannot deal with the story, they will try to deal with the story-teller,’ seems more than obvious in this rather unsavory situation. I have heard myself referred to on Highland Radio by Mr. Curran as someone ‘stirring the hornet’s nest’ and as ‘an agitator’ (I have complained formally in writing to the station’s managing director, Shaun Doherty, whose daily news and chat show and Friday morning ‘press round-up’ I have appeared on several occasions, about these personal attacks). In a strange twist to the tale, there was also a reference (a cross between Harry Potter, Star Wars and superhero comic books) on Mr. Curran’s Facebook page to ‘dark forces’ behind me. All in all, it seems spin-doctoring is the unfortunate path Mr. Curran and his political advisers – and those faceless men with most to gain from the addiction clinic – have taken. That’s their prerogative, but it is unprincipled. And utterly untrue.

Owen Curran (no relation to the above), a well-respected community leader in the vanguard of the four-year long Cloughaneely ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign against household and water charges, told me this week Udaras na Gaeltachta should release immediately costs and benefits information on the proposed church-run addiction clinic and was in today’s ‘Donegal Democrat’ saying so again (page 17 – by the way, the story headline says 90 people, but I could only count 35 in photo, can’t believe someone would be left out; see also letters page 18, ‘Abused while on the canvas’). “Unfortunately,” he told me. “We live in a time of austerity, a time when there is not a lot of money around, we also live in a time when there has been a severe lack of transparency and accountability in Irish state and semi-state bodies. As such, and with the local Udaras office in Donegal receiving millions of euro every year, it is only fair that ordinary people – whom this proposed project will affect dramatically – be given as much information on the size of the investment and the benefits, including what guarantees there are for what of jobs. Open forums are obvious avenues for discussions to which all members of the community should be able to attend and voice their opinions.

Not only.

Sinn Fein local council candidate, John Sheamais O’Fearraigh, who appeared on national television (TG4 ‘An Nuacht’ last Saturday evening) on the addiction centre issue and is quoted in the ‘Donegal Democrat’ today, also called for greater transparency from Udaras. “I have been reliably informed this project will cost between one and three million euro,” the local Gaoth Dobhair-based youth worker told me. “This is yet another example of a very costly project that has not been fully considered, with a marked absence of open public debate involving local people. A lot of money will be spent on this one, single project. As there is not a lot of funding around nowadays, local people have the right to know how much public money exactly will be involved, if this money is being well spent and how many other projects will suffer funding loss as a result. Also what affect it will have on the image of the community. They also need to know what guarantee, if any, there is for local people and what quality and pay-scale these jobs will be.

spring

Spring at Ballyconnell House

Not only.

Fianna Fail local councillor, Seamus O’Domhnaill, has now also called for Udaras to hold a public meeting to discuss the Cuan Mhuire addiction project. As the Donegal Gaeltacht is much more than just Falcarragh, it is important that ‘meetings’ not ‘meeting’ be held, to give the 16,000 people in other parts of the county’s Irish-speaking region (including its three main areas, Na, Rosa, Gaoth Dobhair and Cloich Cheann Fhaola), a chance to air their views on such a costly venture.

Last Friday afternoon, an open-air petition-signing took place at Falcarragh crossroads calling for more funding for cultural tourism projects in the area and greater public debate over the proposed addiction clinic to be run by Cuan Mhuire, a church-run company, drew open, lively debate. Among concerns voiced were the project’s impact on the safety of local children; future restricted access to the estate’s grounds, the location for a series of annual community events and festivals; and resulting reduced funding for other projects, including those for cultural tourism.

Mary McGarvey, who claimed she owns property on Falcarragh’s Main Street, said at the petition-signing table that the centre would be good for the town’s business while a mother and local festival committee member said while she would “prefer a well-considered leisure facility, especially one for children, something should be done about that derelict house.” Cloughaneely Golf Club members at the petition table complained of reduced funding from Udaras and feared for the club’s survival.

It was, to use an ancient Greek term, ‘agora’ day in Falcarragh and in the classic Greek version of democracy, it was ‘agora’ in terms of open debate and exchange of views.  Why could Udaras not have done this? Why not now in open forums, especially as the seal of secrecy has been prized open?

Sadly also, people on Friday afternoon said they would like to sign the petition but were afraid to do so – including someone (whose identity will remain anonymous for obvious reasons) representing a local arts and cultural project – saying she feared being punished by Udaras and receive no funding in future from it for projects she might put forward. One person even called me after signing the petition (adding that he thought Udaras should “be disbanded”) saying some people had “approached” him and that he feared he might lose business (he asked me for his name not to be mentioned here).

Is this the kind of society we want – one where people are afraid to present their opinions openly, and be listened to; prevented, indirectly or directly, from doing so by a powerful, economic group such as Udaras? I thought, especially since we gained national independence, that the days of humiliating people by making them tug their forelocks was over.

As for Udaras and its spokesperson, Mr. Curran. Instead of presenting specific answers to specific questions on the project’s costings and benefits, all he would say on numerous Highland Radio sound-bites was that he supported the project and that it would not detract from Udaras’s overall budget spend locally (hard to believe when the budget has already been slashed and that other Gaeltachts in Ireland will hardly be so generous as to give Donegal much more money over the addiction centre’s high cost).

Mr. Curran also declined to give investment figures saying, “To date, no contracts have been signed, no budgets have been agreed, so there really isn’t any really figures to be spoken about.” Yet he was adamant forty-five jobs – note the figure is an exact one (for what reason?) – would be created. He also did not know how many of these jobs would be local and what kind of jobs they would be.

spring

Flowers and forest at Ballyconnell House

And finally, to Udaras HQ in Galway, and communications and marketing manager Siubhán Nic Grianna. Some readers may remember I sent 12 formal, written questions a couple of weeks ago, with a set deadline, to her and to all Donegal members of the group’s national board, namely John Curran, Eunan Mac Cuinneagáin and Daithí Alcorn, as well as its Arranmore-born chairperson, Anna Ní Ghallachair (see post here). Of all the board members and chairperson, only Eunan Mac Cuinneagáin had the professional courtesy of responding in person.

As Ms. Nic Grianna’s provision of relevant information on Udaras’ use of public money has been less than co-operative in the past, I am sad to say her responses show that position has remained unaltered, with no details on the investment (estimated or otherwise) or the true benefits, including jobs, of the proposed addiction clinic. Nor other key details on other aspects of Udaras’ financial operations. I will detail each response to the 12 questions in a future blog.

It is worth noting here that prominent leaders in the addiction field say two such clinics in a rural area such as Donegal is most unusual and, as such, detailed market research would be required to justify it (the other center in Donegal is in Muff). Even in Ireland, there is no such situation.

In conclusion, I believe an important step has been made to open discussions about this proposed addiction clinic – but as well respected community leaders have now said –  release of pertinent information is necessary for a more agreeable and equitable outcome for all concerned.

Questions still unanswered –

  • How can Udaras promise so categorically 45 jobs if, as its spokesman, Mr. Curran, says, no budgets have been agreed, no contracts signed?
  • How can Udaras guarantee more funds will be allocated for other projects (as Mr. Curran states on Highland Radio) when the organisation’s budget has already been severely cut?
  • How exactly will this project impact on the Donegal Gaeltacht-Cloughaneely-Falcarragh community at large?
  • What kind of addictions will be treated within the proposed clinic – drug, alcohol or/and sexual addictions?
  • What other proposals have been put forward for Ballyconnell House as stated by an Udaras spokesperson in today’s ‘Donegal Democrat’ (after Udaras tourism officer, Gearoid O’Smaolain, said previously ‘no’ proposals were put forward)?
  • What are the reasons these proposals for Ballyconnell House were rejected in favor of an addiction clinic?
  • Which company conducted the feasibility study?

Happy “May Day’ Weekend to Everyone!