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.

Photo 2

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.

Photo 3

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.

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2 thoughts on “Openness and transparency required: Udaras still has questions to answer

  1. Pingback: Emperor’s clothes – convenient concealment | seanhillenblog

  2. Pingback: Complaint about Udaras cover-up sent to Ombudsman | seanhillenblog

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