‘People have no right to ask how we spend their money.’
That’s the attitude of Údarás na Gaeltachta, which has once again refused to release key information about how it spends public funds.
A Senate committee revealed that Údarás pays millions of euro every year in pensions to former executives, some of whom were local Donegal employees including Cathal MacSuibhne, former regional manager based in Gaoth Dobhair.
Sinn Fein’s Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, a member of that Senate committee, exclaimed, “I nearly fell off the chair when I heard that almost half the current expenditure goes on pension payments to 136 people who are no longer employed by the organisation. Small wonder Údarás is not able to function more effectively.”
He added, “This raises serious concerns regarding the levels of monies being paid and who is receiving them.”
Under transparency rules, other public bodies have made a breakdown of such pension figures available for examination, but in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I made, Údarás refused to do so, citing gobbledegook about data protection.
As a result, having brought the matter to the attention of a number of TDs, the Údarás pension issue has risen to the highest levels of national government, to the office of Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure.
I can reveal in this blog that on my behalf various leading politicians including Public Accounts Committee (PAC) member, Mary Lou McDonald, have attempted to find out the individual pension figures but Údarás has stonewalled every request, preventing their release.
How it happened
Údarás responded to my initial FOI request last year seeking details on pension and lump sum payments to former executives in a letter signed by Padraic O’Conghaile – a ‘cinnteoir’ at the organisation’s headquarters in Galway.
In the letter, he wrote, “I am refusing these records as they relate to the pension of an individual under Section 28.1 (Personal Information). The FOI Act defines personal information as information about an identifiable individual that: ‘would, in the ordinary course of events, be known only to individuals or members of the family or friends, of the individual.’ I believe that the right to privacy of these persons with regard to such information far outweighs any public interest there may be in this matter.”
The fact, that all the pensions and payments are publicly-funded and thus not “known only to individuals or members of the family or friends, of the individual” as he asserts – did not seem to enter Mr. O’Conghaile’s thinking. Or, perhaps, did, but he refused to acknowledge it.
Following this response, I requested several TD’s to present formal written parliamentary questions in the Dail on the same issue.
For example, Mary Lou McDonald, a member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), submitted her parliamentary question to the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht asking the Minister to “reference the specific provisions of the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003 to which he referred (supporting Údarás’ denial of information); the basis on which he believes Údarás na Gaeltachta does not, unlike in the case of all other senior managers across the civil and public sector, have to make public the details of public service pension arrangements on retirement for senior management.”
Dinny McGinley, then junior minister, wrote back in a vague response saying simply that Údarás had informed him it was “a data controller, defined under the Acts as a person who either alone or with others controls the contents and use of personal data.”
Put in simple words, it means Údarás, while deriving all its funding from public money, considers ‘People have no right to ask how we spend their money.’ McGinley’s response also has no logical meaning whatsoever under present Irish law. Instead it is a classic delaying tactic. The former Minister did not bother to question it or seek elaboration.
That response led McDonald to submit a follow-up question, this time to Minister Howlin, reading, “given the Minister’s stated commitment to transparency and accountability in the spending of public monies, whether in his view it is acceptable for a public body fully funded by the exchequer to withhold from the public record details of public service pension arrangements on retirement for senior managers; and if he is prepared to legislate to require all publicly funded bodies to make such information public in the interests of open government.”
It is most disappointing that a simple request to a fully publicly funded body about its spending has led to such a reactionary response from an organisation such as Údarás, which is responsible for the economic, social and cultural development of the Gaeltacht.
Such utter lack of transparency and disregard for public concerns has already led to such widespread corruptive practices as those at FAS when it was discovered hundreds of thousands of euro went on lavish holidays including first-class travel and expensive rounds of golf for executives and their wives. Údarás itself has yet to account for trips paid out of public funds for board members, executives and wives to visit attractive international destinations, including Las Vegas.
Public money is a precious thing and every penny of it ought to be properly accounted for and judiciously spent.
I will reprint Minister Howlin’s response on this blog when it is received. It should provide a most interesting read.
Thanks for continuing to follow this up, because it seems like this subject is a million miles away from what most of the established media are focused on, and it deserves attention. Like for like (in terms of budget), Udaras could end up making FAS look like school boys.
Everybody deserves a pension, and those who have worked hard all their lives deserve to be rewarded for thier efforts.
But to think that half the budget of the body that is responsible for creating employment in the gealtacht regions is spent on servicing the pensions of previous staff is scandalous.
Looking at the empty industrial estates in Gweedore and Falcarragh, as well as all the other dead businesses in the area, how could anyone justify half of the available revenue for job creation and community development in the area being spent on the pensions of those who have left us with this legacy.
Thank you for your comment and interest. Udaras na Gaeltachta, for so many years untouchable, hidden behind a veil of sacrosanct Irish-language support, perhaps is in many ways no different to FAS in terms of greed and individual self-interests. Former board members in Donegal, for example, remained in boardroom meetings during discussions on lucrative payments to their very own companies and organisations. In addition, not one but four Donegal Udaras board members have been up before the Standards in Public Office Commission on corruption charges relating to double dipping on expenses. When one considers that the average annual expenses for board members amounted to several hundred thousand euro every year under the long chairmanship of Liam Cunningham – one gets an idea of the unchecked, proliferate spending that went on. Udaras, in effect, was – and perhaps still is – a cash cow for insiders in west Donegal and other Gaeltachts.
It is long past time this nonsense was stopped and that people living in the Gaeltacht regions of Donegal and elsewhere had an honest set of people representing their interests. It remains to be seen whether the present board is any better than previous ones under Fianna Fail. If the continuing lack of transparency is anything to go by, it doesn’t look promising.
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