Are Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labour and pseudo-Independents set on destroying power-sharing in Donegal?

Early last Monday morning as most of us woke up groggily and struggled out of bed to face the week, a dramatic closed-door meeting of the Independent Grouping within Donegal Council was taking place in Lifford at which the very future of politics in the county was being decided.

Or at least that’s one interpretation: that pseudo-Independents (my sobriquet for them) backed by the Coalition Government partners of Fine Gael and Labour together with Fianna Fail were aiming for.

But the political cat might be out of the bag, so to speak.

Could it be that someone poured (or was it self-administered?) poisonous elixir into the ears of certain councillors that the life of an independent within traditionally conservative Irish political circles is a short one, so they’d better rejoin the party fold again – before it is too late? “Being in a party makes for an easier life,” may have been the song on the hymn sheet. “You’ve got the company of like-minded people. Talk up the party you formerly belonged to until we win the Dail, then we – together with you – will control Lifford as well.” If it was, perhaps instead, without knowing, they’ve been listening to the Song of the Sirens.

Donegal councillors, county council meeting

(l to r) Let’s decide on a plan of action. Councillors Frank McBrearty and Michael McBride confer discreetly at Monday morning’s meeting of Donegal County council.

Intriguing backstory

As Councillor Michael McBride told me last week, a motion by John Campbell at Monday morning’s private Independent Grouping meeting to have John O’Donnell expelled from the group supported, by Michael Cholm MacGiolla Easbuig and himself, was defeated by five other councillors, a strange situation to say the least as only last month, they had all voted to make him resign.

But that wasn’t the biggest surprise of that morning.

That came just a few minutes later, immediately Campbell and Easbuig left the Independent Grouping in protest.

“Much to my amazement, someone suddenly called for the dissolution of the entire Grouping,” recalls McBride, who chaired the meeting but said he cannot remember who made what he considered a bizarre call (strange loss of concentration as chairperson at so vital a time). “And it was agreed upon so quickly I can’t but believe they had all discussed this much earlier, in private.”

The five councillors in the Independent Group who voted against O’Donnell’s expulsion were Nicholas Crossan, Tom Conaghan, Niamh Kennedy, Ian McGarvey, and John O’Donnell himself, most former party members.

Later that same evening McBride sent me an e-mail purportedly written by Kennedy stating that, “a decision has been taken to suspend the independent grouping and that no positions would be removed from any member as an investigation is currently underway by the ethics registrar of Donegal county council.”

She added, “None of us are involved in the 25/30 councillors referred to by Cllr.  O Donnell (on the RTE programme). This decision has been taken in the interest of the people of Donegal and in order to accommodate the smooth running of the business of Donegal county council following this past two months of turmoil.” But one is still left wondering why the Grouping was suddenly dissolved? Could it be, as McBride said, that they were fed up working with the fiery Frank McBrearty, who first proposed O’Donnell’s expulsion. Or with the intellectually able Campbell and passionate Easbuig? Or is something more sinister going down?

Franc McBrearty, Donegal councillors

Loosening his tie. But then again, Councillor McBride wasn’t wearing one, was he, at the council meeting? Just a bout of nervousness then? Or indecision?

Asked about his feelings on the dissolution of the Independent Grouping, McBride said, “I didn’t want that. It’s good for the council to have the four-group all-inclusive set-up that it has. To my understanding, that kind of power-sharing is unique in the whole country, something Donegal should be proud of.”

I asked McBride several questions

“Would you like O’Donnell – your former business partner in Dúncrua Teoranta, which was granted 120,000 euro from Udaras na Gaeltachta – expelled from all council committees.”

“I would have no problem with him being removed from all committees.”

“Why then did you abstain in the full council vote on the matter this Monday?”

“Because of the way I was treated fairly when I was co-opted on to the council for former Senator Jimmy Harte’s seat.”

“So, you would have been okay with a council decision to expel him, but not for you to vote on it?”

“Yes, it would have been democracy in action.”

Conversation ends.

Shakespeare: Is there something rotten in the state of …. Donegal?

Why would the trio of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour want the Independent Grouping at Donegal County Council dissolved? Here is a possible answer.

We’ll have a national elections very soon – we’ll know this week just when – and if the situation demands it, these three parties, regardless of what they say now, will try to ‘intermingle’ to form the next Government. But according to latest polls, their Donegal TD candidates desperately need all the help they can get even to shuffle lamely past the finish line – thus the pseudo-Independents. Fifteen years ago, the electoral breakdown was Fianna Fail a massive 70 per cent, Fine Gael 30 per cent, Sinn Fein 0.2 per cent and the rest Independents and Pseudos. Within the last five to six years, the Donegal political pendulum has swung dramatically and is now around 25 per cent Fianna Fail, Fine Gael 18 per cent, Sinn Fein a mighty 40 per cent, and rising, and the rest Independents and Pseudos.

And, let’s be quite clear about this: the main reason some pseudo-Independents are ‘Independents’ is that either their parties didn’t choose them to run last time out or that they’d never have won if they’d gone under that party’s ticket, especially if they’d gone under the Fianna Fail banner. In politics, however, such slights and inconveniences are often forgotten in the greedy grab for the prize piñata.

Concillor O'Donnell, Donegal politics

(r to l) Fianna Fail Donegal County Council chairperson, Ciaran Brogan, prepares for the meeting with council chief executive, Seamus Neely.

What happened behind closed doors Monday morning one week ago after Campbell and Easbuig stood on principle and left could be a classic political quid pro quo situation. ‘Talk up the party in the nationals in a few weeks time and you can run under our ticket for a council spot next time round, and, believe me, you’ll feel more secure for doing so,” could have been the way it was put.

Then again, my hunch might just be the workings of an over-active imagination. The truth might be that the Independent Grouping is a motley group, a raggle-taggle band with perhaps their hearts in the right places, but no cohesion. And so inexperienced and pulled apart by differences that they don’t even realize what their full potential could be if they created unity from diversity and voted for the right things.

This, however, is the perfect time – with national elections six weeks away – to find out which of the above-mentioned theories is the right one. True colors will begin to seep through. Threads will start to unravel.

If something more sinister is afoot, perpetrators of the cloak-and-dagger plotting have sadly overlooked one vital element – common decency. The overriding public mood is one of disillusionment, bordering on despair. If the three main political parties have indeed won the pseudo-Independents over – backed by business elites with much to gain by keeping O’Donnell on the council and on the ever-important ‘Roads’ committee which oversees tens of millions of euro in construction projects – trouble lies ahead. Keep in mind, the council’s annual budget is 133 million, 127 fixed and 6 to 7 discretionary. Construction of the Dungloe-Glenties road is in five-stages, the second, for example, cost around four million euro and the tender for the next stage is end of this month.

The ‘plotters’ may, however, have made the fatal mistake of ignoring the simple, unadorned hopes of ordinary folk, throughout Donegal and throughout the country, hopes for a sliver of common decency among politicians after all the putrid corruption they’ve been forced to roll in over the last five years or so.

Donegal people demonstrating, Donegal county council

Protestors inside the County Chamber voice their sentiments about Councillor John O’Donnell, corruption and cronyism within and outside Donegal County Council.

Another key question is now being asked in the corridors of power in Lifford: not if, but how many, high-level executives within Donegal Council – many of which were employed both within the county and imported from outside the county, with generous salaries and pensions under the previous, long-running Fianna Fail government – are involved in this purge of True Independents and the break-up of power-sharing? After all, they have to reward their paymasters.

What a shame if such a deceitful game is being played, in this of all years – the centennial anniversary of our national independence.

But in a very short time, you, dear Reader, will have the chance to put things right – by availing of your unalienable right to walk behind a curtain and put your ‘X’ exactly where you want it to be.

Perhaps, this blog will help you choose well. I certainly hope so. It’s a rare chance to truly show that we are indeed ‘different up here.’

As for Councillor O’Donnell….

Epitome of nonchalance

I was quite astounded watching the councillor last Monday morning nonchalantly reading that morning’s edition of the ‘Donegal News’ as the political maelstrom swirled all around him in the council chamber. Either this young man has nerves of steel, I thought, or he is so utterly sure of what will happen that there is absolutely no need for him to be concerned in any way, about anything or anyone. Wish I could wake up feeling that way, as I’m sure do thousands of unemployed, elderly, sick, disabled and struggling mothers trying desperately to feed their children on paltry, insufficient income coming into homes across this county, across the country.

John O'Donnell, Sinn Fein Donegal

Nonchalance or absolute certainty? John O’Donnell displays his lack of concern about the possibility he might be expelled from Donegal County Council on Monday morning. That very evening, he released a press statement thanking his fellow councillors for supporting him.

During a short adjournment, I approached O’Donnell and introduced myself as Gaeilge, thinking – as he had attracted so much Údarás funding – he would be fluent. Perhaps it was due to my poor pronunciation or stumbling vocal ways, but he didn’t seem to understand, so I changed my questioning to as Bearla.

“Can you speak? I’ve a few questions I’d like to ask.”

I’ve been told by my legal advisers not to say anything,” he responded. “They’ve told me to let the ethics investigation takes it course. I’ve nothing to answer for anyway. People are just out to get me and use me as a platform for their own political gains.”

“What would you say to your fellow councilors here if they ask you any questions about your various business interests and debts owed through them?”

“I’d say, ‘That’s none of anyone’s business. It’s my private affair, mine only.”

“What about the 120,000 euro granted to your company, Dúncrua Teoranta, by Údarás na Gaeltachta just before it went bust, can you explain that?

“My legal advisers have told me to say nothing and that’s what I’m going to do.”

“Will you pay the money back?

“No comment.”

Then he went back to reading his newspaper.

O’Donnell, a long-time family member of Fianna Fail, also declined to comment on the court case he faces this Wednesday, Feb. 3 for failing to pay 33,000 euro in compensation to a Creeslough woman whose foot he drove over in a car accident. If O’Donnell does not show up for that case, District Court Judge Paul Kelly has said he will have him arrested.

Next week’s court case should be just as entertaining as the county council meeting last  week – with potentially very serious consequences for all concerned. If, having said he has no money, he pays up, you have to ask yourself: where did the spondulix come from? If his solicitor delays the proceedings, you’ve got to ask yourself: why? Could it be waiting for the results of the upcoming elections? If, however, he is convicted, I am ainformed O’Donnell automatically loses his council seat. There’s a lot at stake.

Go along if you can. It should be as good as an episode of ‘Judge Judy,’ hopefully better – unless some shadowy person(s) gets to the judge before then.

Protestors angry at Donegal County Council’s ‘dog’s dinner’ response to corruption and cronyism

As protestors from across Donegal vented their feelings inside Lifford’s County Council offices yesterday about corruption and cronyism in Ireland – the specific one lighting the fuse relating to controversial Donegal Councillor John O’Donnell – archaic rules, procedural confusion and tribalism prevented members expelling the Kilmacrennan-Fianna Fail linked man from all committees and the full council.

Anachronistic rules meant a counter proposal for what could well be a very long and drawn out ethics investigation by council executives superseded an initial proposal to expel O’Donnell immediately.

At times, the meeting, which was hosted by chairperson, Fianna Fail’s Ciaran Brogan, with the assistance of council executive Liam Ward and Seamus Neely, council chief executive, took on a farcical nature, with some describing it as a ‘dogs-dinner.’ During a discussion in which some councillors were attempting to expel O’Donnell – one of the most controversial decisions the council has faced in its entire history – confusion reigned, some members being unsure which proposal they were actually being asked to vote on. This caused Sinn Fein councillor, Marie Therese Gallagher, to ask the chair for immediate clarification.

Saying O’Donnell’s alleged ‘cash for favors’ actions caught last month on RTE national Irish TV camera were ‘disgraceful’, former Mayor Frank McBrearty (Independent) proposed removing O’Donnell from all committees, a motion seconded by fellow independent John Campbell.

“Due to the serious allegations against Councillor O’Donnell, we have the power to stand together and take action against him,” McBrearty said. “The public demands transparency and responsibility. There is a need to highlight corruption wherever it shows itself. As all politics is local, what we do here affects the nation so we have the chance to give a clear signal to the people of this county that we will not tolerate unethical behavior. The mushroom is getting bigger for Irish society. We must stop the rot now.”

However, a second, counter motion, by former Fianna Fail member, now long-time Independent councillor, Ian McGarvey, requested an ethics investigation be continued by council staff was also forwarded. Afterwards, during a conversation with me, McGarvey said he did not know how long such a process could take.

Confusion also reigned as Ward and Neely said legal advisers had told them O’Donnell could not be expelled from the council or its committees, but when asked for the legal documents proving this the two officials did not produce them. Neither did they bring into the chamber the legal adviser responsible for the advice when asked to do so by McBrearty.

According to Ward’s own instructions, there is “no specific provision within Local Government Legislation to provide for the removal of a member from committees to which he/she was appointed.” He added, “the position being taken is that the Motion as proposed (by McBrearty) is not permissable and, as a consequence, any resolution passed on foot of it would have no legal effect. The current process under the ethical framework should be allowed to continue until conclusion when the matter may come back before the members in one form or another.”

Some local government procedural analysts deem “illogical,” the situation whereby Chamber rules meant councillors were asked by Brogan to vote on the counter motion ahead of the original one put forward by McBrearty. That counter motion was ultimately accepted by 20 of the 36 councillors present, the votes representing Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labor and several Independents, mostly former members of Fianna Fail. All Sinn Fein members supported McBrearty’s motion. Independent Councillor Dessie Shiels was absent, having refused on principle to be in the same room as O’Donnell. Councillors McBride and Brogan abstained. Campbell and fellow Independent Councillor Michael Cholm Mac Giolla Easbuig promptly walked out of the meeting in protest saying, “this council has let down the people of Donegal and should be deeply ashamed.”

Added Councillor Gallagher, “I feel debased by O’Donnell and the opinions of some people about what he has done. He has brought disgrace to this chamber. My view is that as he was voted on to committees by council members, they have the right to vote him off them. It is a shame Frank McBrearty’s motion did not pass. This council had the opportunity to expel him and did not take it and now we have to wait until March to discuss it again.”

Protestors, men and women both inside and outside the chamber, said they were “disgusted by the council’s behaviour” adding, “our elected officials have failed to take proper action to stem an ugly, pervasive growing tide of corruption and cronyism sweeping across both this county and this country detrimentally affecting families, the elderly and children.”

Full story with photos and extended quotes coming up later today.

D-Day approaches inside the Donegal County Council Chambers

As D-Day (O’Donnell Day) approaches within the chambers of Donegal County Council this morning perhaps it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that beleaguered Councilor John O’Donnell has simply been misunderstood over the last few weeks and that this occasion, the first full council meeting since airing of the RTE ‘cash for favors’ controversy, gives him the opportunity to clarify matters.

As the debate gets underway, the eyes and ears of many of the nation’s political and financial elite will be on little ole Donegal, that ‘wee beautiful place on the edge of the Atlantic’ in the very far corner of the country, that is and isn’t an integral part of the island of Ireland, depending which perspective from which you look.

Councillors John O’Donnell, Michael McBride, Ciaran Brogan and all their fellows in the chamber will have the chance to show that, in the right and proper way, “we are different up here.”

Now what that ‘difference’ means is the key question we all hope will be answered truthfully and forthrightly today, hopefully before lunch-time comes around – though that is as likely as seeing a polar bear wearing suntan lotion eating brussels sprouts with a spoon at the side of a heated swimming pool.

Will this morning’s open public event echo the catchphrase that became so popular in the 1970s after the Oscar-winning movie ‘Network’ was first screened? Then lead character, Howard Beale, (played wonderfully by actor Peter Finch), on the brink between brilliance and madness, says passionately, “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad,” then screams, “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” his words being carried swiftly from person to person, young and old, man and woman, boy and girl, city to city across the whole of the nation.

If these words are echoed in the council chamber today in Lifford, who’s going to say them first? And will they mean them?

Could they be the battle-cry for a new, rejuvenated Donegal?

Could this be the historical moment we begin to shrug off the cloak of cronyism and corruption that has draped this county for far too long, with the collusion of various governments, and stymied our cultural, social and economic development?

To achieve this not small feat, a comprehensive, collective community effort is required and for that we, in turn, require the strength of the media, broadcast, print and digital  – not the way the print media acted over the last few days, publishing what was in effect a joint press release from  Údarás na Gaeltachta and John O’Donnell on the front and inside pages, nor Highland Radio, avoiding the controversial, not-so transparent payments made from one entity to the other.

If efforts to rid this county of counterproductive ‘goings-on,’ we need local media to be brave, enterprising and outspoken. It is their future as much as it is ours that is at stake.

While this article in yesterday’s ‘The Sunday Business Post’ gives most of the facts surrounding Mr. O’Donnell and Údarás, there is still much more to be said.

Sean Hillen Sunday Business Post, Councillor O'Donnell Donegal

For the sake of fairness and democracy, let Cllrs. O’Donnell and McBride have their say. Give them the chance to explain how and why they were granted the 120,000 euro from Údarás and about how much exactly, and O’Donnell to clarify to whom one of his other companies, Kilmac Form Work Limited, owes millions of euro in debt, and where indeed those millions are now. And why he has still not paid 33,000 euro in injury compensation to an unfortunate Creeslough woman who’s foot he drove over in a car accident.

John O'Donnell Donegal, Donegal councillors

Oh, and let there be an explanation by O’Donnell about how his former company K&F Sarolla Teo (‘wool’ in English) went bust owing over 76,000 euro in 2013, which intriguingly led him to set up Glenveigh Woollen Mills Ltd in May of the same year .

Glenveigh Woolen Mills Ltd, councillor John O'Donnell

Strangely – perhaps merely a coincidence – K&F Sarolla Teo looks very much like K&F Superwools in Northern Ireland, with – and again it may just be a coincidence – the same director, namely John O’Donnell.

Would it be too much of a coincidence if it was discovered there were grants– those chunky cross-border kind of ones – involved in these companies also?

K&F Superwools, Donegal counicllors

For goodness sake, while we’re at it, as anyone who’s anyone will be there in the council chamber this morning, let Councillor Ciarán Brogan, Donegal County Council Chairperson, explain how his company, Sark Construction, perhaps now renamed Kasmor, managed to obtain an estimated 10 million euro in Donegal council construction contracts.

Gosh, it all sounds as if the craic will be mighty at the Donegal Council meeting this morning (kick-off 11am). For what it’s worth, alternative entertainment options on the box at exactly the same time are (and I kid you not) – ‘Wanted Down Under’ on BBC1; ‘The High Chaparral’ (or is that ‘Hang ‘Em High’) on TG4; ‘Judge Judy’ on TV3; ‘Conspiracy Theory’ on TCM; and ‘Four in a Bed’ on Channel 4.

Funny how all of them – including the local council option – have a similar ring to them.

I know which one I’m choosing.

Exclusive: Donegal councillors John O’Donnell and Michael McBride funded by Údarás na Gaeltachta

At a time when controversial ‘cash for favors’ Donegal councillor John O’Donnell was refusing to pay more than 33,000 euro compensation to a Creeslough woman he injured in a car accident 16 years ago, Údarás na Gaeltachta granted him and fellow councillor Michael McBride more than 122,000 euro in public money (see document here Udaras grant), I can reveal exclusively in this blog.

John O Donnell Donegal, independent councilor Donegal

O’Donnell was founder, director and secretary of Dúncrua Teoranta, the company receiving the money. Interestingly, a second director of the company was fellow councillor, Michael McBride, who also acted as company secretary. Both men – now declaring themselves independent councillors – were then members of Fianna Fail. A third director named was Sarah Doherty.

Documents show McBride and O’Donnell became directors of Dúncrua Teoranta on the same day, 14 Sep 2006, when it was set up to sell metal ore. They are also listed as company secretaries. McBride was director for a year and four months, until February 2008 when he resigned. The company’s address was listed as just inside the Gaeltacht, at Cuirin, Termon.

Dúncrua Teoranta

Údarás approved funding for Dúncrua Teoranta of 122,300 euro in 2008, paying out 66,850 euro in that year alone. The owners put the company into bankruptcy within months of the money being given. Aidan Garcia of Collins Garcia Corporate Recovery, 28 Fitzwilliam Place, Dublin was appointed as liquidator.

“As the money was given at a time when the company was close to bankruptcy, it seems it’s yet another case of cronyism, money given to two Fianna Fail politicians by a Fianna Fail dominated organization,” commented one observer with inside knowledge of Údarás operations.

Interestingly, O’Donnell was granted the money by Údarás at a time when he owned another company, Kilmac Form Work Limited, which later went into receivership with documents showing it had liabilities of 4.8 million Euro. Much of that debt, as declared during a High Court hearing in 2012, was owed to AIB Finance, thus to ordinary Irish people as the bank was bailed out by the State through injections of billions of euro of public money.

Kilmac Form Work Limited

O’Donnell registered Kilmac Form Work Limited on 6 April, 2005 in Ballyherrin, Kilmacrennan, several kilometers from Duncrua Teo, described as being involved in the manufacture of metal structures. It is currently listed as ‘Receivership’ with two directors, O’Donnell and his brother. The ‘Irish Independent’ reported recently that O’Donnell was forced to make back settlements to the taxman totaling over 330,000 euro. I have contacted both Councillors McBride and O’Donnell for comment but neither has responded. Údarás finally released a statement confirming it did grant O’Donnell the money. Where were Údarás officials when the RTE ‘cash for favors’ investigation was aired to such national furore weeks ago? Cowering in a corner hoping no-one would notice it had given scarce public money away so recklessly?

Urgent questions require immediate answers

The documents unearthed for this blog call into question the actions of both O’Donnell and Údarás na Gaeltachta.

O’Donnell is already firmly in the public spotlight due to his being caught on RTE camera allegedly offering ‘favors for cash’ on Donegal council business, as well as being under threat of arrest for failing to pay compensation due to Ms. Petra Kucklick of Creeslough whom he injured when he drove his car over her foot in 2000. District Court Judge Paul Kelly was quoted in the local media saying he will have the councillor arrested if he does not appear in person at the Letterkenny court on February 3rd to explain why he has failed to pay any of the compensation to the injured woman. O’Donnell seemed to have had lots of money at one time and could have easily paid the compensation, why did he decide not to do so?

Almost all of the main political party representatives in Donegal have called directly for O’Donnell’s resignation, as did Independent councillors, Micheal Cholm Mac Giolla Easpuig, who has called for a boycott of next week’s full council meeting due to take place on Monday, January 25, Dessie Shiels, who left a meeting Letterkenny Municipal District Council last week in protest, and Frank McBrearty, former Mayor, who resigned last week from the Independent Grouping on Donegal County Council in protest as O’Donnell not being expelled.

Donegal Now‘ news service said Cllr. McBrearty explained that Cllr Michael McBride’s casting vote as party whip means he has the power to expel Cllr John O’Donnell from the group and the committees given to him under the all inclusive deal. The news service quoted McBrearty saying: “I will perform my duties as an Independent councillor and do my very best for the people that elected me. I will not be associated with Cllr John O Donnell when he clearly said he could get the backing of 25 to 30 other councillors. I am not one of these councillors and am making my position clear by taking this stand. I do not understand the reluctance of some councillors to support my decision but that’s for them to decide.”

The information these documents reveal also come as councilor Shiels, who will contest the next national elections, recently left a meeting of the 10-member Letterkenny Municipal District Council in protest at O’Donnell’s attendance. “In the aftermath of the RTE investigates programme which aired on RTE in November past, I personally cannot involve myself in county council meetings, whether at Municipal District Level or at full plenary council level in the presence of councillor O’Donnell,” Shiels said. “To do so would, to my mind, compromise everything that I have tried to do to date since being elected to Donegal County Council to restore public confidence in politics in Donegal.”

Added another observer, who prefers his identification to remain confidential at this times, said, “I wondered why Michael McBride was so quiet in his condemnation of O’Donnell.”

Is John O’Donnell the kind of political leader the people of Donegal want? Is this what we mean when we say proudly, “we’re different up here?”

Does Údarás na Gaeltachta lack good governance?

Key questions also remain about the operations of Údarás na Gaeltachta, particularly in Donegal.

Did anyone at the organization check into the financial health of O’Donnell and his companies before granting him 122,000 euro of public money? If so, why did it go ahead and approve the grant? If it did not check, then it is guilty of ignoring its duties to the public whose money supports the organisation’s entire operation.

Perhaps, in addition to the controversial wind farm development issue that was the focus of the RTE program, perhaps O’Donnell can clarify how he got the money from Údarás for Dúncrua Teoranta. It is not believed either O’Donnell or McBride have paid any of the money back.

Also, as the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) identified the requirement for a ‘Section 56’ on O’Donnell’s company – which allows interested parties to bring concerns before the liquidator and thus try to recuperate their money – has Údarás done so in relation to the loss of public money (the grant)? If, not, why not? Is this yet again willful disrespect of public interest?

Or in the light of the allegations arising from the RTE program – did some people at Údarás get kick-backs for pushing the money through for O’Donnell? Considering Fianna Fail’s long-time dominance of Údarás and that party’s record of skullduggery in bankrupting Ireland, such allegations cannot be ignored. In addition, this blog revealed that Údarás hired Finbarr Boyle as business training manager for local entrepreneurs through the EU funded CeanaglG project in Donegal even though Boyle was already under investigation, had already pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain and was later proven guilty of stealing more than 200,000 euro from a village school, including money earmarked for children’s food. Does the organization suffer from a severe lack of good governance?

Oh, and by the way, where did the 122,000 euro go? As Cuba Gooding Jr. said in that wonderful film, ‘Jerry Maguire’ – “Show us the money!”

Changes required at Údarás?

With frequent revelations about the operations of Údarás – including free trips for executives, board members and their wives to Las Vegas (to meet officials of Enterprise Ireland) and ‘insider trading’ schemes whereby former Údarás board members and top executives received money for their own organizations and projects – economic experts are questioning whether the group is fit for purpose. These concerns are especially sensitive locally as well as in Brussels as the Government decided recently it will operate the multi-million euro EU LEADER programme in the Donegal Gaeltacht where decisions on money allocation will take place over the coming months.

Some sector analysts as well as ordinary people in the Gaeltacht community say that after several decades of failure and with unemployment in the Gaeltacht at an all-time high, the economic regeneration model for the regions is simply not working and that Údarás na Gaeltachta should simply be dismantled and replaced with a new and more efficient organization, one featuring well-trained technocrats, not politically-appointed personnel.

Others say that much-needed changes are already underway, an example being the recent appointment of Letterkenny-based, former county council director of services for community, culture and planning, Micheál Ó hÉanaigh, as director of enterprise and employment, marine and natural resources at Údarás. Ó hÉanaigh, credited with launching the Donegal Diaspora project.

However, one must also note the recent reaction by Joe McHugh, Fine Gael Minister for the Gaeltacht, to the questionable activities at Údarás – he said the organization would receive an extra one million euro in public funding this year.

Gangsters, journalism and the Pulitzer prize

Kevin Cullen is my kind of journalist – unafraid to lay bare corrupt activities  – especially at public institutions that profess to be paragons of probity and morality such as the Catholic Church – yet also quick to highlight the extraordinary achievements of ordinary people.

When the twice Pulitzer-winning columnist for ‘The Boston Globe’ writes, his words leap off the page and with a resounding thump, smack you full in your emotional center, somewhere between heart and brain.
Such prose power is amply illustrated by his column on the quiet, dignified testimony of Bill Richard during the trial of Boston marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose dastardly work killed the Dorchester father’s 8-year-old son, Martin, ripped the leg of his 6-year-old daughter, Jane, and blinded his wife, Denise, in one eye.
Kevin Cullen Boston Globe, Pullizer Prize winner

Kevin Cullen – one of the most informed American journalists on Irish affairs.

Or on Tim Davis from Taunton, who from the age of six lived in 15 different foster homes, was cruelly treated in some, yet went on to establish the ‘Teddy Bear Foundation for Foster Children,’ which, among other things, delivers gifts to kids every Christmas.
 
Irish culture in America faces challenges
 
As one of the most informed American journalists on Irish affairs, Cullen is also concerned about the dilution of Irish culture in the US due to the dramatic drop in the number of emigrants from here – a subject he’ll address this Friday evening at the ‘TransAtlantic Connections 3‘ conference in Bundoran. A multi-disciplinary event embracing the connections between Ireland and the US, it is organized by Drew University and hosted by the Institute of Study Abroad Ireland and takes place at the Atlantic Aparthotel and Bundoran Cineplex from Wednesday until Saturday.
Event speakers include Christine Kinealy, author of more than 16 books and director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, authors, Michael MacDonald and Turtle Bunbury, Micheal O’hEanaigh, director of enterprise, employment and property at Údarás na Gaeltachta, Liam Kennedy, director of the Clinton Institute at UCD, Barbara Franz, politics professor at Rider University, New Jersey,  Mary Hickman, Irish Studies professor at St. Mary’s University, London and Tommy Graham, founder and editor of ‘History Ireland’ magazine.  
The institute’s founder, Professor Niamh Hamill, a lecturer in Irish history and culture, completed her Doctorate studies at the New Jersey-based Drew University and established the institute in Bundoran in 1996. “While there, I became aware that the narrative about Ireland in the US was somewhat outdated and that a more contemporary and accurate one was necessary, thus the idea for a multi-disciplinary conference such as this one and the formation of the institute itself,” she told me this week.

But why Donegal?

“I am from the county and my view is that a border location is essential for a comprehensive understanding of Ireland,” she replied. “This is an authentic yet undervalued corner of the country and – being close to cities such as Derry – a greater dimension, both culturally and historically, can be added to an educational endeavor such as this.”

Hamill said Donegal County Council helped fund this week’s conference and Fáilte Ireland helps fund an annual familiarization trip in October for American educators to come to Donegal to help her institute to establish relations with US schools and universities.

As for Cullen, he told me in a telephone interview from Boston this weekend. “Ten years ago, there were around a quarter of a million Irish-born people living in the US. That has now dropped by over one hundred thousand, with major cultural ramifications.” As evidence, he cited the reduction in the number of GAA teams in New York and Boston as well as fewer Irish pubs in what were once considered traditionally Irish neighborhoods such as Dorchester in Boston and Sunnyside in New York. “Fifteen years ago, there would have been Irish music sessions every night. Not now, and in those, very few Irish-born musicians.”
 Cullen is not optimistic this situation will change any time soon.
“Ever since the Famine the Irish diaspora has always been both wide and deep in the US, constantly replenishing itself, with historic deals such as the Donnelly and Morrison visas in the ‘80s and 90s a major benefit,” he said. “But since 9/11, the creation of Homeland Security and the Republican Party’s anti-emigration, anti-amnesty stance, the situation has changed radically and this trend is expected to continue even if the Democrats take over in Washington. This is in stark contrast to Australia and Canada where specific visa strategies for Irish emigrants have been established.”
His words sadden me deeply. I was one of those people lucky enough to emigrate to America in the 1980s, forging a decent career in print and broadcast media there and launching an Irish newspaper and cultural center. I also became an adviser to the Irish Immigration Reform Movement (IIRM) led by the effervescent and charismatic, Cork-born Sean Minihane, that performed such sterling work on behalf of Irish men, women and children, both legal and undocumented. Other IIRM leaders included Mae O’Driscoll and Sean Benson. 
While the developing situation as explained by Cullen is undoubtedly bad news, fortunately he doesn’t consider this dilution of Irishness in the US will affect American investment here. “Such investment has nothing to do with sentimentality. It is finance, pure and simple, in a phrase: low corporate tax rate and other tax shelter options that Ireland offers.”
National policies permitting such shady tax shelters, which companies like Starbucks, Google, Microsoft, Pfizer and Apple have taken full advantage of, are under siege by both EU and US authorities, perhaps rightly so, and may not last. They have cost America more than 500 billion euro in lost tax revenue over the last year alone.
 
Making of a Mafia
 
Cullen is co-author with fellow reporter, Shelley Murphy, of the New York Times best-seller, ‘Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice,’ focusing on one of the most infamous of American gangsters dramatically captured six years ago after eluding the FBI for 16 years. 
Kevin Cullen, Shelley Murphy, Boston Globe journalists

Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, co-authors of a book on gangster, Whitey Bulger, relax on the South Boston waterfront. Photo by Stan Grossfeld

“I wrote the book with Shelley because between the two of us, we broke most of the stories about Bulger over his long criminal career,” Cullen informed me. “I was the one who first figured out he was a protected FBI informant, and Shelley broke everything about his 16 years on the run and the manhunt that finally led to his capture in 2011. The book we wrote was more than a biography of Bulger, it was a biography of South Boston, the Irish-American neighborhood that produced him, and the culture of law enforcement and politics in Boston at that time which allowed him to become the biggest gangster in the city at the same time his brother was the most powerful politician. The book was more about culture than crime.”
 
Brilliant investigative reporting
 
A model for Irish people and journalists in particular is Cullen’s persistence and that of his Globe colleagues which led to their winning the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003 for revealing, through 600 articles 14 years ago, the horrendous cover-up by the Catholic Church in Boston of priests sexually abusing young children.
That five-month investigation, which is now the subject of a new movie to be released here over the next week or so, entitled ‘Spotlight,’ led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law and a global crisis for the church that continues to this day, with scandals in more than 100 cities across America and at least 100 more around the world.

Cullen informed me, “Regarding the Catholic Church cover-up, as usual, whether you’re talking about Bloody Sunday or Watergate or whatever, it isn’t the crime, it’s the cover-up. The way that bishops, including Cardinal Law, enabled abusive priests by moving them from parish to parish was shocking. The way they treated victims and survivors was worse. As part of the investigative team, I spent much of my time trying to show the deference that was shown the church and the Catholic hierarchy by the leaders of law enforcement, politics and business, most of whom were Irish Catholic in Boston. We tried to explain that beyond the crimes of the priests and enabling bishops, the wider society was somewhat complicit in not challenging them more forcefully over the years. The same thing happened in Ireland.”
Cullen was also a member of ‘The Boston Globe’ reporting team that won another Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting in 2104 for its marathon bombing coverage. He was one of three finalists for the 2014 Pulitzer for Commentary.  “As it would have been for reporters in Ireland covering The Troubles, the Marathon bombings were very personal for us in the Globe newsroom, because we knew people who were injured,” he told me. “I knew several, and vaguely knew of the Richard family, which suffered so grievously in losing 8-year-old Martin. I was also very friendly with a number of first responders who were traumatized by what they saw. The Globe’s news coverage in that first week after the bombings was recognized for its depth and breadth, from the victims to the medical people who saved them. I was just part of that team, supplying a lot of information about the investigation and the shootout that ended the threat from the bombers.”
 
Lessons to be learned
 
In my discussion with Cullen and in my overall reading of the events mentioned above, one key element stands out – the importance of vigilance in holding powerful institutions and individuals accountable for their actions.
Admirably, the Globe’s ‘Spotlight’ investigation of the church started with four reporters and expanded to eight shortly after the initial stories were published. That group stayed on the story for the rest of the year. In contrast, newspapers today, mainly due to declining circulations and ad revenues, cannot afford to have investigative reporters. But it is vitally important that local, as well as national, newspapers do not shy away from controversial stories. They remain the trusted protectors of the public domain and such stories are the lifeblood of real journalism.
Also, as the US media commentator said, “The Boston Globe’s clergy abuse investigation provided an early lesson in the power of the Internet. Although it may seem all-too-obvious today, its decision to post church documents used in its reporting provided readers with powerful, direct evidence that Law and other church officials had spent decades covering up the abuses. The Internet also helped spread the Spotlight Team’s stories — and the church’s internal records — worldwide, spurring lawsuits, investigations by other news organizations, and complaints from thousands of victims.”
In this regard, a recent blog posted by me, ‘Crooks, citizens or celebrities?– which had key documents attached – attracted more than 1,000 dedicated readers, illustrating the kind of power that technology has provided us with to help right public wrongs.
The same US media commentator continued, “The Globe investigation underscored the importance of old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting. Though new technologies have provided investigative reporters with an array of shiny tools, it showed there is no substitute for knocking on doors for face-to-face encounters with reluctant sources who needed to be assured of a reporter’s sincerity or determination. Perhaps most important, the investigation highlighted the need for vigilance, or a continuing commitment to cover and advance the story.”
Cullen himself added, “It’s important to write about process, it’s important to write about institutions …but I’m not going to sit and explain to you the ins and outs of our great political system. I will, however, tell you stories about people who got screwed by that same system, because I like writing columns that stick up for those who have no juice, no power, no influence.” 
We here in Donegal – already severely marginalized and ravaged by high unemployment, depression, alcoholism and suicide – cannot afford to stay quiet about greedy people placed in positions of trust who steal scarce money from the public pocket.
All of us – encouraged by passionate local councillors such as Dessie Shiels, Frank McBrearty Jnr. and Micheál Cholm Mac Giolla Easbuig – must constantly be on our guard and speak – nay shout – out, when we see something wrong.
 
In the end, we only get what we accept.