Would you approve almost one million euro in public money for a company with liabilities of half a million and a cash shortfall of around 200,000?
Strangely, that’s what seems to have happened in the case of SLM, the English call center that closed several weeks ago without warning in the Donegal Gaeltacht leaving many local people still owed a big chunk of back salaries.
Helluva Christmas gift Mr. Scrooge!
And here’s something even more intriguing…
Michael Gallagher, from the coastal village of Falcarragh, is an intelligent and likeable fellow, a man deeply concerned about social justice.
Sensing something amiss, Michael decided to carry out his civic duty and promptly investigated the financials of the Manchester-based company in the official register. Shocked by what he unearthed, he quickly warned two senior staff members at the economic group, Údarás na Gaeltachta, which intended to hand the company close to a million euro of scarce public money.
Alas, Michael’s timely and crucially important information seemed to have been promptly ignored as Údarás went full-steam ahead with its earlier decision to pour 842,000 euro into the company – strongly supported, maybe even led, by Minister of the Gaeltacht, Joe McHugh.
The award was announced with fancy fanfare, with screaming national and local newspaper headlines. Written by Greg Harkin, now a spin doctor for Minister McHugh, an article in ‘The Irish Independent’ read, ‘125 new jobs announced at SLM Éire Teo in Donegal.’ Not surprisingly, McHugh – who seemingly went to school with SLM manager James Moran and flew to Manchester to seal the deal – was given a pretty quote about being ‘delighted.’
The Údarás website blasted, ‘UK Digital Marketing company to create 125 jobs in Gaoth Dobhair, Co. Donegal,’ with its then CEO Steve Ó Cúláin saying, “Today’s announcement is the result of Údarás’ enterprise strategy for this vibrant Gaeltacht region. I wish the promoters of SLM Éire every success and wish to thank the Údarás employees whose dedication is helping to make this jobs announcement become a reality.”
Meanwhile, quite separately, my interest in SLM began in the most innocent of ways – over a welcome cup of tea shared with a fellow jogger after a challenging morning run. The person worked at the call centre and complained training was lax, pay was the legal minimum, bonus targets were pretty much unreachable and on-the-floor Manchester managers were as scarce as a prickly cactus growing in the turf bogs. Adding that only around 30 people worked there, a far cry from the 125 promised more than a year before.
Two weeks later, on December 3, an article appeared in the ‘Donegal News,’ with the surprising headline ‘SLM Eire Teo Plans To Increase Its Workforce.’
Strangely – considering the company closed its doors permanently in Donegal a few short weeks later, barely one year into operations – local SLM manager, James Moran and Paid O’ Neachtain, Údarás public relations director, both said the company would employ more people.
Sheer ignorance? Spin doctoring? Who knows?
Out of the quagmire that has resulted, a key question remains: why did a supposedly experienced, national economic organization such as Údarás award such a formidable grant to a company obviously struggling to make ends meet?
Michael Gallagher discovered SLM Manchester at end financial year 2015 had liabilities of 556,400 pounds sterling and a cash shortfall of 171,600. My Freedom of Information request showed Údarás approved an employment grant for SLM of 614,000 euro, plus a 60,000 employment grant for managers, a training grant of 100,000 and rent subsidy of 68,000.
Is no-one at Údarás trained in simple analytical accountancy? Did they simply choose to ignore SLM’s shaky financial situation? Or did Minister McHugh – for political kudos through positive media coverage – override concerns that may have been raised by Údarás staff? Or indeed, did everyone involved truly believe this was an employment bonanza for the Donegal Gaeltacht but were duped by SLM owners?
The answer my friend – to use the words of a well-known song ‘…is blowin’ in the wind.’ And, as usual in modern Ireland, no-one’s taking responsibility for failings.
Isn’t this exactly what got Ireland into economic quicksand? Isn’t this why the World Bank and the IMF own us? Isn’t this why health and education are underfunded, why sick people with IVs in their arms are sleeping on chairs in hospital corridors?
If you want to know more about how Údarás spends scarce public money, simply e-mail Cathal O Gallachóir c.ogall (at) udaras.ie and ask for information under FOI. With what you find out, you might even be encouraged to do what Michael Gallagher did, write a letter to the editor Údarás challenged on SLM dealings thus placing important information in the public arena, or notifying concerned councilors such as new Údarás board member, John Sheamais O’Fearraigh.
Curious to know how many SLM jobs that Údarás included in its annual summary, I have requested the much-delayed 2016 report, which 13 months later has still not been published.
It’s still blowin’ in the wind…