Minister of Public Expenditure raps Údarás na Gaeltachta for lack of transparency

Minister of Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, has rapped Údarás na Gaeltachta on the knuckles for failing to release vital information on spending of public money affecting Donegal and other Gaeltacht areas.

Following a refusal by Údarás to provide details on hefty pension payments to former executives that accounts for more than half its annual budget under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I filed, formal written parliamentary questions were submitted by TDs angry about the lack of transparency by the Gaeltacht economic development group.

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Such questions culminated in one by Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein TD and member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on my behalf, directly to the Minister, “To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in view of his stated commitment to transparency and accountability in the spending of public moneys, his views that 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 will legislate to require all publicly funded bodies to make such information public in the interests of open Government.”

A formal written response has just been received from Minister Howlin, in which he, in effect, tacitly states that Údarás was wrong to turn down my FOI request seeking details of pensions for former executives paid wholly out of public funds, and that it should release the information forthwith.

The Minister writes, “Under the 2014 (Freedom of Information) Act, the terms and conditions of any individual who holds or held any office or other position remunerated from public funds in a public body, rather than just those of a Director or member of staff as provided for under the 1997 Act, are not afforded the protections under the Act in relation to personal information. On that basis, the type of information to which the Deputy’s question refers i.e. public service pension arrangements on retirement for senior managers which would be part of remuneration, would be available from a public body that was subject to FOI, other than where a specific exemption applies against the release of such information.

The Minister elaborates further, “Under the Freedom of Information Act 2014, as was the case in the original Freedom of Information Act in 1997, an exemption from the provisions of Freedom Of Information (FOI) is provided for personal information. The 2014 Act also expanded the definition of what does not constitute personal information in the context of FOI.”

In answer to McDonald’s question as to whether the Minister “will legislate to require all publicly funded bodies to make such information public in the interests of open Government,” the Minister writes, “Given the matter is already provided for by the Freedom of Information Act 2014, I do not consider further legislative action is required.

As we have seen with scandal-hit FAS and other Irish state bodies that abused peoples’ trust and misspent public money, the only way to prevent corruption is by creating greater transparency. The government coalition of Fine Gael and Labour made this a central issue in their electoral platform. In the three years since they took office, little progress has been made.

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Several weeks ago, Ireland was placed 31st position ‘in the league of transparent nations’ following research by the World Wide Web Foundation. It is the worst of any European nation, even behind countries such as Russia, Mexico and Brazil. The group’s categorized Ireland as a country that faces challenges to “mainstreaming open data across government and institutionalizing it as a sustainable practice.” It also said “core data on how the government is spending taxpayers’ money and how public services are performing remains inaccessible or pay-walled even though such information is critical to fight corruption and promote fair competition is even harder to get.”

Tim Berners-Lee, Web, founder of the Web Foundation and the London-based Open Data Institute, said, “Governments continue to shy away from publishing the very data that can be used to enhance accountability and trust” and highlighted the power of open data “to put power in the hands of citizens.”

Údarás is a classic case in point.

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Dinny McGinley, former junior minister for the Gaeltacht, wrote back in a vague response to my FOI request 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.

For so many years untouchable hidden behind a veil of Irish-language support, Údarás perhaps is in many ways no different to FAS in terms of greed and individual self-interests. According to Údarás sources, former board members in Donegal remained in boardroom meetings during discussions on lucrative payments to their very own companies and organisations. In addition, not one but at least three Donegal Údarás board members have been up before the Standards in Public Office Commission on corruption charges relating to double dipping on expenses. When one considers the expense claims for board members, particularly under the long-time chairmanship of Liam Cunningham from Glencolmbcille (from 2005 to 2010 he received more than 155,000 euro in fees and expenses, according to Highland Radio), one has an idea of the unchecked, proliferate spending that went on.

Some details as already reported by Highland Radio –

  • Four former Donegal members of the Údarás board each received in excess of 100,000 euro each, over a four-year period, in travel expenses.
  • Fianna Fáil member Daithi Alcorn earned nearly €120,000 between 2005 and 2009;
  • Fianna Fail Senator Brian O Domhnaill received €115,000 while independent Donegal member Padraig O Dochartaigh received €105,000.

Over one billion euro of public money has already gone into supporting Udaras na Gaeltachta yet unemployment rates in Gaetachts are consistently highest in the nation.

Misspending of public money (an issue brought up by the former head of the PAC, see 3-part series article series), includes all-expenses trips to Las Vegas for Udaras board members and their spouses – supposedly to meet a delegation of the IDA;

In truth, Údarás was – and perhaps still is – a cash cow for well-to-do insiders in west Donegal.

It is long past time Údarás prepared proper annual reports instead of the porous documents it now produces that disguise the spending picture and that it holds open public meetings to allow the people of the Gaeltacht to know exactly how their hard-earned money is being spent.

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TV3’s Vincent Browne ‘People’s Debate’ in Donegal attracts lively discussion

While Fine Gael and Labour were expected to take a beating at yesterday evening’s Vincent Browne-hosted ‘People’s Debate’ in Letterkenny – in part deserved as the two parties refused to participate – Fianna Fail also took a drubbing.

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At one point, after listening to the party’s TD Charlie McConalogue berate government policies, the veteran TV host exclaimed, “I cannot understand how you can make these criticisms. Fine Gael is simply following Fianna Fail policies. Fianna Fail laid down the strategy for dealing with the banking bailout and Fine Gael and Labour are merely following it.”

McConalogue made another mistake later in the debate saying, “the agreement with the Troika was negotiable,” thus contradicting what the public had been told by Fianna Fail that the deal under former Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minster of Finance, Brian Lenihan, was non-negotiable. Browne was quick to make the point, “Your party said details of the agreement with the Troika were non-negotiable, yet now you say they were. Make up your mind.”

On the emotive issue of water charges, McConalogue – after much fudging said he would halt Irish Water and suspend water charges. Again, Browne responded, “Your party, Fianna Fail, already had a plan in place in 2010 to impose water charges, but now you’re saying you’re having second thoughts.”

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Browne, at his best as a current affairs host when pushing political guests for a clear-cut answer, didn’t let the lively capacity audience down, especially when badgering the four-member panel for their views on a potential coalition after the next election. Asked whether he would take a ministerial seat under a Fine Gael or Fianna Fail led coalition Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty seemed somewhat uncomfortable in his seat.

“That is a hypothetical question and such decisions are made at our party Ard Fheis,” he said finally, as if caught by surprise, but recovering. “What we have agreed is that unless water and property charges are dropped, we will not go into any coalition.” He acknowledged, “Some members have voiced their opinion that they would go into a coalition as a minority party. We are a party hungry for change, we are not hungry for power.”

When asked the same question, his Sinn Fein colleague TD Pádraig MacLochlainn was more direct, unhesitatingly replying, “I will not participate in a government led by either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.” As if taking strength from this, Doherty later stated categorically, “If asked by a government led by Fianna Fail or Fine Gael to be a minister, I would refuse.”

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After chastising the two Sinn Fein members for not giving a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, McConalogue himself began the dance of the slippery eel until, under bombardment from host and audience, he finally said, “I would not like to participate in a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition but if I was outvoted by my party colleagues I’d have to go along.”

In his two-minute intro, Doherty said “four years ago we were promised a democratic revolution yet all we have had is more of the same with cronyism, stealth taxes and high levels of unemployment, no more so than right here in Donegal. There is a fairer and better way of moving forward and Sinn Fein’s job strategy can reshape this county.” He added that it was little wonder Donegal was known as ‘The Forgotten County.’ “I know Vincent you didn’t come here by train because this is one of only five counties in all Ireland without a mainline railway service.” Under an FOI request he said he has asked for a government paper produced on the future of small schools, adding that Donegal has the second largest number of such schools, with four teacher or less.

When corruption and lack of transparency within Údarás na Gaeltachta was brought up, including its refusal to release key information on its public spending such as lucrative pension payments to former executives which amount to half of its entire annual budget, Doherty said his party had tabled formal parliamentary questions on the issue, adding, “there should be full disclosure about people in receipt of high public pensions, it is important to have complete transparency so such payments can be scrutinized by the public.”

McConalogue said in his intro, “the last four years of government have been an attack on Donegal with post office closures, agriculture being hard hit and worsening heath services,” adding, “we have strong potential here but we need better infrastructure including the A5 project up and running and wider broadband.”

Referring to the pre-election catchphrase ‘Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way,’ MacLochlainn said the government’s record has proved very different, “with a reduction in classrooms, budget cuts across the board and Donegal having the lowest allocation of medical staff of any county.” He added, “Donegal people are hard-working and passionate. All we’re asking is a fair chance and for Dublin to meet us halfway.”

Regarding the water charges, he added, “For thirty years, Sinn Fein has opposed these charges and now it has become the straw that broke the camel’s back. There has simply been too much austerity. Irish Water is a white elephant. My message is ‘scrap the water charges and go back to the drawing board.’ ”

While decrying the lack of proper health services and unfair stealth taxes, Independent TD Thomas Pringle said renewable energy had tremendous potential for Donegal as had the biomass wood industry. Speaking of Killybegs, he also said the fishing industry had been “hard-hit.’ He said water conservation should be a top priority because so much is being lost through poor network connectivity. He also said he was proud of challenging the bank bail-out through the courts and being in the forefront of water charge protests (continuing the momentum, a major ‘Right2Water’ protest took place earlier today – Saturday – in Letterkenny, with others elsewhere nationwide).

All four TDs, when asked directly, said they would vote ‘yes’ in the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage.

Over the lively, two-hour event at the Clanree Hotel, there was no shortage of questions from the floor with periodic rambunctious catcalls, cheering and booing, which caused short stoppages and words of warning from the presenter.

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True to his word, Browne attempted to cover as many topics as possible such as equality, including the upcoming same-sex marriage referendum; family services, education, employment and health. Speakers ranged from parents of terminally-ill children; school teachers, social workers and community activists working on behalf of people as diverse as lesbians, gay, bisexuals, transgender, cancer sufferers, the disabled, and many others.

Some light-hearted moments and biting comments helped take the edge of emotions as when a thirsty Vincent Browne ran out of water and promised he’d even pay for some and when James Woods from Gortahork commented that with so much emigration, Donegal was turning into a wildlife refuge.

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All in all, ‘People’s Debate’ is an excellent initiative by TV3, no doubt demanding detailed planning to host such shows in all the constituencies of Ireland.

Fine Gael and Labour’s decision to spurn them, indicating fear and a lack of understanding of the difficulties facing ordinary people, could ultimately cost them vital votes in the polling booths.

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‘Whatever you say, say nothing!’ – motto of Údarás na Gaeltachta

‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Emperor’s clothes – convenient concealment

John Curran seems to have some of the attributes of an upstanding local county council member – so why is it the Falcarragh man failed to win one of the positions in last months’ elections in Donegal?

Especially as anyone with a snippet of local knowledge knows that at least one other candidate – Terence Slowey – by virtue of being found guilty of ‘double dipping’ on expenses, may be less deserving of a seat.

Could it be that John’s failure reflects the ordinary person’s displeasure with the lack of transparency by public bodies in Ireland and manipulation of public money to benefit the already well-to-do?

John Curran

John is a married man and father, a qualified solicitor and has experience within the county council, as well as in the voluntary sector – indeed he is now director of Donegal Volunteer Centre. More than that – he avows to be deeply interested in community affairs.

Okay, John has deep political ambitions but, hey, what’s wrong with that?  I would hope all of the candidates – the successful and the less so – had this in abundance. Otherwise they’re not worth voting for.

So what went wrong?

How is it others, with – in my view – much less integrity – won out over John? To some readers of this blog, these words may come as a surprise. After all, John lambasted me personally over the last month or so in the print media, on the Highland Radio airwaves (see A Better-Informed Donegal is a Better Donegal) and in his own Facebook, for daring to call for greater transparency on the proposed three million euro spending on an addiction clinic in John’s hometown.

Ironically, that was John’s big mistake.

Did John feel – as a government candidate, with money and party behind him, as well as being a board member of Údarás  na Gaeltachta – that he’d be a shoe-in? Perhaps. I’m not sure. What I am sure about, however, is what he didn’t realize – that people – young and old alike – in this rural area of northwest Ireland are, as one native-born Donegal man put it so poetically, ‘cute hoors.’ In more diplomatic language – they know a maverick when they see one. As Gaeilge, ‘amadáin’ they’re certainly not. Not a one of ‘em.

Running on a Fine Gael ticket probably didn’t help (John could have run as an Independent but, offered a chance to speak at the party’s pre-election Ard Fheis, he decided not to). But his failure to win a council seat amounted to much more than that. After all, Fine Gael candidate, Jimmy Kavanagh, was elected.

By heeding the advice of the golden circle who support him in the Donegal Gaeltacht and who are making big money off the public purse in northwest Donegal, mainly through the goings-on at Údarás, and by attempting to turn a simple call for greater transparency – which in other democratic societies would be considered a normal request (in fact, one that should have been led by John himself) – into a ‘personal’ issue, he – with unfortunate consequences for himself – overstepped the mark.

People in the Donegal Gaeltacht may sometimes be blindsided, but they’re not blind. They may be silent sometimes in face of authority (it’s inherent in our Irish nature, conditioned over generations) but they aren’t voiceless.

And at the recent elections they made their voices heard.

Though only a brave few – among them, Owen Curran, Theresa and Caroline Woods, Mary Bridget Sharkey; Mary Attenborough; Moire McCarry; R.J. McLean; James Woods; Gerard Gallagher and Martin McEhlinny – take to the streets regularly in northwest Donegal to protest injustices – deep down (maybe not so deep), many people are upset. They saw that somebody, some people, some institutions  – including the Catholic Church and Údarás  – were trying to pull the wool over their eyes over the addiction center. They noticed clearly that not enough open discussion was taking place over a major proposal that not only would cost the public around three million euro, but would leave very little, perhaps nothing, for other projects in Falcarragh and other areas of the Donegal Gaeltacht (do you really think other Gaeltachts in Ireland are going to readily vote even more money for Donegal over the three million euro, and from a dwindling public purse?….please).

So what exactly is it that is so sensitive about this proposed addiction centre that it needs be kept so tightly under wraps?

Ballyconnell House

With no answers forthcoming from Údarás na Gaeltachta itself about costs and benefits (see Openness and transparency required: Udaras still has questions to answer), I offered the opportunity directly to Cuan Mhuire – the Catholic Church group of nuns that badly wants this public money for the centre (the second such one in Donegal, a very unusual situation for a county with such a small population). The questions were sent to it before the news broke nationally and internationally about the dumping the bodies of around 800 dead infants in and around a septic tank in Tuam by nuns.

An interpretation of this organisation’s response, or lack thereof, indicates the clinic may focus on sex addiction treatments for convicted clergy, as well as for abusers of drugs and alcohol and that Cuan Mhuire may indeed – as earlier media reports suggest – be guilty of allowing convicted paedophile priests to conduct religious services inside its other addiction clinics in Ireland. And may do so again in Falcarragh if the proposal goes through. And perhaps it’s quite convenient for it to do so – treat convicted clerics, both nuns and priests, for sex addiction and have them conduct religious services inside the centre – in the northwest corner of Donegal. Such nefariousness would thus be far from the glare of the national media.

If Cuan Mhuire were a responsible organization, with nothing to hide, it would have answered, perhaps not every question, perhaps not in the detail that would be reasonably expected, but answer it would. If a responsible organization with the concerns of the local community at heart, it would have realized how sensitive this addiction centre proposal is and deal with the concerns in an open manner.

Instead, Cuan Mhuire, a fully-controlled arm of the Catholic Church, acts as if it’s above the societal norms we others must adhere to – and therein lies a great danger. In the past, and still now – while ordinary people, ordinary community groups, follow rules and regulations that make for a stable, secure world – the church considers itself above the law. That is a frightening path.

In conclusion, if John Curran really wants to be considered a serious candidate for future public office (remember, he was appointed to the board of Údarás by the Government, not elected by the people), he cannot be simply a toadie for a political party or an institution such as the Catholic Church or Údarás. He must do what any decent board member is supposed to do – something, unfortunately, we have NOT seen successive board members at Údarás and most other Irish institutions from FAS to the Central Remedial Clinic do: take his responsibilities seriously and both oversee public spending and the overall health of the community properly.

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.

Fair or unfair? A nettlesome question of censorship

Sitting in the front row at a CeangalG (ConnectG) conference on cultural tourism at An Chuirt Hotel a few weeks back I took the opportunity to ask Udaras representative, Gearoid O’Smaolain, about his organization’s plans for a drug addiction clinic in Falcarragh.

As seems traditional policy with Udaras (a characteristic that has led to its acquiring the sobriquet ‘the Secret Society’), the organization’s local tourism official was reluctant to talk, but I persevered and asked him three separate questions on an issue that I consider is of strong importance to the local community. Ultimately, the response I eased out was that Udaras had received no decent proposals over the years for Ballyconnell House near the crossroads of the west Donegal town and was in advanced negotiations to turn it into a drug addiction clinic. This information was included in one of my stories, “Catholic church linked addiction clinic in Falcarragh – Is this the best use of tax payers job creation money?

Imagine my surprise when I received a phone call from Stephen Maguire, who established the ‘Donegal Daily’ news service with Brenda O’Neill, where my story on the addiction clinic had been published, saying he had received the following email from Mr. O’Smaolain:

email 1

Until Mr. Maguire’s phone call and even though my name was clearly on the article, I had not received any communication from Mr. O’Smaolain about any alleged misquote, not even after I asked Mr. Maguire to have him contact me to discuss the matter (Having once been the beneficiary of my dear wife’s delicious ‘Columbian’ cooking as a guest at my home for lunch, there didn’t seem any valid reason for Mr. O’Smaolain to have been too shy about contacting me).

After many years in journalism, including working for The Irish Times, Time magazine and the Daily Telegraph, the United Nations Media Centre in New York, as well as founder and publisher of a national media and events company in Eastern Europe for ten years, I hope I have developed the right skills to compile an accurate story from an event. However, we are human, mistakes happen, so I asked Mr. Maguire what Mr. O’Smaolain said he had said.

This is where things began to take on a veneer of surrealism.

Mr. Maguire received from Mr. O’Smaolain what was alleged to be a ‘transcript’ of the Q&A we had at the conference and a private conversation I had with Mr. O’Smaolain afterwards. I found this to be surprising as I had been informed by the event organisers that there was no official transcript of the conference. And certainly, nobody tape-recorded the private conversation between us both, immediately afterwards. Also, as I was in the front row not ten yards away, directly facing Mr. O’Smaolain, I doubt very much if I misheard what he said, and I told Mr. Maguire as much (My Teeline shorthand learned at postgraduate journalism school at City University, London, is also pretty darn good. I may even proudly have reached the magic 100 words per minute back then).

When Mr. Maguire called me I was in Sicily (ironically visiting a cultural tourism project) so I asked him to e-mail me the so-called ‘transcript’ and I would respond when I got back to my hotel that evening. The ‘transcript’ is alleged to have been written by Mrs. Cathy MacDonald, the person who chaired the panel meeting Mr. O’Smaolain was on.

email 2

But the so-called ‘transcript’ of the Q&A is quite porous indeed, not surprising, considering the fact that it is never easy to do ‘double duty,’ meaning take comprehensive notes while chairing a four-person, panel discussion (for example, it is truly amazing to read above that while she is speaking at the event, she is writing at the same time). And, as I had learned a week or so earlier from Udaras HQ Galway that  it had spent around 2.2 million euro last year in Donegal, I would hardly have used the term “millions and millions” in relation to one project (it also strikes me as simplistic ‘baby talk’).

Stranger still, while I had quoted Mr. O’Smaolain saying there had been no “decent proposals” for Ballyconnell House since Udaras took it over many years ago, his so-called ‘transcript’ shows him saying there had categorically been “no” applications at all. Coincidently, a week or so before the CeangalG conference, on a bus journey to Letterkenny, a well-respected Gortahork-based businessman, Milo Butler, in the seat beside me, told me he had submitted a comprehensive proposal for a tourism complex including an equestrian centre to Udaras for Ballyconnell House, a statement he reiterated with much anger when we met in Falcarragh later and I told him what Mr. O’Smaolain had said. Anger is a natural, indeed justifiable, response from anyone who has, in effect, being called a liar. Even stranger still, in an e-mail I received yesterday from Siubhan Nic Grianna, national communications and marketing manager for Udaras, she indicates there indeed were some proposals submitted for Ballyconnell House to her organisation. But more on this in a future post.

After e-mailing both myself and Mr. O’Smaolain saying:

maguire's letter

‘Donegal Daily’ then removed the article on the addiction clinic from its news site, as well as more than 240 ‘shares’ from readers.

I was not pleased, of course, as by doing so, Mr. Maguire was leaving himself open to criticisms of infringing on freedom of expression, but as a former publisher, I also could picture the kind of pressure Mr. Maguire might be under from the powers that be.

Imagine my utter anger, however, when I woke next morning, without any further communication from Mr. Maguire, to read the following on the ‘Donegal Daily’ news site:

donegal daily retraction

I, of course, tried to reach Mr. Maguire by phone and e-mail from Sicily seeking a full explanation, asking what, if any, new information had come to light. There was no response. I contacted him again several days later, sending him another e-mail. As of the time of publishing this blog article, more than a full week later, I still have not received any response from him addressing any of my questions regarding the reasons for his actions – be that legal, editorial or simply financial, meaning Udaras or bodies/individuals associated with Udaras either threatening tacitly or overtly him as an individual or Donegal Daily Ltd. as a company to withdraw advertising, or promised future revenue such as grants. (I note that Udaras board member and Fine Gael local council candidate, John Curran, ran an advertising campaign on ‘Donegal Daily’ plus stories but I would be severely disappointed if he had interfered in freedom of the press or freedom of expression issues in any way – two avenues, I notice, he himself availed of when he promptly favorited the ‘Donegal Daily’ clarification on social media outlets).

Confusing matters further is the fact that the ‘Donegal Daily’ statement was headlined ‘clarification’ not ‘correction,’ so in an effort to clarify matters for readers and respond to the retraction published without my consent, I submitted the comment below to ‘Donegal Daily.’

sean's reply

It declined to publish it and even deleted it from its Facebook. Hardly an action supporting freedom of expression.

Note

After more than 30 years in journalism, some spent in the tough world of investigative journalism, I have learned there is one sure-fire rule: if the people/institution you are writing about cannot ‘deal’ with a particular story (due to its veracity and its controversial nature), they will inevitably attempt to ‘deal’ with the storyteller, usually through accusations of bias or/and professional ineptness.

Ultimately it is sad this episode has come to pass. For more than a year, I have tried through the normal accepted means open to citizens to obtain information from Udaras, locally and nationally, and indeed directly from Mr. O’Smaolain, through phone calls, e-mails and FOI requests, without receiving sometimes as much as the professional courtesy of a response, never mind the information I’ve requested. If I had, there would have been no need to ask Mr. O’Smaolain at a CeangalG public forum.

It must be remembered, Udaras is a public body, supported by your money, the national purse. As such, it should share openly – not hide secretively – details about how it is spending what is a very precious commodity these days. As the most recent scandal at Rehab and others before it have shown, ordinary people in Ireland have already suffered enough from lack of transparency and proper accountability in public and semi-public bodies.

I welcome your views, either through comments below or the contact page.