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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Yet another Irish political fiasco

I was shocked to read in a leading Donegal newspaper editorial over the last few days that John McNulty had behaved ‘with dignity’ over his recent Fine Gael botched Senate nomination.

Let’s call a spade a spade.

The last thing Mr. McNulty behaved with was dignity. He condoned the onward march of cronyism and ‘stroke politics’ thus giving his full support to this age-old blight on Irish society.

John McNulty – guilty as charged, complicity to hoodwink. Photo courtesy Independent Newspaper.

Selling Mars bars at a Mace grocery shop in Stranorlar hardly qualifies Mr. McNulty to contribute much, if anything, to the development of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) (unless his business is merely a front for a secret network of art collectors storing priceless Van Gogh’s under the petrol pumps). There are many throughout the country with decades of high-level experience in the arts sector and thus much more qualified than he.

Yet when Fine Gael spin-doctors whispered in his ear they’d pull a few strings and shove him on the (already full) board, thus giving him an easier ride into the Senate, he leapt like a deer in heat, omitting to point out the simple fact that he was completely unqualified for such a key position.

In doing so, the 37-year-old Kilcar man is as guilty as those people – mainly under Fianna Fail’s governing stewardship – who greedily grabbed places on other boards such as FAS and the Central Remedial Clinic and proceeded to claim hefty payments and generous expenses on the backs of struggling tax-payers. (Fianna Fail actually rushed 182 of their members on to public boards in the dying days of its last reign).

It must also be remembered that, far from being a credible Senate nominee, Mr. McNulty failed to even get elected to Donegal County Council having won just over 800 votes in May, less than half of the quota required for the six-seat electoral area. In fact, he finished the race at the rear of the pack at a distant 10th place.

Choosing him shows just how desperate Fine Gael are to shore up its political representation in Donegal, especially with the additional failure of John Curran, its choice for the Udaras board, to get elected to the local council (in great part over his willingness to hand over more than a million euro of tax-payers money to the Catholic nuns to run an addiction center in Falcarragh when there’s already one in Donegal, and after the dead babies scandal in Tuam). With Donegal South-West deputy Dinny McGinley due to retire at the next election, Curran’s failure and now McNulty’s means there’s nobody in place as a successor.

John Curran – until recent local elections, was being groomed as potential successor to TD Dinny McGinley?

Public boards or private clubs?

In a bizarre twist to the tale, Fine Gael Arts Minister Heather Humphreys said in the Dail this week that Mr. McNulty was appointed to the board of IMMA “on the balance of talent and experience.” That’s a joke. The minister then added that she and her party were committed “to using the public appointments procedure in line with the guidelines.” That’s an even bigger joke. It recently emerged that at least two of the six appointees to the Board of the Heritage Council last year were made by her colleague Minister Jimmy Deenihan in contravention of that very same formal application process.

Further, a 2012 report by the Institute of Directors In Ireland on state boards showed concern at the lack of transparency around the appointment process and the lack of consideration given to the skills required to fill them. Since then, board positions have featured on Government department websites and advertised via the Public Appointments Service but some describe this as ‘pure window-dressing’. The McNulty situation, and perhaps the Curran one too, are cases in point.

Plain-speaking (maybe too plain) Minister for Health Leo Varadkar said election to the parliament of a candidate who has withdrawn – as McNulty has done to avoid further embarrassment – would not be good thing for the political process. Duh, really?

Obviously, the only way forward is to make the recruitment process entirely transparent, minimise government involvement in choosing appointees, and actively engage individuals with the appropriate skill set to fulfill these positions.

Fine Gael’s Arts Minister Heather Humphreys in the Dail struggling to deflect accusations of cronyism and stroke politics. Photo courtesy RTE News

No crying over spilled milk

Ultimately, however, we have only ourselves to blame.

Most of those who voted for Fine Gael over Fianna Fail three years ago knew deep in their hearts exactly what they were doing. Being conservative, as we Irish are by virtue of our Catholic upbringing, we voted for one party knowing full well deep down it was little different to the other. Then we deigned to pat ourselves on the back for ‘taking a bold stand.’

What baloney! Ours was nothing less than a cowardly act.

To make matters worse, when we had the chance to regain some degree of pride and do away with a Senate that is, and always has been since the foundation of the state, a complete and utter waste of public money, we declined to follow our instincts and put pen to paper. How could any of us vote for such an anachronistic and discriminatory institution highlighted by the fact that with so many worthy universities and colleges throughout Ireland, only two – Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland – are permitted to have Senators? Not to mention that 11 Senators are simply appointed on the whim of the Taoiseach. No elections, no vote.

Padding expenses? Investigations well underway on shenanigans of Fianna Fail’s Brian O’Domhnaill: Handsome salary as Senator not enough?

Today the Irish Senate, unlike the American one, stands as a perfect model of cronyism and stroke politics, with even appointed party members such as Donegal’s very own Fianna Fáil Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill under investigation for milking the system by duplicating expenses.

We tossed away the opportunity to fling the Senate into the bin of history where it firmly belongs. Let’s not now cry over spilled milk. Like McNulty’s reluctance to apologise publicly for his complicity in attempting to hoodwink us ordinary folk, it’s so undignified.