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.

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Public accountability? Or continued secrecy?

Recent focus on this blog on Udaras na Gaeltachta and its spending of public monies and particularly funding of a proposed Catholic Church-run addiction clinic near the main Falcarragh crossroads has obviously hit a nerve.

Local media editors have informed me over the last few days that they have been approached by Udaras officials both locally and from the organisation’s headquarters in Galway in an effort to have the tone of coverage changed, by seeking so-called ‘clarifications’ – a rarely used term that in actual fact means nothing, as something is either accurate or inaccurate – and free editorial space for what it termed ‘right of reply’ – which under Council of Europe guidelines is defined as: “offering a possibility to react to any information in the media presenting inaccurate facts … which affect … personal rights.” Ironically, articles published so far are trying to do just that – encourage Udaras to release information that affects key individual rights – ‘the right to know.’

For local media, defying such pressure can be extremely onerous due to present-day financial straits on both print and digital outlets and the less than media-friendly legal system in Ireland now. At the same time, independent journalism is a cornerstone of any democracy.

Unfortunately, Udaras has not – as yet – agreed to provide what is most needed for full, open public discussion – comprehensive information, specific responses to specific questions I – as well as other reporters and even our elected national political representatives – have asked repeatedly by phone, Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and formal, written TD questions in the Dail (see earlier stories in this blog).

If such action in leaning on editors, and inaction in not providing key information, is not obstructing freedom of information, then what is? It echoes the words of Ireland’s Information Commissioner, who said at a conference last week that Ireland’s public service bodies still operate in a veil of secrecy, which changes in our FOI laws have only partially eased. He added, “There is still a long way to go.’ I agree.

Lack of transparency by Udaras sadly brings back memories from 25 years ago while working as a foreign correspondent for The Irish Times and for London-based Daily Telegraph and other publications in eastern Europe. There, in countries emerging from communist regimes, media faced great difficulties obtaining relevant information from civil service bodies that had got so used to acting in secrecy it had become ingrained in their way of thinking.

So, dear reader in continued pursuit of transparency in public matters and in consideration of their stated pledges about greater openness on issues related to Udaras, I have sent the following questions to the Donegal-based members of the national board of Udaras, namely Seán Ó Cuireáin, Eunan Mac Cuinneagáin and Daithí Alcorn, as well as to its Arranmore-born chairperson, Anna Ní Ghallachair.

In terms of fairness, I have allowed a whole week for a considered response (the deadline for their replies is Wednesday, April 16). Their pledges for greater openness should be obvious in the responses, especially as one of the board members is running for local political office on behalf of Fine Gael in the upcoming council elections.

I also include a small sample of feedback I have received from readers of this blog who are concerned about the spending practices and strategy adopted by Udaras in Donegal. Such feedback makes speedy, comprehensive responses by the aforementioned officials all the more important, details of which I will share with readers when – and if – they arrive.

The Questions –

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. To whom is Udaras directly involved with in these negotiations, meaning what named organisations or individuals?

5. 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?

6. 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)?

7.  What other organisations or individuals will be involved in the proposed addiction clinic project? And in what capacity?

8. Please name the person at the Donegal Udaras office who is spearheading the addiction clinic proposal.

9. 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.

10. What is the company-by-company breakdown of jobs created in Udaras-funded companies in 2013 in the Donegal Gaeltacht comprising the total jobs figure released to the media in January?

11. Please provide financial details on pension payments and any other payments upon retirement to the former CEO of Udaras and the former regional manager of Udaras in Donegal, Cathal MacSuibhne as mentioned in previous e-mails to you.

12. Has there been any other project proposals put forward to Udaras for the Ballyconnell House estate? If so, please provide details.

 

Reader Feedback:

Reader One: “Found your article on the addiction centre brilliant.  But did you know that if the state funds the centre then state is committing an illegal act?

Reader Two: “Great article on Ballyconnell House. I regularly play golf down there and I think it’s a disgrace the condition that fine property and grounds are in. That area has massive tourism potential. Udaras should be ashamed of themselves.

‘Stirring up a Hornet’s Nest?’ Or open public debate on a key issue?

I’ve just finished a radio discussion today on the Shaun Doherty Show on Highland Radio with Udaras board member and Fine Gael local council candidate, John Curran, on the proposed drug and alcohol addiction clinic in Falcarragh in west Donegal.

While I meet with John frequently – and admire what he is accomplishing in the voluntary sector and wish him every success in his upcoming political campaign for local council elections on behalf of Fine Gael – his describing me as “stirring up a hornet’s nest” by bringing to public attention an important project near the main crossroads in Falcarragh was disappointing, especially coming from someone who stated on his Facebook a day ago when launching his campaign, “I have pledged to make no empty promises, all I will say to anyone who has an issue or a suggestion is thank you and that I will try to address your issue if and when I am elected.

After all, this clinic, which is expected to cost hundreds of thousands – perhaps over a million euro – in public money, has important long-term repercussions for the local community in west Donegal, socially, culturally and economically, including:

  • restricted future access to this lovely area for members of the public;
  • perhaps (no guarantee), decent paying jobs;
  • far less money for tourism projects, cultural, arts or others, as promised by John and his fellow board members when appointed two years ago (in a beautiful and inspiring area as west Donegal such clean, environment-enhancing development could be enriching if funded is on a serious scale);
  • added trauma for local clerical abuse victims (unfortunately, the highest rate of such abuse per population is west Donegal) due to the involvement of Catholic Church-operated Cuan Mhuire, the company who will run the clinic, and which is alleged to have allowed such offending priests to say Mass at their centres.

For all of the above reasons, and more, the proposal for this clinic and its ramifications on the local community should be discussed openly. And as often as possible.

Unfortunately, the term ‘stirring up a hornet’s nest’ stated by John seems to echo a sentiment prevailing at Udaras – namely that the less the public knows about how its money is being used the better. A public body, using citizens’ hard-earned money, this economic group still refuses to reveal specific job-creation figures on a company-by-company breakdown of the ones it funds. Or the amount of money paid out from the public purse to its present and former top executives, locally and nationally, in pensions and other benefits.

John mentioned on the Shaun Doherty Show Highland Radio programme less than an hour ago that public information meetings have been held regarding the addiction clinic project. According to people who approached me, this is an erroneous comment and should be withdrawn. If such meetings had taken place, such a project – costing so much money and with such important social ramifications – would have made its way into the public arena, via media reports. Instead, the idea has remained in the realm of rumor and counter rumor and, until the story broke last week with details, might have remained there.

As a journalist and concerned social commentator, I can only do so much to highlight key issues affecting our community. It is important that others speak out (otherwise we cannot completely blame politicians for making bad decisions).

Therefore, if anyone wishes to comment, please do so – either for or against the project – on my blog or on that of other local media such as Donegal Daily, which published the story yesterday), or Highland Radio, which aired the debate today. Or directly to John Curran.

Only by voicing opinions strongly along whichever pathways open to us, can we influence what is happening in our own community. And with local elections coming up soon and campaigns well underway, there seems no better time.

 

Catholic Church-linked addiction clinic in Falcarragh: is this the best use of tax payers’ job creation money?

Is an addiction clinic run by the Catholic Church near the main crossroads in Falcarragh, west Donegal, where widespread clerical child abuse has taken place, the best way to spend hard-earned taxpayers’ job-creation money?
As Údarás na Gaeltachta, the area’s leading economic organisation, is expected to pour hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of euro into the project, I posed the question to Gearóid Ó Smaoláin, the group’s tourism officer, at a recent EU-backed CeangalG (ConnectG) conference on the development of cultural tourism in the Gaeltacht at An Chuirt Hotel. His response: “We’ve tried to develop Ballyconnell House for many years without success as no decent projects have been put forward to us about it, so negotiations are well advanced for the clinic.

Ballyconnell House: Crumbling edifice to be turned into Catholic Church-run addiction clinic?

Ballyconnell House: Crumbling edifice to be turned into Catholic Church-run addiction clinic?

This was strange as local businessman Milo Butler, who developed the 200-year-old hostelry in Gortahork ‘Maggie Dan’s’ into a successful eating establishment, told me in an earlier conversation that he and other local entrepreneurs including a fluent, local Irish-language solicitor, put forward a comprehensive business plan to Údarás to turn the estate – on which the Cloughaneely Golf Club stands – into a hotel and tourism venture, including an equestrian centre. “It is utterly ridiculous to say no decent projects have been put forward, especially at a time when this organisation says it wants to support the growth of tourism in the area,” he said angrily. “Even worse, our proposal did not even receive so much as a response from Údarás, a simple professional courtesy in such circumstances. I am left deeply disappointed by what I’ve heard. It is more than obvious that certain influential organisations and individuals can get funding from Údarás, and others cannot. It is tantamount to discrimination. Proper use of taxpayers’ money is very important and as such it has to be properly accounted for and well spent.”

Údarás officials, still recovering from the imminent closure of Largo Foods in Bunbeg with the loss of 142 jobs after it had invested over 6.2 million euro in it, say the proposed drug and alcohol addiction clinic could provide much needed jobs in a town bereft of them.
Ballyconnell House is historically a symbol of oppression, now it will be a symbol of healing, and it could provide as many as forty-five jobs,” explained John Curran, board member of Údarás.

Others, however, are angry that a Catholic Church-controlled institution, Cuan Mhuire (Harbour of Mary), would operate the facility. Their reaction follows the well-publicised cases of paedophilia by priests, teachers and caretakers at church-run schools in this tightly-knit rural area, as well as national media reports that Cuan Mhuire allowed convicted pedophile priests to hold religious services at their other addiction centres in Ireland and gave jobs to both nuns and priests who are up on charges of child molestation. Media reports concerned two priests convicted of child abuse who allegedly stayed at a Cuan Mhuire centre after their release from prison and were allowed to say Mass to recovering alcoholics there, unbeknown to the patients. In addition, media allege that a priest jailed on multiple counts of sexually abusing altar boys, aged 10 and 11, in a church sacristy, allegedly lived at a Cuan Mhuire centre. Officials at the Catholic organisation have denied many of the allegations but have not opened their books yet for verification.

Martin Gallagher, a victim of clerical abuse from the Falcarragh-Gortahork area, who was interviewed in the BBC BAFTA-winning programme, “The Shame of the Catholic Church,” is also deeply concerned. “After the horrific things that have happened in this small area – with paedophiles linked to the Catholic Church, including Father Eugene Greene in Gortahork who abused over a 30-year period and pleaded guilty to 40 charges, as well as convicted Michael Ferry, who studied to be a priest at Maynooth, taught religion and was a caretaker at a church-run school in nearby Derrybeg where he raped several children – there is understandable apprehension about anything the Catholic Church is involved in here,” he said. The BBC-winning documentary was hosted by investigative journalist Darragh MacIntyre, former owner of the Teach Ruairi Pub in Gortahork. Unfortunately, the Gaeltacht has the highest rate of clerical paedophilia per population than any other part of Ireland.

In a phone conversation with me, Gallagher said some of the addiction cases in the Donegal Gaeltacht are “a direct result of Catholic Church-linked paedophilia, such is the trauma to the victims.” “How can that be handled sensitively by an addiction clinic run, in effect, by the Catholic Church?” he asked. Cuan Mhuire is a Catholic group with strong ties to the Vatican and fees to it for its services would be paid either by private insurance or the HSE.

Asked whether he knew about the allegations against Cuan Mhuire and if he considered them important, Curran said simply “I can’t comment on the CM project due to the fact that the project is still at an exec level within the Udaras. I don’t want to hinder this process as I don’t know what stage the discussions are at and feel that the appropriate time for the Board to get involved is when we have a concrete proposal to hand.”

Others question the need for an alcohol and drug addiction clinic in the area when Donegal already has one close by – White Oaks in Muff, adding that the high cost of the clinic to the tax-payer – with no guarantee that local people will be employed in well-paid professional positions – would restrict available funding for cultural tourism projects for the Gaeltacht that was promised by the new Údarás board after taking office two years ago.

While social workers report an increased problem with drug and alcohol addiction in west Donegal for various reasons, research in the field has shown that people who suffer such addictions rarely attend clinics in their own areas, particularly when the areas in question are rural, due to the high level of stigma attached to such treatment. As such, few people in the immediate area of west Donegal would benefit from treatments provided by a proposed new clinic established there.

It terms of cultural tourism, at the CeangalG conference, Ian Joyce, an arts and culture entrepreneur who launched Cló Ceardlann na gCnoc near Gortahork a number of years ago, told me his multi-annual 40,000 euro budget from Údarás/the Arts Council was stopped this year, leaving him desperately searching for ongoing funding. He said his printing, visual arts and design centre, which lies in the heart of the Gaeltacht, is “an artist lead initiative” which, as its website states, “provides a platform for creative exchange between artists worldwide and the Gaeltacht community.” This includes tailored courses, both residential and non-residential. While Cló has received hundreds of thousands of euro in support from various organisations over the years, Gordan says his initiative attracts many international visitors to the Gaeltacht area while also strengthening links with other countries, thus putting as he described, “the Donegal Gaeltacht on the cultural map.” He added, “Many arts and culture organisations and initiatives in west Donegal, and elsewhere in the county, have been hard-hit by cuts.”

Údarás officials declined to say how many local people might be employed at the proposed clinic or whether they would be part-time, low-skilled such as floor cleaners or higher-paid executive positions.

Ironically, one Údarás official told me the organisation had paid the Catholic Church “millions of euro for Ballyconnell House some years ago” and now plans to offer it back at a “negligible or heavily discounted rental rate as part of an overall deal.”

With the perceived need within Údarás to show healthy job creation statistics to retain its multi-million euro annual budget and well-paid staff jobs in face of a rumoured takeover by the IDA or Enterprise Ireland, a fragile position exacerbated by the loss of 142 jobs at Largo Food that left the organisation with a minus 78 tally, the worse jobs record of all the Gaeltachts of Ireland, after spending more than two million euro in Donegal last year, could the addiction clinic be a way of making its job creation statistics respectable before its key annual year-end review?