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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Complaint about Udaras cover-up sent to Ombudsman

Ireland’s biggest fault is lack of accountability – the main reason we’re in the humiliating position of doffing our caps and begging for mercy from the IMF.

Instead of fairness and transparency in public affairs, we get cronyism and cover-ups. The Central Remedial Clinic, The Financial Regulator, FAS, the Rehab Group, the John McNulty scandal …. the list is a depressingly long one.

But what’s even worse is when our supposed independent media collude in supporting this kind of deception.

Damning evidence this week indicates that is exactly what the local office of Udaras na Gaeltachta and the ‘Donegal Daily’ news website have been involved in.

Earlier this year, Udaras’ local tourism officer Gearoid O’Smaolain contacted Stephen Maguire, the news website’s co-owner, complaining that a report on the site contained what he said was “a fabricated quote,” attributed to him when he spoke at the launch of the multi-million euro, EU-funded CeangalG project at An Chuirt hotel.

false accusation

At that conference, I had asked O’Smaolain about a proposed addiction clinic in Falcarragh that was rumored would cost taxpayers several million euro and run by the Catholic church. O’Smaolain said discussions were indeed underway with Udaras, that his organisation didn’t have millions to spend and that no decent projects had been put forward for the site at Ballyconnell House beside the town golf course. Thus the article below:

Angry reaction to setting up addiction clinic in Falcarragh

As it was I who compiled the news report, Maguire promptly called me, saying O’Smaolain told him he had an official transcript of the conference to prove his accusation. I asked if he (Maguire) had read or listened to this transcript. He said he hadn’t but that O’Smaolain had sent him an excerpt. See below –

transcript email

Sean Hillen Q and A

Upon reading this, I offered to give Maguire my notes from the conference so he could make a fair decision. Instead he sent this e-mail to both myself and O’Smaolain.

letter from Maguire

Imagine my shock, therefore when – without further notice – I then read this abject apology on the ‘Donegal Daily’ website the very next day.

GEAROID SMOLAIN – CLARIFICATION ON BALLYCONNELL HOUSE ARTICLE

I contacted Maguire repeatedly asking for an explanation and a copy of the official transcript of the conference. Months later, still no response.

I then contacted Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Scotland, the leader of CeangalG, which had also planned and supervised the conference at An Chuirt, asking them for a copy of the transcript.

Claire Nicolson, the organisation’s administrator, was helpful, initially saying she did not think there was such a transcript, and, when I requested a definitive answer, responded this week in the message below that was also c’d to Alasdair Morrison, a former minister in the Government of Scotland, now CeangalG director.

From: Claire Nicolson <claire@connectg.net>

To: Sean Hillen <sean.hillen@yahoo.com>

Cc: Alasdair Morrison <alasdair@connectg.net>

Sent: Friday, December 12, 2014 5:31 PM

Subject: Re: Donegal conference

Seán, a chara, thanks for your email.

That was our cultural tourism conference in February. I recall you asking for this information before. I’m sorry, there was no transcript or recording of the event.

Le gach dea-ghuí

Claire

O’Smaolain therefore, it emerges, not I, was involved in fabrication. Worse, Stephen Maguire and ‘Donegal Daily,’ fully supported him in doing so based on a transcript that never existed.

One might ask: Why was this subject so sensitive that such lies and deceit were used to keep it from the public eye? And why would an editor kowtow so easily to make an unjustified apology and retract a perfectly accurate news story from a website?

As the reasons for Maguire’s actions are obviously not in pursuit of journalistic excellence, are they merely financial? Did Udaras or organisations or individuals associated with Udaras either threaten him or Donegal Daily Ltd. with a lawsuit or through withdrawal of advertising? Or, indeed, did they promise future ad revenue if he simply did as they demanded?

By coincidence, John Curran whom Fine Gael appointed to the board of Udaras and who subsequently failed to win a local council seat recently, had a paid political banner ad in the ‘Donegal Daily’ when my addiction clinic broke. Did Curran threaten to withdraw his ad if the story was not squashed? See the ad at bottom of the same page as the story : Angry reaction to setting up addiction clinic in Falcarragh

If true, this is a most dismaying development, illustrating the reason why there is a falling level of trust by Irish people in today’s government.

Equally, O’Smaolain’s accusation in defense of Udaras – now shown to be false – illustrates why there’s a growing lack of faith in organisations trusted with spending scarce public money.

Gearoid O’Smaolain (l) and Stephen Maguire (r)

And most dismaying of all in many respects is the conduct of Stephen Maguire and the ‘Donegal Daily.’ As I pointed out in an earlier post, strong independent media underpins any democracy.

After more than 30 years in journalism both here at home and abroad, I still firmly believe this. As truth is the rudder that steers ethical decisions in journalism, it is most disappointing to see how Maguire and the ‘Donegal Daily abrogated responsibility in such a pathetic way.

Having investigated the situation comprehensively over the last few months, I forwarded a file to the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council of Ireland, only to be informed that it could not investigate further as ‘Donegal Daily’ is not a member of the council.

I find this ironic as only a few days ago the ‘Donegal Daily’ boasted of being among the most popular news websites, yet is not even a member of a nationally-respected organization to which all serious news media outlets belong.

I suppose, more than anything, this indicates how earnestly Mr. Maguire considers the importance of accuracy in news reporting.

My file outlining how Mr. O’Smaolain misused his authority in an effort to damage my reputation, is now with the Office of the Ombudsman. What action is taken, if any, will indicate if our government is serious about creating a more transparent and accountable society, thus preventing what happened to me, happening to others.