Support funding of cultural tourism projects in west Donegal

Protest and petition signing at Falcarragh crossroads today (Saturday) at 2pm

With west Donegal’s natural beauty, inspiring landscapes and rich heritage, this area is in an extremely favorable position to create jobs and a strong economy based on cultural tourism.
Such initiatives – of which there are plenty by local people – have the potential to attract tens of thousands of visitors to the area every year, creating a ‘clean’ industry as strong as in other parts of Ireland, including Cork and Galway.
Nowadays many tourists, national and international, are seeking greater ‘authentic’ experiences when they travel for leisure whether those experiences be based on natural scenery, history, archaeology, language, music or dance.
West Donegal offers these elements in abundance including being part of the ‘Wild Atlantic Way.’ What is lacking, however, is a committed long-term strategy incorporating generous funding to get these ideas off the ground and strengthen them.
Until now, funding has amounted in effect to ‘mere pennies’ when considered within the overall size of annual multi-million euro budgets of organizations such as Udaras, the largest economic group in the area (for the last two years, cultural tourism spend has amounted to less than three (3) percent of its budget). It is also interesting to examine the projects funded by the multi-million euro, EU-backed Donegal Local Development Company Ltd (DLDC).
In contrast, most Udaras funding has poured into industrial estates that now lie derelict and almost empty, yet still cost lots of money every year simply to maintain; largely outsider-owned manufacturing units, which simply pack-up and leave when free grants finish (Largo Foods); and call centers, many of which are short-lived before they move off to other cheaper places such as India.
While other areas of Ireland are creating strong environmentally-friendly economies and many jobs for their people within the hospitality industry based on cultural tourism – in cafes, museums, hotels, bars and bed and breakfast operations – west Donegal is lagging far behind.
It’s time we – all of us living here, wanting ourselves and our children to have decent, well-paying long-term ‘non-cabbage’ jobs – stood up and aired our views to the policy makers, including Udaras and DLDC officials as well as those standing for the upcoming County Council elections.
If we don’t speak out, we have less basis for blaming them for making decisions on economic development we disagree with.

Come to Falcarragh today between 2 and 4 pm to hear more about this subject or sign the online petition here.

This petition will be presented to our local political representatives as well as to leaders of key economic organizations such as Udaras and the DLDC.

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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.