Who’s the mystery whistle-blower inside the corridors of Údarás na Gaeltachta?

Seems as if Donegal’s leading newspaper and Údarás na Gaeltachta are on a head-on collision over truth following publication by the ‘Donegal News’ recently of sensitive, confidential correspondence indicating the Irish language group has been planning wind-farms on many sites throughout the county and an immediate rebuttal of the article in a press release issued by the Irish language group.

Údarás na Gaeltachta has wind turbine plans for six sites

An tÚdarás dismisses wind turbine talks

If not for strong protest meetings by Stad An Tuirbín Gaoithe, a community-based Donegal group opposing Galway company, Lir Energy Ltd’s plans to construct 123- meter turbines on publicly-owned land in Gweedore and a flood of more than 100 objection letters to the county council, a forest of turbines could have gone up ‘under the radar’ – some in scenic sites and some close to homes.

According to the confidential correspondence obtained by the newspaper, these could include Ardara, Kilcar, Fintown, Cloghan, Termon and Glencolmcille.

A string of shady dealings have left many people disturbed by the clandestine way in which Údarás now seems to operate, both locally in Donegal and out of its Galway headquarters.

Following the secrecy of the sale by Údarás of Irish seaweed rights to Canadian multinational Acadian Seaplants, with an unprecedented ten-year confidentiality clause attached to the contract, by which no documents can be accessed, some observers say the Irish language economic group has lost public confidence.

An Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee (PAC) investigation queried why 30,000 euro was spent by Údarás on seven different trips by senior officials to look at “seaweed projects” in Halifax, Canada, according to a report in The Irish Times.

These suspicious situations plus behind-the-scenes talks with a Catholic Church group to construct what some say was to be an alcohol, sex-addiction and drugs rehabilitation clinic in Falcarragh in a landscaped green area now used for community walks and jogging, has left some wondering if the publicly-funded group has reneged on its responsibilities in terms of transparency and fairness.

Landscaped area in Falcarragh that was being earmarked for an addiction center to be funded by Udaras.

“This organization is funded out of the public pocket so at the very least it should be open about how exactly it’s spending that money,” said one irate Gaoth Dobhair resident at the recent ‘Scoil Gheimridh’ (Winter School) music festival. “People are also questioning the ownership of this Galway company, Lir, and what its connections might be to top executives of Údarás. It could be a re-run of the seaweed scandal.”

It has also become known that the Údarás office in Donegal is to be paid a whopping 600,000 euro for managing a 2.3 million euro EU LEADER scheme in the county, almost a quarter of the total funding, aside from several million euro it receives annually out of the national public coffers.

“Is the wind-farms’ project simply another way for Údarás executives to make money?” said a resident of Bunbeg earlier this week. “There’s no proof at all they’ll help reduce energy costs as we’ve had wide turbines for years in the area and there’s been no obvious public benefit at all. It’s long past time people were told just how much money is being used by Údarás for projects that create jobs and how much is simply being used to top up executive salaries and expenses. For God’s sake, Údarás staff have the highest salaries of any group under the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.”

While many criticize Údarás for its poor record in job creation in Donegal, it must be acknowledged that it is not easy to attract companies to Ireland’s most northwesterly region, but few would disagree that greater transparency is necessary to calm rising fears that scarce public money is being misspent.


If you’re interested in political and corporate corruption in a suspense novel linking Donegal to the US, read newly-published ‘Pretty Ugly,’ to be launched also in Dublin this month.  Can be purchased direct from Amazon, in eBook or print form and locally, in Donegal from Gallaghers or Matt Bonners Bunbeg, or Easons Letterkenny.

 

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Good writing gives me goose-bumps

Having arrived in picturesque west Donegal – Bun na Leaca to be precise – over six years ago and recognizing it for the artists’ haven that it is, my wife, Columbia, and I thought about establishing a creative writers’ retreat.
After all, surely such a pristine and bucolic landscape could inspire great prose. 

Ireland Writing Retreat participants enjoy a special Celtic legend coastal walk with guide, Seamus Doohan.

Not that such an idea hadn’t been done before.  Poet partners, Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons and her late departed husband, James, had done so many years previous, setting up a ‘Poet’s House’ in a refurbished cottage at Clonbarra, outside Falcarragh.

Then funding was more generous and tens of thousands of euro annually wasn’t much of a problem for Udaras na Gaeltachta, the Arts Council, Donegal County Council, LEADER, and other sources.
Times have changed, however, and the public funding pump is dripping slowly, a mere trickle at best. Seanie FitzPatrick and Co. and Fianna Fail made sure of that.

Rose Sweeney teaches future members of the ‘Riverdance’ cast the basic ‘sevens’ of Irish ceilidhe dancing.

County Librarian and Divisional Manager of Cultural Services, Eileen Burgess, a keen supporter of our idea, issued warnings: “It’s a wonderful project but there’s simply no money in the kitty. You’d pretty much be on your own.”

But you know how it is – an intriguing idea comes along, sticks to you like furze in a meadow and simply won’t fall away no matter how hard you try.
So, even though there are more than one hundred creative writing conferences and book festivals throughout Ireland – many in the much-publicized, tourist-centric counties of Dublin, Cork, Galway and Kerry – we took the plunge.
After all, isn’t Donegal the prettiest of them all?

Washington-based triple book author and former CNN editor, John DeDakis, enjoys a leisurely trip on ‘The Cricket’ to Gola Island with other writing retreat participants.

Of course, wisdom told us to delay until better economic times were upon us. But passion drove us forward, screaming, ‘tempus fugit.’ We swayed for a while between the two.

We’re going into our third year now and have managed to attract participants from far off fields, many of whom had never been to Ireland before never mind the back-roads of the Donegal Gaeltacht – Wyoming, Sydney, Utah, Perth, Stoke-on-Trent, New Jersey to name but a few.
Not bad for a project without public funding of any kind.

Guest speakers at the Ireland Writing Retreat held at Teac Jack, Gaoth Dobhair. (l to r) Singer-songwriter-guitarist, Ian Smith; Mark Gregory, forensic editor; actor/director Murray Learmont.

Imagine where it could go with a bit of financial support – but perhaps only if it’s located in one of the aforementioned counties.

As for this year, international stars of the week-long retreat included John DeDakis, triple book author and former senior editor at CNN for 25 years who flew directly from Washington to be at Teac Jack’s, the retreat location; Anthony Quinn, experienced author of crime fiction with a crafty literary twist; and Mark Gregory, a much-heralded forensic editor (the person who reads book manuscripts minutely word by word, syllable by syllable).

Plot, character, suspense – (l to r) Authors John DeDakis and Anthony Quinn discuss the challenging task of writing novels.

But committed locals also loaned their weight enthusiastically to the endeavor – actor and drama group director, Murray Learmont, guided participants on improving their public reading skills; singer-songwriter-guitarist, Ian Smith granted insights into the challenging task of lyric writing; Rose Sweeney taught participants their ‘sevens’ in preparation for a ceilidhe in the backroom of the popular Glassagh venue; Pól Ó Muireasáin gave an enlightening tour of Gola Island; and Seamus Doohan led participants on a Celtic legend coastal walk – all of which was grist to the mill for writers’ creativity.

Eddie, the uncrowned King of Gola Island (in blue) with walking guide, Pol O’Muiresean, (r) talk about life on the west Donegal island many years ago.

The ‘Donegal News’ considered this year’s ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ which ended last week, worthy of an article in today’s edition.
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Onward to 2016.
 

‘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.

Brewing up a storm

A wheelbarrow and a pair of boots painted proudly in Donegal GAA colors perched atop a house roof in Falcarragh.

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A sexy, full-size female mannequin dressed in nifty sporting gear posing roadside in Glassagh, Gaoth Dobhair.

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And goodness knows how many rusted carcasses of cars suddenly transformed into brightly-colored, eye-catching street decorations.

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Sporting success has brought out the best in Donegal creativity – both on and off the field.

With less than seven days to go before ‘the Grande Finale’ at Croke Park, the county is awash with an artistic spirit that Jimmy, Declan and their respective teams have inspired.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if such genuine outpouring of community solidarity could be harnessed into sustained cultural tourism projects that would provide much needed long-term employment and economic benefits?

If some of the recently erected ‘altars’ to the success of Donegal GAA are anything to go by, there is no shortage of ideas, but funding is sadly missing. Not because the money isn’t there, it is. But because those holding the purse strings don’t have the confidence that proposed projects are anything more than short-term hobbies. Consequently, those with excellent cultural tourism ideas continue to live a hand-to-mouth existence, spending much of their brilliant creativity, not on artistic endeavor, but on scrounging for pennies, with long-term sustainability a mere pipe-dream.

An earlier post cited Udaras’ rejection of funding this year for the excellent ‘Evil Eye’ festival in Falcarragh. Now, a recent report shows a paltry 48,250 euro has been shoe-horned for 17 festivals throughout the county by Failte Ireland. Work out the math. It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

Meanwhile, there is a peculiar notion out there that beer will be consumed in considerable quantities in the county if Donegal ride victorious over the Holy Ground this weekend.

The bad news is that beverage choice for such a celebration in the county is among the most limited in the nation. Seemingly, more publicans in Donegal have kowtowed to multinationals such as the British-owned company, Guinness, and Heineken because they offer their products wholesale for as little as 50 cents a pint rather than offer their customers a wider choice of beers and ales to imbibe as is happening in other parts of Ireland.

Attending the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival a week ago at the RDS in Dublin, I was delighted to see how many micro-breweries had been launched nationwide – Galway Bay Brewery, The White Hag in Sligo and 9 White Deer in Cork to name but a few. While Ireland is still well behind England and the US in terms of micro-beer choice, mainly due to consumer acquiescence, Donegal is well behind other counties.

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Only Kinnegar Brewing and Muckish Mountain Brewery keep Donegal from being bottom of the national micro-brewery league table. The latter is named after nearby Kinnegar Beach 
just north of Rathmullan and produces around 4,000 liters per week with funky brands such as Limeburner, Scraggy Bay, Rustbucket, Devil’s Backbone and Yannaroddy. The latter, based in Creeslough, produces Miner’s Red Ale made with dark crystal malt.

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It is the same narrative when it comes to cider. Check any pub in Donegal and the likelihood is the label says ‘Bulmers.’ For the record, most of what goes into this particular drink is concentrate, usually brought in from Poland by the truckload. Every day they’re lined up at the plant waiting to unload. ‘Tree slurry,’ as as one cider aficionado quipped less than affectionately. In contrast, Irish apples represent a tiny percentage, less than five percent of content, insiders say. That’s why information on bottles and cans is so vague and limited. Yet, there’s choice aplenty – if we push publicans to provide it – with scores of other Irish cider producers that use freshly-squeezed apples, such as ‘Tempted? outside Lisburn, the ‘Armagh Cider Company’ and ‘Craigies Irish Cider’ in Wicklow. But most Donegal pubs ignore them – for the sake of greater profit.

Good news is that a crop with a long tradition in Donegal but one long forgotten is again being planted – something that gives a faint glimmer of hope to real beer drinkers. Hops are now growing in Conwal outside Letterkenny near the site of an old monastic settlement, whose caped inhabitants once prided themselves on their beer-making skills (those monks had their priorities right).

So when you rush to the bar this Sunday evening celebrating the latest Ryan McHugh goal, forgo the usual sulphite-laden, chemical-ridden liquids and ask for a local brew. Then watch closely the bemused expression on the barman’s face (as per below).

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Donegal Gaeltacht community spirit rises: but where’s the money?

Some years ago, displaying immense creativity and skill, a local team of hard-working people in Galway created ‘Macnas,’ an organisation that produces a series of exciting, colourful outdoor parades and indoor shows filled with magnificent costumes and performers.
With generous funding from the Arts Council, Údarás na Gaeltachta, Culture Ireland and Galway Council, the company expanded rapidly; exciting and inspiring audiences worldwide with performances as diverse as U2’s Zooropa Tour; the Millennium parade in New York City; WOMADelaide, South Australia; Chaoyang Spring Carnival, Beijing; the President’s Garden Party, Áras an Uachtaráin; and in a host of festivals, towns and cities throughout Ireland and across Europe.

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Macnas, Galway – an estimated 40,000 euro cost per festival show. (photo courtesy Macnas)

This weekend in the west Donegal town of Falcarragh, a similar group of local hard-working people, under the leadership of festival director, Kathleen Gallagher, and Sean Fitzgerald, will recreate a similar dazzlingly entertaining costume and culture filled show entitled ‘Evil Eye’ (Féile na Súile Nimhe). Featuring large-scale puppet characters, a samba band with Formorian soldiers (ancient sea-farers) and stilt walkers, it will highlight unforgettable Celtic legendary characters such as Balor of the Evil Eye and Lugh, the Sun God (thus ‘Lugh’s Mountain’ now known as Errigal) and the history of the Cloch Cheann Fhaola area.

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‘Evil Eye’ Festival Falcarragh, Donegal – organised on a budget of around 4,000 euro. A whopping ten times less than Galway’s Macnas (photo courtesy Eddie McFadden).

But there’s one major difference between the two festivals: while the Galway team hosts its show with pockets bulging with euro (an estimated 40,000 euro per festival, according to national news reports) – the Falcarragh one has a few pennies. And most of that was raised through its own activities, including determined people who tackled their first adventure race – the 23-kilometer combined run, kayak and cycling Mulroy Bay competition– and, later, the even more challenging 44-kilometer ‘Gael Force’ race.
So how does Údarás na Gaeltachta, the Arts Council and Donegal County Council view this admirable cultural tourism project?
Representatives of the above organisations came to enjoy the Falcarragh festival last year, full of praise for the creators of the extravaganza, a highlight in the west Donegal social calendar. But when asked for money, they all suddenly shied away. While more than 500,000 euro has been given to Macnas in Galway, the Arts Council finally granted a paltry 600 euro for ‘Evil Eye’ and around 1,250 euro is supposed to be donated from the council’s ‘The Gathering’ fund (money not received as of blog posting – two day before event begins).
In its turn, Údarás Donegal contacted the organisers earlier this year, but not to offer financial support. Instead, it called only to inform the team that the application deadline had passed (would it not have been more constructive to have contacted them before, not after, the deadline, especially has it had moved the date forward?).
Later, when approached for some space in one of its industrial estates in which to construct the festival’s giant puppets and store equipment and costumes, Udaras demanded 50 per cent of the commercial rate, which obviously – on such a tiny budget – the community group could not afford. Ironically, Údarás has thousands of square meters of space lying empty and unused in its industrial estates throughout the Gaeltacht for which it is already paying utilities, spaces that are supposed to be used for ‘community development.’ In the end, it was the generosity of local Falcarragh man, John ‘the Rake’ McFadden, that helped save the annual ‘Evil Eye’ festival. He donated his large agricultural shed to organisers.

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‘Evil Eye’ festival combines entertainment with education on Celtic history for both adults and children.

Faced with a severe lack of funding assistance, the hardworking festival team were forced to borrow and beg – costumes from the Northwest Carnival Initiative in Derry for 30 members of the Cloughaneely Marching Band who will act as seahorses in the historical re-enactment and other costumes from the Inishowen Carnival Group for 12 volunteer samba dancers. They also had to rely on the efforts of organisers of a childrens’ summer camp in Ballina Resource Centre at which local kids made shields and swords, 10 of whom will march in the festival. Nine members of the Curragh Club of Magheraroarty, as well as local plasterers, who will walk on stilts, are also helping out.
If this kind of creativity and community spirit had been displayed in other countries such as the US or Australia, it would probably be recognized immediately as such and funding made readily available (as indeed it is in other Irish counties such as Galway).
Yet Údarás in Donegal, with Fine Gael national board member, John Curran, living nearby, continue to ignore such culture tourism projects, projects with the potential for economic development through tourism, while at the same time wasting public money on generous expenses and junkets for its staff members (including a large delegation who traveled, with their spouses, on an all-expenses paid trip to Las Vegas – to meet officials of Dublin-based Enterprise Ireland).

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Údarás Donegal refused to give ‘Evil Eye’ organisers free space in its empty industrial estates for the construction and storage of giant puppets.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Gallagher voiced her frustration: “It seems to me that Údarás either has no interest whatsoever in tourism development or simply doesn’t understand its potential,” she said. “The tourism officer for Údarás, Gearoid O’Smaolain who lives in Falcarragh, has never even approached us to see if we needed help of any kind. He doesn’t belong on any of the local community committees or attend meetings to find out what is happening on the ground.”
She added, “I carried out comprehensive research into possible funding from Údarás and on which individual staff members I should approach, something that is not very clear from its materials. Many of their job descriptions certainly include the word ‘community,’ such as ‘community enterprise’ and ‘community development and marketing’ yet strangely, there doesn’t seem to be much community development going on at all.”
As multi award-winning actor Diarmuid de Faoite said of the festival: “The ‘Evil Eye’ is our ancient past and living present in all its wild beauty.”
It’s a shame the Arts Council, Donegal County Council and Údarás na Gaeltachta don’t seem to agree.

While misguided policies, cronyism and wastage of public money has been an unfortunate hallmark of Údarás almost since its inception, the good news in this instance is that due to the sterling efforts of Falcarragh volunteers, the ‘Evil Eye’ festival is going ahead.
So why not treat yourself, family and friends to a wonderful spectacle of colour, culture and heritage and pop along to Falcarragh between August 22nd and 24th.
A festival highlight will be a medieval banquet in St Ann’s Church Killult, the 1900’s structure providing an excellent setting for a magical evening of song, dance and drama. The festival will also pay tribute to the history of Muckish Mountain’s mining legacy with guided walks on the old Miners Path and disused railway tracks. It will also feature birds of prey and weaponry displays, complete with a pig on a spit in a ‘medieval field’ while skills of strength and agility will be tested in a range of quest games to find one of the story’s main characters, Lugh Lámhfhada.
For further information, see Evil Eye Festival site.