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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Crooks, citizens or celebrities?

Ethics, or lack thereof, has been the raging catchphrase in Donegal recently with county councilor John O’Donnell  caught on RTE camera allegedly offering lobbying services for cash and Bunbeg-based, EU-funded former school principal, Finbarr Boyle, stealing more than 200,000 euro from a village school, including money earmarked for childrens’ food.

But what’s all the commotion about? Hasn’t there been such unsavory goings-on right here in Donegal for years? Why the shock? Or is there any, really?

In last weekend’s edition of ‘The Irish Times,’ columnist Fintan O’Toole, painted a scary scenario, a malaise spreading nationwide.

…other cultures criminalise the things they find unacceptable; we find unacceptable only the things that have been criminalized. If you can get away with it, we reckon, it can’t be all that bad.” He then quoted Central Bank Governor, Patrick Honohan on white-collar crime, saying, “It is remarkable, first of all, how long it takes, how heavy the procedures are and how light the consequences.

Back in Donegal.

Ardara-born Finbarr Boyle’s story is well-publicized “School principal pleads guilty to 7 counts of theft and forgery.”

As a journalist and editor for over thirty years, I thought sharpened instincts had made me a good judge of character – boy, was I ever wrong.

Sitting at a lunch prepared by my wife in my home with Mr. Boyle as guest some time ago, I would never have guessed the man across from me would stoop to such lows as using a village school’s money where he was principal to treat himself royally to holidays in England, Spain and other fine places, car and house payments and expensive golf equipment.

Finbarr Boyle Donegal, CeangalG,

(l to r): Concubhar Ó LIatháin, CeangalG Marketing Manager, Claire Nic Neacail, Alasdair Morrison CeangalG Director, Dinny McGinley Fine Gael TD and Fionbar Ó Baoill – CeangalG Training Manager.

Mr. Boyle was given space inside the headquarters of Údarás na Gaeltachta in the Gweedore Industrial Estate, Bunbeg as a training manager – surprising, as that particular organisation has refused to gave any free space to small, local entrepreneurs in that same estate, a situation local Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty, has consistently taken issue with.

I must admit, Mr. Boyle impressed me then, a fast talker, assertive and supremely confident. Yes, I know what you’re probably thinking – ‘Sounds like a conman to me.’ As things turned out, you are absolutely right. But I was left sad and disillusioned after learning of his multiple theft. He struck me then as the kind of person who could be a positive force for change, especially as we discussed the importance of ethics and the need for the Donegal Gaeltacht to rid itself of its historic cronyism and nepotism which have warped normal economic development of the region.

Yet this is the same person found guilty of seven counts of theft over a number of years (he admitted to many more as part of his plea bargain), for whom Judge John Aymler may not impose a custodial sentence because, in part, 25,000 euro of the money taken may be paid back within a year. That’s around a tenth of what was stolen.

Who says crime doesn’t pay?

A key question, however, still remains unanswered: Mr. Boyle was caught red-handed several years ago (the investigation has been ongoing for at least seven (7) years), so how did he obtain a well-paying position as training manager of a lucrative, multi-million euro, tax-payer supported EU funded project – ironically, one aimed at helping economically disadvantaged people? Was this , in itself, a classic case of nepotism and cronyism? Regardless of the multiple thefts, people have asked, “Does a school principal have the business credentials to train entrepreneurs?”

When contacted by me this week on the issue, Dr D. Munro, chair of the CeangalG Steering Group, Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Scotland, e-mailed back, saying, “Mr. Boyle’s actual contract of employment, for the post of Training Officer, with the wider CeangalG Project, was formally and directly managed through our Project Partners, Údarás na Gaeltachta.” He added that Mr. Boyle was “employed by the project between 9th Sept 2013 and 31st March 2015.” The Gardai investigation began as late as 2008 and Mr. Boyle, according to media reports, admitted his thefts almost two years ago (January last year).

Mr. Munro added, “At no stage in either the recruitment process or during his subsequent period of employment, was CeangalG ever made aware of there being any on-going police investigation.” Mr. Munro cc his email to the law company of Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie and to the University of the Highlands. Have I touched a red button?

Entitled CeangalG (ConenctG), this project is funded by the EU’s INTERREG IVA, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, MG ALBA, the Scottish Government, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich and focuses on the Gaeltachts of Donegal, Scotland and Belfast. On it’s website, it states:

CeangalG Donegal, INTERREG IVAAs for independent councilor John O’Donnell, the ball is largely in his court. He can do the dignified thing and bow out. If he stays, he places the entire council under a shadow. Independent councillor Frank McBrearty says he should be removed from all committees. But it seems resigning is the last thing O’Donnell will do. Another Independent councillor, Micheál Cholm Mac Giolla Easbuic, is right in asking fellow councilors to walk out of the chamber at the next meeting in protest. Someone has to stand up, otherwise – due to blatant impunity – it will get much worse. Let’s see if that happens. If not, then Fintan O’Toole’s words ring frighteningly true.

John O Donnell Donegal, independent councilor Donegal

Independent councilor John O Donnell: will he do the right thing?

But questionable dealings are nothing new in Donegal, as many local people have told me.

Under the auspices of the former Fianna Fáil government, Liam Cunningham (Liam Ó Cuinneagáin), was paid substantial sums for his services as member and long-time chairperson of Údarás na Gaeltachta – more than a quarter of a million euro. Between 2002 to 2012, his travel expenses alone amounted to 131,730 euro. His fees amounted to 206,962 euro.

More than that, documents requested by me under the Freedom of Information Act also now show that at least one company he established, Oideas Gael, received generous amounts of money – more than 350,000 euro in a series of payments – from the very same organization he chaired for so long. Mr. Cunningham said Oideas Gael was a hobby. With a financial return like that, that’s quite a hobby.

In stock market terms, is this not a case of insider trading, and therefore unethical? After all, no better-placed person to access money from a group than the person who’s on the inside track of that very same group, knowing intimately its budgets, its strategy and its key staff. When called by me about this situation in a phone interview, Liam said, “Sean, things were different then. I don’t see it as a conflict of interest.” Different then? How is it different? The question was never answered.

Oideas Gael, Liam Cunningham Donegal

Liam Cunningham: is it wrong to lobby for money from the very funding organisation that you chair?

Some readers might say, ‘Liam hosts Irish-language classes.’ That’s true, but so do many others and they don’t benefit from the rich financial backing Oideas Gael received so handily. Still others could do so – if they had that kind of money. Is such treatment fair and ethical? Is the playing ground a level one? How many times has Údarás said there’s not enough money for your project?

The particular situation of Mr. Cunningham also raises an inevitable question: was it linked to an ongoing quid pro quo agreement among local Údarás board members then? And has anything changed since? Interested to find out? You have the right to know, and here’s how. (See below).

Mr. Cunningham has since been named, ‘Donegal Person of the Year.’ Considering the dire economic development of the Gaeltacht, where I live, under his watch, the question must be asked, ‘Is this how we want the term ‘model citizen’ to be defined?”

Michael Heaney, formerly a director of services with Donegal County Council, has recently been appointed director of Enterprise & Investment with Údarás. Will his leadership change the way Údarás doles out money, how it selects projects to fund? Or will the same old cadre of elites be the recipients? Time will tell.

As Údarás is helping DLDC select projects for funding under the EU’s upcoming LEADER programme, it will be operating under much tighter European regulations than the rather loose Irish ones it has been working under thus far. It will be interesting to monitor the quality of their project selection process for LEADER.

As O’Toole writes in last Saturday’s column, “If corruption is very low on the list of priorities for criminal justice, it is little higher on the list of political priorities…. So long as impunity reigns, the rare eejit who gets caught will always evoke sympathy… What marks out (Ireland) is the breathtaking degree of impunity for all white-collar crimes.

Isn’t it long past time this situation changed? The upcoming election gives us the chance to affect such change. In  ofthis regard, it is worth noting the words  ‘Donegal News’ columnist Martin McGinley’s in Friday’s edition, “We get what we accept.”

You have the right to know:

You can find out additional information on the dealings of Údarás by e-mailing Judy Ní Dhubháin at judy(at)udaras.ie. Quoting the FOI Act 2014, you can ask for any information you like, financial or otherwise. The service is free.

Anyone wanting answers from CeangalG, can contact Dr D. Munro, chair of the CeangalG Steering Group at dm.smo(at)uhi.ac.uk or +44 (0) 1471 888352. Claire Nicolson is the organisation’s administrator claire(at)ceangalg.net Alasdair Morrison, a former minister in the Government of Scotland, is its director. Or through Údarás na Gaeltachta, Donegal. Tel: 074-9560100. Fax: 074-9560101. Email: dnag(at)udaras.ie

Be sure to tell me what you find out. I’d be curious to know.

Shipwrecks, puppets and mechanical creatures – opportunities for cultural tourism

An earlier post – Cultural tourism: its time is nigh – highlighted the immense potential for cultural tourism in the Donegal Gaeltacht to help fill the vacuum left by failed government policies, mainly by Údarás na Gaeltachta, to provide jobs and prevent the departure of our dynamic young to foreign shores.

With the pursuit of major manufacturing companies a lost cause mainly due to difficult and expensive transport logistics and call centres being a short-term band-aid, cultural tourism has been an underused weapon in the battle against rising unemployment and severe economic decline in the Gaeltacht.

While some say a minority of people such as language-based entrepreneur Liam Cunningham in Glencolmcille have become tourism millionaires, mainly based on national and international grants with Cunningham perhaps reaping the benefits of his chairmanship of Údarás for over a decade (whether questionable or not, meaning within ethical parameters, is a topic for future discussion), the depth of funding to other local cultural tourism entrepreneurs has been sparse.

The reason, according to Udaras officials, is that cultural tourism doesn’t create long-term jobs. Asked why, officials are at a loss to explain, so what this long-held and somewhat irrational attitude is based on is a matter of pure conjecture, with some critics saying the real reason is unrelated to accepted principles of economic development but rather linked to cronyism, influence peddling and continued support, financial and otherwise, to Fianna Fail, a party that ruled the roost for so long and put certain people in key executive positions.

While the accuracy of this allegation requires further investigation, what is important to note is what other parts of Ireland and beyond have done – and are doing – to reap healthy benefits from committed policies to cultural tourism development and analyze whether the Donegal Gaeltacht has – to put it succinctly – ‘got what it takes.’

At a largely EU-funded conference earlier this year under the auspices of CeangalG and with the catchphrase ‘Selling Our Story,’ speaker after speaker talked about interesting cultural tourism ideas that have produced positive measurable results, including increased job creation. Many of the speakers agreed that key components for such success include ‘identity,’ ‘authenticity’ and ‘memorability.’

In my opinion, the Latin term ‘genius loci’ (spirit of place) best describes what the central element is – the specific nuances of any given place that separate it from the rest of the world.

So, does the Donegal Gaeltacht have what it takes?

In a word, yes!

Cherishing an ancient language that proudly holds its place among the oldest in the known world; with the singing tradition of sean-nós, whose ornamented, rhythmic intimations are an inspirational reminder of the primordial beginnings of Man; and with the area’s unique traditional dance and music, disparate elements of ‘genius loci’ are plentiful. Not to mention the intriguing Celtic legends such as those related to Balor and Lugh, thus the Mount of Lugh (now called Errigal) named after the ancient Sun God.

Having had the privilege over the last 30 years of travelling as a journalist on assignment to many parts of the world, I considered some of the places I’ve visited and successful cultural tourism projects there, projects that have not only strengthened the economic vitality of deprived areas but also uplifted the innate spirit and pride of the local population.

Here are a few, some which might just provide models of excellence for the Donegal Gaeltacht.

elephant

Creative engineering in Nantes, France, has led to economic revival based on cultural tourism.

Nantes, France – Earlier this year, I travelled to this western town in the Pays Loire region to see such a project. Faced with empty industrial estates, local officials had decided to invest in cultural tourism to create jobs using the existing space and infrastructure.

Realizing how watching ships return to this riverside port with exotic cargo from around the world inspired a young Jules Verne to later write science-fiction classics as ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ and ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth,’ the officials embarked on a project that now attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually. Entitled Les Machines de L’Ileand opened in 2007, it is a 21st-century mechanical wonderland consisting of monumental structures including the, ‘Grand Elephant,’ ‘Mantra Ray,’ ‘Sea Snake,’ ‘Heron Tree,’ and ‘World Carousel’ in what is known as the ‘Gallery of Machines’ upon which visitors enjoy adventure rides and experiences. Last year alone, almost 100,000 people rode on the Grand Elephant; 190,000 people visited the gallery and 250,000 the ‘World Carousel.’ Total investment – in various stages – was 17.7 million euro, a sum that was recouped within a few years. In comparison, according to Údarás, Largo Foods received around seven million euro in funding and left the area earlier this year.

Not only did the project increase business revenues, it also created permanent, long-term new jobs in central workshops employing such tradespeople as plumbers, carpenters and engineers. Could a project like this – using local legendary Celtic figures as central subjects – not help deal with the empty industrial spaces throughout west Donegal, while attracting more tourists to the area?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Puppetry, an age-old tradition in Sicily, attracts tourists and locals alike, providing both entertainment and cultural education.

Palermo, Sicily – Like west Donegal, this rocky island at the toe of Italy has generally been ignored by the central government in Rome. Faced with worsening employment, local officials took matters into their own hands. Seizing on a peculiar and unique vein of cultural heritage dating back hundreds of years to the time of Socrates – puppetry – they created a flourishing tourism attraction that has boosted business and employment.

Opera dei pui’ (puppet theater) has a long tradition in Sicily, reaching its peak around 100 years ago on the island. With support from the Association for Conservation of Popular Traditions, visitors to the downtown Palermo puppet museum can now see hundreds of beautifully designed puppets, their masters’ equipment (mestiere), as well as other memorabilia, and regularly-staged shows involving cultural characters and chivalrous heroes such as Orlando, Rinaldo and Gano di Maganza. So strong has been the resurgence of interest in this long-held tradition, puppet theatre performances – that also play an important educational role in highlighting the island’s history –take place in other parts of Sicily. Again, using local legendary figures and stories, can the Donegal Gaeltacht not avail of a similar cultural tourism initiative? A creative team under the guidance of Kathleen Gallagher has already shown the level of know-how required for such a project.

shipwreck

Donegal flag flies high over one of the area’s most well-known shipwrecks opposite Ostan Gaoth Dobhair. Many others lie offshore, spanning centuries of history.

Key West, Florida – before it became a hotspot for tourism, this area on the tip of the peninsula was a backward, forgotten place in the 1800s where local fishermen and their families led difficult hand-to-mouth existences. Only when the phrase ‘Wreck Ashore!’ rang out did hope for better things arise. ‘Unloading’ the many ships that ran into difficulty was a chore, but a most rewarding one.

Seizing upon this colourful aspect of the area’s history, local officials decided to create an attraction that would be both entertaining, as well as educational. Thus, the ‘Key West Shipwreck Museum,’ where visitors step back in time to discover Key West’s unique maritime heritage. The museum combines actors, video and actual artefacts from the rediscovery of wrecked vessels such as the Isaac Allerton, which sank in 1856 on the treacherous Florida Keys reef.

Narrator and master wrecker, Asa Tift, and his wrecking crew tell the story of how this unusual industry created livelihoods for the early pioneers of Key West. Visitors can even climb a 65-foot lookout tower in search of wrecks.

West Donegal, with its rich maritime heritage and its record of shipwrecks, including the sinking of Spanish Armada galleons off Tory and Gola Islands plus other vessels, both military from the two world wars and commercial, offers a similar historical backdrop to Key West. What’s to prevent officials funding such a project – except, of course, narrow-minded thinking and lack of specialised business acumen?