Donegal man leaves top job at  Údarás na Gaeltachta, remains keen to support key projects

by Sean Hillen

After five years as CEO of Údarás na Gaeltachta – the leading economic development group in lrish-speaking areas – co-ordinating around 300 million euro in publicly funded projects, Donegal-based Mícheál Ó hÉanaigh has completed his contract, leaving some people in the county worried about future local projects.

Having remained in close contact with Mícheál over the last few years, I am one of those somewhat fearful, in the full realisation that Donegal, indeed Ireland, has just lost a loyal servant in a key national position.

Mícheál Ó hÉanaigh held key position at Údarás na Gaeltachta.

Mícheál, 63, took up his position as head of Údarás when the organisation was trying to overcome the worst public relations disaster in its history, when multiple scandals over misspending of public money rocked its foundations. This was highlighted when board members and their partners enjoyed first-class airline tickets and luxury accommodation in various places in the US, including Las Vegas – purportedly to meet officials of the Dublin-based Industrial Development Agency, which also has offices throughout Ireland, including Donegal.

It was believed such situations – including conflicts of interest among top officials – continued unchecked because successive Governments turned a blind eye, not wanting to criticise an organisation working within the Irish language, a politically sensitive sector. And also because few journalists and editors in Dublin knew much Irish and shied away from tackling Údarás’ operations, seeing the language as a challenge to proper investigation. Media in Galway, where Údarás is headquartered and has a major influence, also stayed clear of major controversy.

Donegal having the second largest Irish-speaking population and the largest in geographical size, I myself investigated the organisation and wrote a three-part series for the Donegal News and a series of stories for this blog (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). For other stories, simply type ‘Udaras’ in the Search engine of this blog. Members of the Dáil’s multi-party Public Action Committee, an important body whose aim is to ensure public money is spent properly, told me they were ’utterly shocked’ by revelations about corruption within Údarás.

It was in the midst of this furore that Letterkenny-based Mícheál bravely took up the gauntlet, and from all accounts, rose to the occasion, sorting out many of the difficulties Údarás faced such as image problems and personnel changes. His responsibilities also included governance and risk management.

Among many tasks, Mícheál also prepared and implemented the Gaeltacht Regional Strategy for Economic, Social and Cultural Development ‘based on sustainability, innovation, entrepreneurship, learning and creativity.’

Living in Donegal, Mícheál was enthusiastic to promote his home county and supported initiatives in the cultural, community and business sectors. I collaborated with him on tourism-related proposals for Gaoth Dobhair, one revolving around the Spanish Armada and another entitled ‘Fiddles and Faeries’ to promote traditional music and culture, awards for which were presented at Leon’s Tavern in Crolly this year.

Led by Mícheál, Údarás na Gaeltachta helped fund this cultural initiative of mine.

Mícheál told me proudly this weekend about his accomplishments during his five-year tenure at Údarás. 

“Tourism development in Donegal has been  a major focus of mine, with key projects such as the Fanad Lighthouse, Sliabh Liag, the Errigal Project and Crolly Visitor Centre being advanced, as well as the Blas na Gaeltachta project initiated in Annagaire and the Narosa Marine project in Machaire Rabhartaigh,’’ he said.

He added, “The Gteic Gaeltacht Digital Hub Network was also established and now comprises thirty hubs, with five established in Donegal and three more in development.’’

Mícheál also said, “last year saw record job creation in the overall national Gaeltacht region of Donegal, with employment on the Gaoth Dobhair Business Park growing to over seven hundred and companies such as Randox in Dungloe seeing substantial growth in employment.’’

Mícheál is keen to promote environmentally-friendly tourism and culture projects and renewable energy initiatives.

The ‘Green Economy’ was also among his top priorities. ‘’Plans are advanced for a 5MW community-owned photovoltaic renewable energy project in Gaoth Dobhair and marine resources harnessed, with plans for offshore renewable energy projects and the development of added value projects based on seaweed and fish processing,’’ he said.

In financial terms, Mícheál added, “Last year, a selection of larger Gaeltacht companies had combined sales of over one billion euro, with over 600 million euro in exports, 450 million spend in the Irish economy and 175 million paid in wages.’’

My fervent hope is that Mícheál remains deeply involved in the economic development of the Donegal Gaeltacht with his comprehensive experience not only as the eyes and ears of Údarás for the last five years but also as vice-president of Tourism, Culture and Youth for the Assembly of European Regions (AER) and former director of Services for Community and Enterprise at Donegal County Council.

What’s next for Mícheál – “At this time, I’m examining all my options,” he said simply. ‘I feel I have a lot more still to give.”

Sean Hillen, author and journalist, has worked on a series of Europe-wide projects for major NGOs, including UNICEF, the Rockefeller Foundation and billionaire philanthropist, George Soros