D-Day approaches inside the Donegal County Council Chambers

As D-Day (O’Donnell Day) approaches within the chambers of Donegal County Council this morning perhaps it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that beleaguered Councilor John O’Donnell has simply been misunderstood over the last few weeks and that this occasion, the first full council meeting since airing of the RTE ‘cash for favors’ controversy, gives him the opportunity to clarify matters.

As the debate gets underway, the eyes and ears of many of the nation’s political and financial elite will be on little ole Donegal, that ‘wee beautiful place on the edge of the Atlantic’ in the very far corner of the country, that is and isn’t an integral part of the island of Ireland, depending which perspective from which you look.

Councillors John O’Donnell, Michael McBride, Ciaran Brogan and all their fellows in the chamber will have the chance to show that, in the right and proper way, “we are different up here.”

Now what that ‘difference’ means is the key question we all hope will be answered truthfully and forthrightly today, hopefully before lunch-time comes around – though that is as likely as seeing a polar bear wearing suntan lotion eating brussels sprouts with a spoon at the side of a heated swimming pool.

Will this morning’s open public event echo the catchphrase that became so popular in the 1970s after the Oscar-winning movie ‘Network’ was first screened? Then lead character, Howard Beale, (played wonderfully by actor Peter Finch), on the brink between brilliance and madness, says passionately, “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad,” then screams, “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” his words being carried swiftly from person to person, young and old, man and woman, boy and girl, city to city across the whole of the nation.

If these words are echoed in the council chamber today in Lifford, who’s going to say them first? And will they mean them?

Could they be the battle-cry for a new, rejuvenated Donegal?

Could this be the historical moment we begin to shrug off the cloak of cronyism and corruption that has draped this county for far too long, with the collusion of various governments, and stymied our cultural, social and economic development?

To achieve this not small feat, a comprehensive, collective community effort is required and for that we, in turn, require the strength of the media, broadcast, print and digital  – not the way the print media acted over the last few days, publishing what was in effect a joint press release from  Údarás na Gaeltachta and John O’Donnell on the front and inside pages, nor Highland Radio, avoiding the controversial, not-so transparent payments made from one entity to the other.

If efforts to rid this county of counterproductive ‘goings-on,’ we need local media to be brave, enterprising and outspoken. It is their future as much as it is ours that is at stake.

While this article in yesterday’s ‘The Sunday Business Post’ gives most of the facts surrounding Mr. O’Donnell and Údarás, there is still much more to be said.

Sean Hillen Sunday Business Post, Councillor O'Donnell Donegal

For the sake of fairness and democracy, let Cllrs. O’Donnell and McBride have their say. Give them the chance to explain how and why they were granted the 120,000 euro from Údarás and about how much exactly, and O’Donnell to clarify to whom one of his other companies, Kilmac Form Work Limited, owes millions of euro in debt, and where indeed those millions are now. And why he has still not paid 33,000 euro in injury compensation to an unfortunate Creeslough woman who’s foot he drove over in a car accident.

John O'Donnell Donegal, Donegal councillors

Oh, and let there be an explanation by O’Donnell about how his former company K&F Sarolla Teo (‘wool’ in English) went bust owing over 76,000 euro in 2013, which intriguingly led him to set up Glenveigh Woollen Mills Ltd in May of the same year .

Glenveigh Woolen Mills Ltd, councillor John O'Donnell

Strangely – perhaps merely a coincidence – K&F Sarolla Teo looks very much like K&F Superwools in Northern Ireland, with – and again it may just be a coincidence – the same director, namely John O’Donnell.

Would it be too much of a coincidence if it was discovered there were grants– those chunky cross-border kind of ones – involved in these companies also?

K&F Superwools, Donegal counicllors

For goodness sake, while we’re at it, as anyone who’s anyone will be there in the council chamber this morning, let Councillor Ciarán Brogan, Donegal County Council Chairperson, explain how his company, Sark Construction, perhaps now renamed Kasmor, managed to obtain an estimated 10 million euro in Donegal council construction contracts.

Gosh, it all sounds as if the craic will be mighty at the Donegal Council meeting this morning (kick-off 11am). For what it’s worth, alternative entertainment options on the box at exactly the same time are (and I kid you not) – ‘Wanted Down Under’ on BBC1; ‘The High Chaparral’ (or is that ‘Hang ‘Em High’) on TG4; ‘Judge Judy’ on TV3; ‘Conspiracy Theory’ on TCM; and ‘Four in a Bed’ on Channel 4.

Funny how all of them – including the local council option – have a similar ring to them.

I know which one I’m choosing.

Exclusive: Donegal councillors John O’Donnell and Michael McBride funded by Údarás na Gaeltachta

At a time when controversial ‘cash for favors’ Donegal councillor John O’Donnell was refusing to pay more than 33,000 euro compensation to a Creeslough woman he injured in a car accident 16 years ago, Údarás na Gaeltachta granted him and fellow councillor Michael McBride more than 122,000 euro in public money (see document here Udaras grant), I can reveal exclusively in this blog.

John O Donnell Donegal, independent councilor Donegal

O’Donnell was founder, director and secretary of Dúncrua Teoranta, the company receiving the money. Interestingly, a second director of the company was fellow councillor, Michael McBride, who also acted as company secretary. Both men – now declaring themselves independent councillors – were then members of Fianna Fail. A third director named was Sarah Doherty.

Documents show McBride and O’Donnell became directors of Dúncrua Teoranta on the same day, 14 Sep 2006, when it was set up to sell metal ore. They are also listed as company secretaries. McBride was director for a year and four months, until February 2008 when he resigned. The company’s address was listed as just inside the Gaeltacht, at Cuirin, Termon.

Dúncrua Teoranta

Údarás approved funding for Dúncrua Teoranta of 122,300 euro in 2008, paying out 66,850 euro in that year alone. The owners put the company into bankruptcy within months of the money being given. Aidan Garcia of Collins Garcia Corporate Recovery, 28 Fitzwilliam Place, Dublin was appointed as liquidator.

“As the money was given at a time when the company was close to bankruptcy, it seems it’s yet another case of cronyism, money given to two Fianna Fail politicians by a Fianna Fail dominated organization,” commented one observer with inside knowledge of Údarás operations.

Interestingly, O’Donnell was granted the money by Údarás at a time when he owned another company, Kilmac Form Work Limited, which later went into receivership with documents showing it had liabilities of 4.8 million Euro. Much of that debt, as declared during a High Court hearing in 2012, was owed to AIB Finance, thus to ordinary Irish people as the bank was bailed out by the State through injections of billions of euro of public money.

Kilmac Form Work Limited

O’Donnell registered Kilmac Form Work Limited on 6 April, 2005 in Ballyherrin, Kilmacrennan, several kilometers from Duncrua Teo, described as being involved in the manufacture of metal structures. It is currently listed as ‘Receivership’ with two directors, O’Donnell and his brother. The ‘Irish Independent’ reported recently that O’Donnell was forced to make back settlements to the taxman totaling over 330,000 euro. I have contacted both Councillors McBride and O’Donnell for comment but neither has responded. Údarás finally released a statement confirming it did grant O’Donnell the money. Where were Údarás officials when the RTE ‘cash for favors’ investigation was aired to such national furore weeks ago? Cowering in a corner hoping no-one would notice it had given scarce public money away so recklessly?

Urgent questions require immediate answers

The documents unearthed for this blog call into question the actions of both O’Donnell and Údarás na Gaeltachta.

O’Donnell is already firmly in the public spotlight due to his being caught on RTE camera allegedly offering ‘favors for cash’ on Donegal council business, as well as being under threat of arrest for failing to pay compensation due to Ms. Petra Kucklick of Creeslough whom he injured when he drove his car over her foot in 2000. District Court Judge Paul Kelly was quoted in the local media saying he will have the councillor arrested if he does not appear in person at the Letterkenny court on February 3rd to explain why he has failed to pay any of the compensation to the injured woman. O’Donnell seemed to have had lots of money at one time and could have easily paid the compensation, why did he decide not to do so?

Almost all of the main political party representatives in Donegal have called directly for O’Donnell’s resignation, as did Independent councillors, Micheal Cholm Mac Giolla Easpuig, who has called for a boycott of next week’s full council meeting due to take place on Monday, January 25, Dessie Shiels, who left a meeting Letterkenny Municipal District Council last week in protest, and Frank McBrearty, former Mayor, who resigned last week from the Independent Grouping on Donegal County Council in protest as O’Donnell not being expelled.

Donegal Now‘ news service said Cllr. McBrearty explained that Cllr Michael McBride’s casting vote as party whip means he has the power to expel Cllr John O’Donnell from the group and the committees given to him under the all inclusive deal. The news service quoted McBrearty saying: “I will perform my duties as an Independent councillor and do my very best for the people that elected me. I will not be associated with Cllr John O Donnell when he clearly said he could get the backing of 25 to 30 other councillors. I am not one of these councillors and am making my position clear by taking this stand. I do not understand the reluctance of some councillors to support my decision but that’s for them to decide.”

The information these documents reveal also come as councilor Shiels, who will contest the next national elections, recently left a meeting of the 10-member Letterkenny Municipal District Council in protest at O’Donnell’s attendance. “In the aftermath of the RTE investigates programme which aired on RTE in November past, I personally cannot involve myself in county council meetings, whether at Municipal District Level or at full plenary council level in the presence of councillor O’Donnell,” Shiels said. “To do so would, to my mind, compromise everything that I have tried to do to date since being elected to Donegal County Council to restore public confidence in politics in Donegal.”

Added another observer, who prefers his identification to remain confidential at this times, said, “I wondered why Michael McBride was so quiet in his condemnation of O’Donnell.”

Is John O’Donnell the kind of political leader the people of Donegal want? Is this what we mean when we say proudly, “we’re different up here?”

Does Údarás na Gaeltachta lack good governance?

Key questions also remain about the operations of Údarás na Gaeltachta, particularly in Donegal.

Did anyone at the organization check into the financial health of O’Donnell and his companies before granting him 122,000 euro of public money? If so, why did it go ahead and approve the grant? If it did not check, then it is guilty of ignoring its duties to the public whose money supports the organisation’s entire operation.

Perhaps, in addition to the controversial wind farm development issue that was the focus of the RTE program, perhaps O’Donnell can clarify how he got the money from Údarás for Dúncrua Teoranta. It is not believed either O’Donnell or McBride have paid any of the money back.

Also, as the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) identified the requirement for a ‘Section 56’ on O’Donnell’s company – which allows interested parties to bring concerns before the liquidator and thus try to recuperate their money – has Údarás done so in relation to the loss of public money (the grant)? If, not, why not? Is this yet again willful disrespect of public interest?

Or in the light of the allegations arising from the RTE program – did some people at Údarás get kick-backs for pushing the money through for O’Donnell? Considering Fianna Fail’s long-time dominance of Údarás and that party’s record of skullduggery in bankrupting Ireland, such allegations cannot be ignored. In addition, this blog revealed that Údarás hired Finbarr Boyle as business training manager for local entrepreneurs through the EU funded CeanaglG project in Donegal even though Boyle was already under investigation, had already pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain and was later proven guilty of stealing more than 200,000 euro from a village school, including money earmarked for children’s food. Does the organization suffer from a severe lack of good governance?

Oh, and by the way, where did the 122,000 euro go? As Cuba Gooding Jr. said in that wonderful film, ‘Jerry Maguire’ – “Show us the money!”

Changes required at Údarás?

With frequent revelations about the operations of Údarás – including free trips for executives, board members and their wives to Las Vegas (to meet officials of Enterprise Ireland) and ‘insider trading’ schemes whereby former Údarás board members and top executives received money for their own organizations and projects – economic experts are questioning whether the group is fit for purpose. These concerns are especially sensitive locally as well as in Brussels as the Government decided recently it will operate the multi-million euro EU LEADER programme in the Donegal Gaeltacht where decisions on money allocation will take place over the coming months.

Some sector analysts as well as ordinary people in the Gaeltacht community say that after several decades of failure and with unemployment in the Gaeltacht at an all-time high, the economic regeneration model for the regions is simply not working and that Údarás na Gaeltachta should simply be dismantled and replaced with a new and more efficient organization, one featuring well-trained technocrats, not politically-appointed personnel.

Others say that much-needed changes are already underway, an example being the recent appointment of Letterkenny-based, former county council director of services for community, culture and planning, Micheál Ó hÉanaigh, as director of enterprise and employment, marine and natural resources at Údarás. Ó hÉanaigh, credited with launching the Donegal Diaspora project.

However, one must also note the recent reaction by Joe McHugh, Fine Gael Minister for the Gaeltacht, to the questionable activities at Údarás – he said the organization would receive an extra one million euro in public funding this year.