Minister of Public Expenditure raps Údarás na Gaeltachta for lack of transparency

Minister of Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, has rapped Údarás na Gaeltachta on the knuckles for failing to release vital information on spending of public money affecting Donegal and other Gaeltacht areas.

Following a refusal by Údarás to provide details on hefty pension payments to former executives that accounts for more than half its annual budget under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I filed, formal written parliamentary questions were submitted by TDs angry about the lack of transparency by the Gaeltacht economic development group.

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Such questions culminated in one by Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein TD and member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on my behalf, directly to the Minister, “To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in view of his stated commitment to transparency and accountability in the spending of public moneys, his views that 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 will legislate to require all publicly funded bodies to make such information public in the interests of open Government.”

A formal written response has just been received from Minister Howlin, in which he, in effect, tacitly states that Údarás was wrong to turn down my FOI request seeking details of pensions for former executives paid wholly out of public funds, and that it should release the information forthwith.

The Minister writes, “Under the 2014 (Freedom of Information) Act, the terms and conditions of any individual who holds or held any office or other position remunerated from public funds in a public body, rather than just those of a Director or member of staff as provided for under the 1997 Act, are not afforded the protections under the Act in relation to personal information. On that basis, the type of information to which the Deputy’s question refers i.e. public service pension arrangements on retirement for senior managers which would be part of remuneration, would be available from a public body that was subject to FOI, other than where a specific exemption applies against the release of such information.

The Minister elaborates further, “Under the Freedom of Information Act 2014, as was the case in the original Freedom of Information Act in 1997, an exemption from the provisions of Freedom Of Information (FOI) is provided for personal information. The 2014 Act also expanded the definition of what does not constitute personal information in the context of FOI.”

In answer to McDonald’s question as to whether the Minister “will legislate to require all publicly funded bodies to make such information public in the interests of open Government,” the Minister writes, “Given the matter is already provided for by the Freedom of Information Act 2014, I do not consider further legislative action is required.

As we have seen with scandal-hit FAS and other Irish state bodies that abused peoples’ trust and misspent public money, the only way to prevent corruption is by creating greater transparency. The government coalition of Fine Gael and Labour made this a central issue in their electoral platform. In the three years since they took office, little progress has been made.

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Several weeks ago, Ireland was placed 31st position ‘in the league of transparent nations’ following research by the World Wide Web Foundation. It is the worst of any European nation, even behind countries such as Russia, Mexico and Brazil. The group’s categorized Ireland as a country that faces challenges to “mainstreaming open data across government and institutionalizing it as a sustainable practice.” It also said “core data on how the government is spending taxpayers’ money and how public services are performing remains inaccessible or pay-walled even though such information is critical to fight corruption and promote fair competition is even harder to get.”

Tim Berners-Lee, Web, founder of the Web Foundation and the London-based Open Data Institute, said, “Governments continue to shy away from publishing the very data that can be used to enhance accountability and trust” and highlighted the power of open data “to put power in the hands of citizens.”

Údarás is a classic case in point.

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Dinny McGinley, former junior minister for the Gaeltacht, wrote back in a vague response to my FOI request 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.

For so many years untouchable hidden behind a veil of Irish-language support, Údarás perhaps is in many ways no different to FAS in terms of greed and individual self-interests. According to Údarás sources, former board members in Donegal remained in boardroom meetings during discussions on lucrative payments to their very own companies and organisations. In addition, not one but at least three Donegal Údarás board members have been up before the Standards in Public Office Commission on corruption charges relating to double dipping on expenses. When one considers the expense claims for board members, particularly under the long-time chairmanship of Liam Cunningham from Glencolmbcille (from 2005 to 2010 he received more than 155,000 euro in fees and expenses, according to Highland Radio), one has an idea of the unchecked, proliferate spending that went on.

Some details as already reported by Highland Radio –

  • Four former Donegal members of the Údarás board each received in excess of 100,000 euro each, over a four-year period, in travel expenses.
  • Fianna Fáil member Daithi Alcorn earned nearly €120,000 between 2005 and 2009;
  • Fianna Fail Senator Brian O Domhnaill received €115,000 while independent Donegal member Padraig O Dochartaigh received €105,000.

Over one billion euro of public money has already gone into supporting Udaras na Gaeltachta yet unemployment rates in Gaetachts are consistently highest in the nation.

Misspending of public money (an issue brought up by the former head of the PAC, see 3-part series article series), includes all-expenses trips to Las Vegas for Udaras board members and their spouses – supposedly to meet a delegation of the IDA;

In truth, Údarás was – and perhaps still is – a cash cow for well-to-do insiders in west Donegal.

It is long past time Údarás prepared proper annual reports instead of the porous documents it now produces that disguise the spending picture and that it holds open public meetings to allow the people of the Gaeltacht to know exactly how their hard-earned money is being spent.

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TV3’s Vincent Browne ‘People’s Debate’ in Donegal attracts lively discussion

While Fine Gael and Labour were expected to take a beating at yesterday evening’s Vincent Browne-hosted ‘People’s Debate’ in Letterkenny – in part deserved as the two parties refused to participate – Fianna Fail also took a drubbing.

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At one point, after listening to the party’s TD Charlie McConalogue berate government policies, the veteran TV host exclaimed, “I cannot understand how you can make these criticisms. Fine Gael is simply following Fianna Fail policies. Fianna Fail laid down the strategy for dealing with the banking bailout and Fine Gael and Labour are merely following it.”

McConalogue made another mistake later in the debate saying, “the agreement with the Troika was negotiable,” thus contradicting what the public had been told by Fianna Fail that the deal under former Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minster of Finance, Brian Lenihan, was non-negotiable. Browne was quick to make the point, “Your party said details of the agreement with the Troika were non-negotiable, yet now you say they were. Make up your mind.”

On the emotive issue of water charges, McConalogue – after much fudging said he would halt Irish Water and suspend water charges. Again, Browne responded, “Your party, Fianna Fail, already had a plan in place in 2010 to impose water charges, but now you’re saying you’re having second thoughts.”

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Browne, at his best as a current affairs host when pushing political guests for a clear-cut answer, didn’t let the lively capacity audience down, especially when badgering the four-member panel for their views on a potential coalition after the next election. Asked whether he would take a ministerial seat under a Fine Gael or Fianna Fail led coalition Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty seemed somewhat uncomfortable in his seat.

“That is a hypothetical question and such decisions are made at our party Ard Fheis,” he said finally, as if caught by surprise, but recovering. “What we have agreed is that unless water and property charges are dropped, we will not go into any coalition.” He acknowledged, “Some members have voiced their opinion that they would go into a coalition as a minority party. We are a party hungry for change, we are not hungry for power.”

When asked the same question, his Sinn Fein colleague TD Pádraig MacLochlainn was more direct, unhesitatingly replying, “I will not participate in a government led by either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.” As if taking strength from this, Doherty later stated categorically, “If asked by a government led by Fianna Fail or Fine Gael to be a minister, I would refuse.”

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After chastising the two Sinn Fein members for not giving a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, McConalogue himself began the dance of the slippery eel until, under bombardment from host and audience, he finally said, “I would not like to participate in a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition but if I was outvoted by my party colleagues I’d have to go along.”

In his two-minute intro, Doherty said “four years ago we were promised a democratic revolution yet all we have had is more of the same with cronyism, stealth taxes and high levels of unemployment, no more so than right here in Donegal. There is a fairer and better way of moving forward and Sinn Fein’s job strategy can reshape this county.” He added that it was little wonder Donegal was known as ‘The Forgotten County.’ “I know Vincent you didn’t come here by train because this is one of only five counties in all Ireland without a mainline railway service.” Under an FOI request he said he has asked for a government paper produced on the future of small schools, adding that Donegal has the second largest number of such schools, with four teacher or less.

When corruption and lack of transparency within Údarás na Gaeltachta was brought up, including its refusal to release key information on its public spending such as lucrative pension payments to former executives which amount to half of its entire annual budget, Doherty said his party had tabled formal parliamentary questions on the issue, adding, “there should be full disclosure about people in receipt of high public pensions, it is important to have complete transparency so such payments can be scrutinized by the public.”

McConalogue said in his intro, “the last four years of government have been an attack on Donegal with post office closures, agriculture being hard hit and worsening heath services,” adding, “we have strong potential here but we need better infrastructure including the A5 project up and running and wider broadband.”

Referring to the pre-election catchphrase ‘Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way,’ MacLochlainn said the government’s record has proved very different, “with a reduction in classrooms, budget cuts across the board and Donegal having the lowest allocation of medical staff of any county.” He added, “Donegal people are hard-working and passionate. All we’re asking is a fair chance and for Dublin to meet us halfway.”

Regarding the water charges, he added, “For thirty years, Sinn Fein has opposed these charges and now it has become the straw that broke the camel’s back. There has simply been too much austerity. Irish Water is a white elephant. My message is ‘scrap the water charges and go back to the drawing board.’ ”

While decrying the lack of proper health services and unfair stealth taxes, Independent TD Thomas Pringle said renewable energy had tremendous potential for Donegal as had the biomass wood industry. Speaking of Killybegs, he also said the fishing industry had been “hard-hit.’ He said water conservation should be a top priority because so much is being lost through poor network connectivity. He also said he was proud of challenging the bank bail-out through the courts and being in the forefront of water charge protests (continuing the momentum, a major ‘Right2Water’ protest took place earlier today – Saturday – in Letterkenny, with others elsewhere nationwide).

All four TDs, when asked directly, said they would vote ‘yes’ in the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage.

Over the lively, two-hour event at the Clanree Hotel, there was no shortage of questions from the floor with periodic rambunctious catcalls, cheering and booing, which caused short stoppages and words of warning from the presenter.

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True to his word, Browne attempted to cover as many topics as possible such as equality, including the upcoming same-sex marriage referendum; family services, education, employment and health. Speakers ranged from parents of terminally-ill children; school teachers, social workers and community activists working on behalf of people as diverse as lesbians, gay, bisexuals, transgender, cancer sufferers, the disabled, and many others.

Some light-hearted moments and biting comments helped take the edge of emotions as when a thirsty Vincent Browne ran out of water and promised he’d even pay for some and when James Woods from Gortahork commented that with so much emigration, Donegal was turning into a wildlife refuge.

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All in all, ‘People’s Debate’ is an excellent initiative by TV3, no doubt demanding detailed planning to host such shows in all the constituencies of Ireland.

Fine Gael and Labour’s decision to spurn them, indicating fear and a lack of understanding of the difficulties facing ordinary people, could ultimately cost them vital votes in the polling booths.

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Cults, sects and mindless mayhem?

Before the elections, in a FRONT page editorial in the Irish Independent (a most unsuited and unprofessional place – see explanation at bottom of article), Fionnan Sheahan, group political editor of Independent Newspapers, described Sinn Fein as a ‘cult’ and a ‘sect’ whose followers were mindless.

Seeing that this particular political party has just won 157 local council seats nationwide in the Republic with 15.2% of the national vote (not to mention 105 council seats in northern Ireland with 24% of the vote), that’s a helluva lot of mindless people.

Will Mr. Sheahan now apologise to such people publicly in the same manner that he attacked them? Or will arrogance and pride prevent him and pave the way for a continued drop in circulation and quality of a once decent newspaper (one I proudly worked for at the start of my career 30 years ago)? Or is Fionnan’s job so dependent on the blatant bias of the media group’s dominant figures – Denis O’Brien (who was shown by the Moriarty Tribunal to have bribed former Fianna Fail Communications Minister, Michael Lowry, to win a mobile phone license), and Tony O’Reilly (who, after recently announcing bankruptcy, owes you and I more than four million euro after buying a luxurious holiday home in Glandore, west Cork with a loan he can’t now pay back) – that he will continue doffing his cap as a D4/ establishment spin-doctor and apologist?

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Can some political commentators not see the forest for the trees?

And not only.

A few weeks ago on Highland Radio’s Friday morning ‘Press Round-up,’ one of the so-called experts – a woman – said Gerry Adams should resign as Sinn Fein party president – and this was after Mr. Adams had just been voted in an ‘Irish Times’ opinion poll as the nation’s most popular party leader. Consider this unwarranted barb in view of the massive gains Sinn Fein has just won across the nation in this weekend’s local, national and European elections under this man’s leadership.

Will that particular woman now apologize? Not simply for a poorly-informed broadside but what is, in effect, blatantly obvious bias. Surely, Highland Radio, a station fighting for license renewal, can find more objective commentators than this person. As both chat-show program host and station managing director, Shaun should pay closer attention to what emerged from the ‘Media Freedom‘ conference I attended at UNESCO headquarters in Paris recently. Can anyone guess the identity of the woman in question?

But back to the recent elections.

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Turning of the tide?

Some commentators would have us believe they were astonishing.

Nothing could be further from the truth. They were quite the opposite – predictable – based on the trend already set three years ago when Sinn Fein went from four TD slots to 14. Of course, Sinn Fein and Independent generous gains in this week’s elections were accelerated this time round by the abject failures and litany of broken promises by Labour and Fine Gael. With the smell of Fianna Fail corruption still rank in our nostrils, and the ‘old guard’ still there in abundance, it hardly provided an alternative, indicated by its abject failure to have anyone elected in the two by-elections and Pat the Cope ‘(the Pope’ as RTE miswrote in a news Twitter) Gallagher’s failure to hold his MEP seat.

A quick glance at some of the specific results indicates the extent of the triumphs of Sinn Fein and the Independents:

  • Four Sinn Fein MEP candidates – four MEPs elected: Liadh Ní Riada; Lynn Boylan; Martina Anderson and Matt Carthy.
  • Independent Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan topping the poll in the Midlands–North-West constituency;
  • Sinn Fein trebling its local council tally by winning 157 seats nationwide, and in the process becoming the largest single party on the Dublin city council;
  • Independent Marian Harkin defeating sitting MEP Pat the Cope in Midlands–North-West;
  • Sinn Fein securing the single biggest number of first preference votes in northern Ireland’s local government elections while winning 105 council seats;
  • Independents (including the Socialist Party, the Greens, and People Before Profit Alliance) won around 30 per cent of council seats, up from 18 per cent at the last local elections in 2009;

The list just keeps going on, including Sinn Fein winning local council seats it has not held since the foundation of the state, an incredible historic feat. It is something Donegal-based Pearse Doherty, Sinn Fein’s electoral director should be extremely proud of, especially in the run-up to the 1916 centenary commemoration celebrations.

So what happens now? Well-paid Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour spin-doctors – Charlie Flanagan, Pat Rabbitte and Timmy Dooley respectively – have already been out in force on RTE, and other media, this week. They allege – conveniently forgetting that this particular political party has governed alongside its arch-rival, the DUP, for 15 years in northern Ireland – that Sinn Fein cannot govern because it has not learned the art of compromise. In fact, it is one of the very skills Sinn Fein has learned and in the toughest classroom there is – the boiling cauldron of politics across the border. Maybe the faux pas made by Jan O’Sullivan, Labour’s junior minister, on RTE Radio 1 show last Sunday that her party ‘is a mudguard for Sinn Fein’ is more accurate than she cares to believe.

The spin-doctors also say the Independents are a motley group of disparate individuals, again conveniently forgetting that they all, in effect, stood together in unity against harsh austerity and for social justice and fairness – hardly irrelevant issues. Theirs is also a highly pompous and condescending comment to make about ordinary citizens who voted en masse for this so-called ‘motley’ group.

No doubt, Sinn Fein and the Independents will be in the crosshairs of examination over the next two years as the next general election approaches but their strength is that they are bonded by a common purpose. Watch carefully as they come together in unity and forge a partnership to create a more equitable society within Ireland. As they attempt to avoid being the victims of their own success, maintaining organization and structure will be a challenge.

It was also extremely heartening to see so many women win council and MEP seats. Four of Ireland’s 11 elected MEPs being female Sinn Fein candidates while in the two by-elections, Ruth Coppinger won Dublin West for Joe Higgins’ Socialist Party and Gabrielle McFadden of Fine Gael won the Longford/Westmeath seat previously held by her sister, Nicky. Well over 20 per cent of councillors elected are women; 32 per cent of votes cast in Dublin were for female candidates and in some areas 4 out of six councillors are now women. Over 30 per cent of Sinn Fein council candidates were women. Women won 197 out of 943 local seats with campaign group ‘Women for Election’ saying this represented a 33 per cent increase. However, even with this improvement, Ireland remains about 90th in world rankings in terms of women in politics.

However, at last, as this week’s election results show, Ireland is beginning to wake up to reality. We Irish may lack the passion, initiative and courage to go on the streets as did the Greeks and French but we are fortunate to have been given a second chance following our poor voting performance two years ago (echoes – as happened after the 1916 debacle) and have made our voices heard in the polling booths. Rejection of establishment politics and the obvious economic disparities between poor and rich here, has meant Ireland has finally, to a large extent, grown up, matured and begun to shrug off out-dated, horse-blinkered generational politics.

As for Lugh’s choices for my area of the Glenties here in northwest Donegal, I am delighted to say that the little Celtic hero predicted not just the winners, but also the exact order in which they came past the post, viz-a-viz

Marie Therese Gallagher, Sinn Fein

John Sheamuis O’Fearraigh, Sinn Fein

Micheal Cholm MacGiolla Easbuig, Independent

Ireland’s future suddenly seems brighter!

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A new dawn is upon us.

NB: Explanation as promised

In journalism, as a mark of respect to the intelligence of its readers, quality newspapers reserve their opinion columns and editorials for inside pages, designating the front page specifically for informed and – as much as possible considering we have human frailties – objective news upon which readers make up their own minds on key issues. Thus Independent Newspapers broke a golden, nay sacrosanct, rule of journalism, ignoring the fact that only idiots need to be spoon-fed like infants. That may have worked in the past. Not anymore.

Next week’s blog – Remaining on the subject of local elections: how is it a candidate, such as John Curran, failed to get elected in the Glenties to the Donegal council? Was it linked to the severe lack of transparency that has corrupted Irish politics for so long and that still hovers over the workings of Udaras na Gaeltachta of which Mr. Curran is a board member? Or simply that he was the Fine Gael candidate? Next week, I publish the responses from Udaras to questions regarding payments for executive pensions, a breakdown of job creation figures for the Donegal Gaeltacht and total investment in a proposed church-run addiction clinic in Falcarragh. As well as responses from Cuan Mhuire as to whether it shelters convicted clerical child abusers and will provide sex therapy as well as other treatments at the proposed centre.

To be or not to be (a Donegal councillor)

Lugh’s top three choices in the Glenties electoral area

What’s termed in America, ‘mid-term elections’ are coming up tomorrow (Friday) – and the results will indicate the future evolution of political parties and individual candidates, the direction country and counties will take and perhaps even leadership changes.

Living in Gaoth Dobhair, here’s Lugh’s take on his local area (from Dunfanaghy to Dungloe) within the Glenties Electoral area –

VOTE FOR:

Marie Therese Gallagher, Sinn Fein

John Sheamuis O’Fearraigh, Sinn Fein

Micheal Cholm MacGiolla Easbuig, Independent

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Lugh carefully analyses the candidates

Why?

Marie Therese Gallagher

Setting aside for the moment that there are simply not enough women in Irish politics today, thus a major loss to the political system as whole, Marie Therese has performed very well as a sitting council member (while, at the same time – multi-tasking comes so much easier to women than men – nurturing a delightful family). Reflecting Sinn Fein’s consistent stand on principles of fairness and social justice, she and her party colleagues remained firm against the council budget last year due mainly to Irish Water taking over local water services and people having to pay yet another government stealth tax. Fianna Fail, on the other hand, caved in, with Rena Donaghy, presenting a poor excuse for ducking the vote on the night and Independent, John Campbell, swapping sides to that of Fine Gael and Labour at the last minute.

On the issue of women in politics, Ireland remains in the Dark Ages – even more so with regard to women’s rights. Without Mary Robinson and her successor, Mary McAleese, we’d have been left with Fianna Fail’s Padraig Flynn, Charlie Haughey, Brian Lenihan’s claims that women belong in the kitchen peeling potatoes and in the bathroom changing nappies.  Yet, while some progress has indeed been made, still only 17 per cent of council seats across Ireland are currently filled by women, the worst record in Europe.

John Sheamais O’Fearraigh

John, married to Bernadette and father of three children, is a sincere, decent man, who has contributed much to the local community over the years, through his various roles, especially as a youth worker and on a number of local committees. His message is a simple one, a fine prescription for healing the wounds of society, and particularly here in Ireland: each to his abilities, each to his needs.

John spoke eloquently and passionately on national TV (TG4) a few weeks back about the urgent need for transparency and financial accountability from publicly-funded bodies such as Udaras na Gaeltachta (after the corruptive practices at the higher levels of FAS, the Garda Siochana and Rehab surely we’ve had enough of the particular Irish condition known colloquially as ‘cute whorism’). A vote for him is a vote for progress.

Micheal Cholm MacGiolla Easbuig

Micheal is both vocal and passionate about social justice and deserves credit for the way in which he has put his words into actions, including being a member of the ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign. He has organized a number of events, several of which I have attended, some of which I have enjoyed immensely. Local editors inform me he is persistent in pushing stories on diverse social issues, including anti-racism, and greater transparency on public issues, although it was bemusing that he declined to go on the air for TG4 recently to talk about spending of between one and three million euro by Udaras na Gaeltachta on a proposed addiction clinic in Falcarragh without proper benefit-investment information being presented for public analysis. Micheal has been described by some as irascible, but then again so has former Mayor and Councillor Frank McBrearty, a man who has brought up some extremely important issues in the council chamber rather than bow to that most common of Irish characteristics – aversion – a strategy that leaves truth as the ultimate casualty. Irascibility may thus be one of the most important qualities required in the chamber if councillors are to successfully fight for their corner, their supporters and their issues.

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Lugh seeks trusted advice from his elders

Candidates in the Glenties electoral area who disappointed me

 John Curran, Fine Gael

Running as a Fine Gael candidate instead of an independent (as he informed me he had been considering) has, unfortunately, been a mistake for John, making it harder for him to drum up enough votes to get over the line. Let’s be honest, John had no real choice in the matter as the party put him on the board of Udaras na Gaeltachta with an eye on propelling him forward on a rising political career, perhaps even successor to Minister of State, Dinny McGinley. The decision John took to run on a FG ticket – or was taken for him – has both pros and cons.

The cons are Fine Gael’s wretched record over the last three years and its list of broken electoral promises – ‘not another penny’ and ‘those guilty shall pay’ being its twin, pre-election mantra, which has obviously collapsed in a heap of rubble – is a hard sell. The pros – the party machine behind John’s electoral effort: more ad money; more people out canvassing; more and bigger posters.

To my mind, John had a golden opportunity to prove his individual worth – and blew it – over the proposed spending of millions of euro of public money on a church-run addiction clinic in Falcarragh. Instead of following through on the twin issues he promised as a newly-appointed Udaras board member two years ago – being a watchdog over the organization to create greater transparency and accountability on spending as well as promoting tourism based on our rich, native culture as a top priority – he has put loyalty to the organization ahead of loyalty to the people whose money it spends – some say, too wantonly and irresponsibly.

See his quote in a story published in the Donegal News: Everyone is aware of the lack of transparency in Ireland in the past on certain matters and the unfortunate results for the country as a whole. My commitment is that in future Udaras will be completely open in its dealings so that projects – whether in culture, language or economics – are selected on merit and need, not on who certain people know. Cronyism should play no part in its affairs.

For example, John has made little effort to inform ordinary people how much the proposed addiction clinic will cost or detail the specific community benefits to Falcarragh (as it is proposed to be located where he now lives, he could also be accused of pork barrel politics). John’s initial assertion that the clinic would create a magic 45 jobs is a simple case of political flag-waving. Basic business sense says no jobs are guaranteed until an operation is up and running, (not to mention if any, or many, jobs, will be local), so this number is a figment of the imagination.

John dipped his toe into what he thought was the cool waters of local Irish politics and it came out red and roasting. I like John as a person, so much so I gave him my Croker All-Ireland hurling final tickets last year, with no favors asked and none given (I’ve also offered game tickets to other decent people such as the two local former Gardai, Martin Ridge and Seamus Corbett; Timmy Boyle, friendly Bunbeg restaurateur and boatman, and his brother-in-law, Sabba, one of the kindest men I have met hereabouts). John and I have sat down for dinner and coffees together and held long discussions on various subjects. He had my vote, then let it slip from his grasp. With his background, John would be a help to any local community but not as a political party hack. If he’s not his own man, then he’s nobody’s man.

Seamus O’Domhnaill, Fianna Fail

A win for him in west Donegal means once again developers and bankers will celebrate victory with raised champagne glasses.

Regardless that inappropriate lending and fat bonuses for bankers, as well as developers absconding with much of the loans, has led to national economic collapse and continuing austerity, these two sectors – feeding into each other – remain O’Domhnaill’s twin political platforms.

Considering the amount of money Fianna Fail has reaped from both sectors over the years and the fact that the ‘old guard’ of the party still rules the roost, it should come as no surprise that this strategy will continue to be O’Domhnaill’s remit for years to come. If he wins, and with his brother, Brian as a Senator, his supporters within Fianna Fail hope to dominate future proceedings in their local area of Falcarragh and Gortahork. Then again, some say if Fianna Fail put up a donkey in certain parts of Donegal, it would get elected.

In conclusion, my top three choices of electoral candidates are Marie Therese Gallagher, Sinn Fein; John Sheamais O’Fearraigh, Sinn Fein; and Micheal Cholm MacGiolla Easbuig, Independent. I now cordially invite you to join me in voting for them. We missed out on making the kind of radical political changes we should have made three years ago. Let’s not miss out on it now. If we do, we’d never forgive ourselves.

Údarás na Gaeltachta – a secret society?

Living in Gaoth Dobhair, the heart of the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht area of Donegal in northwest Ireland, I take a strong interest in how this beautiful region – arguably the most scenic part of the entire country – is governed and develops, both economically and socially.

As such, I have vested considerable investigative journalistic experience, gained after 30 years in the media sector, in analyzing the workings of the largest economic development organization here – namely Údarás na Gaeltachta, an organization that has benefited from a spending budget of around one billion euro, mainly for job creation, since it was first established in 1980.

I have penned many news and feature articles on the organization over the last five years, the latest (below) published today (Friday) in the largest circulation newspaper in Donegal, the Donegal News.

For context, it’s probably worth reading the much more comprehensive, three-part series on Údarás that I wrote for the same newspaper. You’ll find it in the earlier posts below.

Pulling the ropes

Údarás na Gaeltachta – a secret society?

Like Br’er Rabbit, west Donegal’s largest economic development group is captive.

Captive to the belief that call centres and large manufacturing companies are the only way to create jobs – and to a golden circle that benefits from such thinking.

As such, Údarás na Gaeltachta is a Tar-baby, ever-more entangled in a sticky situation.

With the recent announcement that Largo Foods in the Gaoth Dobhair industrial estate will now close, with the loss of over 140 jobs, and after spending more than two million euro in the Donegal Gaeltacht over the last year, the Irish-language organisation has suffered a net loss of 78 jobs, according to its own figures, the worst record for many years.

So what has gone wrong? Seemingly, plenty!

Remoteness, poor infrastructure and a narrow skills’ set are the reasons most often given for few companies coming to the rural Gaeltacht of west Donegal. But does this excuse Údarás’ poor performance and lack of transparency as a public body?

After announcing recently it created 220 jobs in Donegal last year, Údarás promptly declined to give a breakdown of the figure. Following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I made earlier this year seeking a list of funded companies and their job numbers, as well as pension payments, it replied, “For data protection and commercial sensitivity reasons. We do not release specific information collated for the purposes of the Údarás employment survey to the general public,” adding that pensions, while funded by the taxpayer, were private matters.

I asked Sinn Féin Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh of the Oireachtas Joint Committee, which revealed Údarás pays half its annual budget in pensions for 136 former executives, to follow-up. His party leader, Gerry Adams TD, submitted Dail question Nr. 127, as well as Questions 416 and 417, asking the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to “detail final salaries levels, lump sum or additional payments and the pension payments made to each chief executive officer or regional executive of Údarás who retired in the past three years.” Minister Jimmy Deenihan answered: “I have been advised by Údarás na Gaeltachta it considers the payments referred to are covered under the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003. Accordingly, it is not in a position to supply the information requested.”

Mary Lou Nolan, TD, Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on public expenditure and reform, then submitted yet another Parliamentary question, Nr. 148, asking the Minister to “reference the specific provisions of the Data Protection Acts to which he refers; the basis on which he believes Údarás na Gaeltachta does not, unlike all other senior managers across the civil and public sector, have to make public, details of public service pension arrangements.” A full answer is still awaited.

Such lack of co-operation by Údarás is disconcerting and leads inevitably to suspicion, making the words of its Arranmore Island-born chairperson Anna Ní Ghallchóir to me – “utter transparency is a given” – seem pale.

About one billion euro has poured into the Donegal Gaeltacht since Údarás was founded – for a population of 24,000. Result: the highest unemployment rate nationally, ugly, empty, ghost-like industrial estates blighting a rural landscape and a horrendously under-developed tourism sector.

Two years ago, under the Fine Gael-Labour ruling coalition, a new board promised change, with both ni Ghallchoir and fellow board member John Curran saying to me in separate interviews that widespread funding for ‘cultural tourism’ projects would be given to create sustainability by attracting more visitors to west Donegal. Two years later, less than five per cent of Údarás’ budget has gone to such projects, leading people at a recent EU-backed cultural tourism CeangalG (ConnectG) conference at An Chuirt Hotel in Gaoth Dobhair to complain of dwindling support.

In the case of Largo Foods, where is the sustainability that Údarás grants totaling 6.2 million euro to it (over 43,000 euro per job) should have created, and what business-sense does it make for Údarás to allocate half a million euro for two years for this company, which didn’t even bother to draw it down? With call centers and large manufacturing units merely band-aids for local unemployment problems, why has Údarás shown so little trust in small businesses forming the backbone of the local area’s economy? Especially so when a national economist who completed her Doctorate on Údarás operations, concluded, “on supply chain factors alone, a long-term, job creation strategy based on manufacturing was, and will continue to be, insane.” Could the fixation with short-term job numbers be linked to retention of Údarás’ own staff jobs, whose salaries average 80,000 euro annually, excluding expenses?

Instead of cultural tourism being expanded with serious money, Gearóid Ó Smaoláin, the organisation’s tourism officer, said in a recent public forum that “discussions are well-advanced” on building an alcohol and drug addiction clinic in the coastal town of Falcarragh, beside an existing golf course in the Ballyconnell House estate. It is believed Údarás, having already turned down several tourism ideas for the area, will allocate between several hundred thousand and one million euro to the project, which will be run by an arm of the Catholic Church.

Ultimately, decent Donegal people deserve better. How many more millions of euro must be wasted, how many more years lost, before Údarás changes its vision, and for transparency and accountability to be achieved? Perhaps only then will the ceaseless brain-drain halt and our native language escape from withering on the vine.

Published in Donegal News