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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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?