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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Bunbeg, once pretty, now disfigured

Once pretty, Bunbeg is looking more and more like a toothless old hag.

Derelict spaces, decrepit ‘For Sale’ signs and boarded up, empty and run-down buildings have pockmarked its once thriving main street.

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The iconic, century-old Seaview Hotel, which employed over 108 people seven years ago (talk of Cayman Islands and meat debts has no place in this blog), stands empty and forlorn this week , joining a heap of other ‘deadwoods’ on the street  – a once popular restaurant opposite and three other nearby hotels, The Errigal View, the Ostan Gaoth Dobhair and The Brookvale, as well as a mix of shops, bars and cafes, all now closed and crumbling.

Ironically, one of the few buildings to be renovated and opened on the main street is the constituency office of Fine Gael TD and former Gaeltacht, Arts and Tourism Junior Minister Dinny McGinley, the man who proudly pronounced this week, “We’re on the cusp of a new golden era of tourism.”

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Talk about poor timing.

Not to mention poor positioning. McGinley’s office lies a mere 50 yards from the deserted Seaview Hotel, first established in 1904.

News this week of the Seaview’s demise is a stark reminder of the abnegation by Udaras, the area’s main economic regeneration group, of its prime responsibility for creating  jobs, including those in the hospitality sector, with Gearoid O’Smaolain its main tourism development officer.

Eamon McBride, former President of the Gaoth Dobhair Chamber of Commerce, put it simply: “the area is crying out for more attractions.”

Job losses, lack of transparency

Aside from the 35 jobs, both full and part-time, lost at the Seaview this week, hundreds have been lost at other Udaras-sponsored businesses such as Largo Foods, Nuance and Sioen Apparel over the last few years. In fact, the Udaras Donegal office has performed consistently worse than any other Gaeltacht region in Ireland in terms of its job-creation record.

Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty this week called on the Government to immediately publish the findings of a delayed report by a working group tasked with examining job creation in the Gaoth Dobhair area. One hopes he will demand the same of the local Udaras office. Only then, can the organisation be properly analyzed to ascertain if the public is getting ‘bang for its buck,’ or if drastic changes need to be made internally if it is found that employees lack the skills-set necessary for the important task at hand.

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Gaeltacht disintegration

The intriguing part of the sad saga surrounding what is, in effect, economic mismanagement of the Irish-speaking area, is that while towns within it, such as Gortahork, Falcarragh and Bunbeg, are literally peeling apart, both economically and physically, Dunfanaghy, just outside the borders of the Gaeltacht, is riding a wave, with bars and cafes enjoying a boost in trade, especially at weekends – without the benefit of public funding of any kind.

While Udaras Donegal announced this week it will release proposals for economic development, observers say this is more a cosmetic exercise aimed at organisational survival than a serious attempt at strategic innovation and staff revision – that it has not even hosted a single open public meeting to ascertain the views of ordinary people, the very people who pay for its running costs. Interestingly though, while widespread job losses have occurred in Udaras-sponsored companies in Donegal, no such losses have occurred within the local Udaras office itself.

Based on its operational history (see above graph), should we accept as normal that out of its seven million euro budget for this year as announced by Udaras officials, two-thirds go towards salaries, pensions and expenses, and the remaining one-third only to economic and language development?

Is it not long past time this organisation came under closer public scrutiny and thus be made more accountable?

Openness and transparency required: Udaras still has questions to answer

Fueled by community concerns about lack of transparency and a concerted campaign by Udaras na Gaeltachta to squash attempts to extract information on its spending of public money (see related posts Udaras na Gaeltachta a secret society? and Catholic church-linked addiction clinic in Falcaragh, is this the best use of tax payers job creation money?) and, specifically its proposed spending of between one and three million euro on a church-run addiction clinic in Falcarragh, questions were posed to the four Donegal national board members, including the organisation’s Aranmore-born chairperson, as well as Udaras’ communications and marketing manager, Siubhan Nic Grianna (see: Public accountability? Or continued secrecy?)

In addition, having been invited to speak at a two-day international conference at UNESCO headquarters in Paris this week on access to public information, good governance, protection of journalists and whistle-blowers and media diversity, the overwhelming message was, as UNESCO officials clearly stated, “openness, transparency, access to information and freedom of expression, including press freedom, are essential to good governance.” See short video clip from UNESCO conference here.

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Professor Rosental Alves, UNESCO Chair in Communication, and I display media solidarity.

With this in mind, please find below a set of responses received from Ms. Nic Grianna at Udaras HQ in Galway to the specific questions put to her by me on the proposed addiction clinic in Ballyconnell House, Falcarragh.

You will notice frequent use of the term “confidential” to avoid giving pertinent information, and also some vital details missing from her responses (see list below). Her response, for example, to Question Nr. 8 is evasive (to accurately ascertain potential conflicts of interest, one needs to know who is conducting direct negotiations involving public money on the public’s behalf). If you notice other such attempts to avoid answering directly, please inform me. Your identity will remain anonymous if so desired.

  • Who or what group was paid 225,000 Irish Punts by Udaras for Ballyconnell House?
  • What other grants were given in relation to Ballyconnell House since 1988 and to whom – all financial details in questions 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 12 are either referred to a FOI request or stated as confidential. If this project is to benefit the community, as stated in Ms. Nic Grianna’s answers, why is Udaras so keen on keeping important information confidential?
  • As I have not been able to find a person who was invited and/or participated at the meeting described in point 9 yet, or find any document related to such a meeting, I hereby issue an open invitation to anyone to help provide such details. It would help shed light on what issues were presumably discussed then. If so desired, the identity of all responders will remain confidential.
  • It is also interesting to note that while Gearoid O’Smaolain, Udaras tourism officer (see post here: Fair or unfair? A nettlesome question of censorship) demanded an apology from Stephen Maguire owner of ‘Donegal Daily’ news service for a article I wrote for the service, saying ‘no proposals’ were ever made for Ballyconnell House, Ms. Nic Grianna states clearly that proposals were indeed received. She doesn’t, however, explain why these proposals were rejected in favor of the proposed clinic. (This contradiction to Mr. O’Smaolain regarding proposals was also made by Udaras board member and Fine Gael local council candidate, John Curran). Their disagreements with each other beg the question: who is being economical with the truth? And for what reason? Or is it that communication is so poor among Udaras executives and board members that they literally don’t know what is happening inside the organisation? If so, then – absolutely and without delay – greater transparency about the spending of millions of euro every year by it, scarce public money, is more than necessary.

Upon reading any of the above outstanding questions, if others come to mind, please send them to me by e-mail. Anonymity will be given if so requested.

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Getting ready to speak at the international UNESCO HQ conference in Paris, attended by several hundred journalists, editors, community leaders, diplomats and UN officials.

1. QUESTION: Please provide all documentation related to investment and/or financial payments by Udaras to groups or individuals involved in the operation of Ballyconnell House over the years (from the date of first Udaras involvement in development of this property until present). Please include names and details of the groups and individuals as well as exact amounts.

ANSWER: Background to Eastait Bhaile Chonaill In 1985 Udaras na Gaeltachta was approached by a local community group that were interested in purchasing Eastait Bhaile Chonaill for the purposes of developing the property as a facility/resource for the local community. In 1988 An Udaras purchased Eastait Bhaile Chonaill for 225,000 Irish Punts for community development purposes and with the agreement that the property would be leased to the local community group.  In 1988, a co-op – Comharchumann Eastait Bhaile Chonaill Teo was established by the local community, with 240 shareholders, for the purposes of leasing Eastait Bhaile Chonaill from Udaras and redeveloping the property as a community resource. 120,000 Irish Punts was approved by Udaras to the Comharchumann for restoration and development works. A 35 year lease was agreed.

By 1994 the Comharchumann was in debt due to being unable to sustain the running costs of Baile Chonaill.   The Comharchumann and Udaras agreed to set up a management company – Forbairt Bhaile Chonaill Teo, (with directors nominated by the Comharchumann and Udaras)  in an effort to develop Baile Chonaill as a sustainable cultural tourism business. A manager and administrator were employed. For a number of years Forbairt Bhaile Chonaill Teo managed the property as a tourism business, mainly providing hostel type accommodation and facilities for group bookings. Given the extensive space available, Baile Chonaill also housed tenants during that time, such as Foinn Chonallacha Teo (which ran accredited traditional music courses and boarded the students in Baile Chonaill) , Cumann Staire agus Seanchais Chloich Cheann Fhaola, which ran exhibitions of the local history/culture/heritage, and was open to tourists and the general public alike,  Teleteach Teo which provided IT training facilities/services to the local community and Eagras Failte Thar Chonaill, which operated a tourist information office and managed other tourist offices throughout the county.

During that period, various parts of the building were continuously deteriorating, the extensive size of the building meant that any refurbishment/restoration works were very costly.  The lack of financial resources required to carry out the necessary repair-works became a constant draw on any profits made.

A number of studies were carried out to assess potential development opportunities for Baile Chonaill. All proposals involved substantial investment.

In 2000, arising from an assessment by Peter Quinn & Associates, it was recommended that Forbairt Bhaile Chonaill Teo would cease trading, clear its debts and hand the property back to Udaras na Gaeltachta.  At that time, a number of open days were organised and members of the public were invited to submit applications in relation to possible projects for Baile Chonaill. No submission was received for the overall use of the property.

Also in 2004, and again in 2007 Udaras na Gaeltachta sought tenders from parties interested in acquiring Eastait Bhaile Chonaill for commercial use based on one, or a mix of uses. No proposals were approved by its Board arising from these open invitation processes. Expression of interest and submissions made by the parties are confidential.

In early 2009 An Udaras received enquiries from Cuan Mhuire in relation to Baile Chonaill.

Is it is matter of public record that Cuan Mhuire has expressed an interest in Eastait Bhaile Chonaill, with the aim of developing the property as a rehabilitation and treatment centre.  Please see http://www.cuanmhuire.ie for further information in relation to the charity.

At a meeting in 2012 (see answer to question 9 below), Cuan Mhuire representatives gave information about Cuan Mhuire, described what its general project proposal for Baile Chonaill was, informed that an in-depth feasibility study was underway, and gave an open invitation to any interested party to visit other Cuan Mhuire centres throughout the country and/or give their opinions on the proposal.

Talks are ongoing between Udaras and Cuan Mhuire in relation to their interest in Eastait Bhaile Chonaill. If you require copies of all documentation and other information in relation to this project, you are welcome to request such under the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003.

2. QUESTION: Please provide all documentation related to grants by Udaras to groups or individuals involved in the operation of Ballyconnell House over the years (from the date of first Udaras involvement in development of this property until present). Please include names and details of the groups and individuals as well as exact amounts.

ANSWER: Please see answers to question 1 above.

3. QUESTION: How much investment is to be made in Ballyconnell House to convert it into a proposed addiction clinic? I consider an absolute accurately figure may not be possible at this stage, but an estimation should be, as such a figure must obviously be an important part of budget discussions taking place now.

ANSWER: Any discussions between Udaras and any of its clients are confidential.  Udaras’ decision to support any project is based on a full analysis and assessment of a detailed business plan/proposal. The decision to support such projects is made by the Board of Udaras na Gaeltachta.

4. QUESTION: To whom is Udaras directly involved with in these negotiations, meaning what named organisations or individuals?

ANSWER: Is it is matter of public record that Cuan Mhuire has expressed an interest in Eastait Bhaile Chonaill. Please see http://www.cuanmhuire.ie for further information in relation to the charity. As stated above, any discussions between Udaras and any of its clients are confidential.

5. QUESTION: I understand from what John Curran said on Highland Radio last week that he has already visited three times, the Cuan Mhuire center in Newry. How many other board or executive members have visited Cuan Mhuire centres with respect to the proposed center in Falcarrgh, Donegal? And what centres have they visited? Has Mr. Curran visited other centres or met representatives, individuals or groups, of organsiations regarding the proposed clinic? Which ones?

ANSWER from Ms. nic Grianna: This is a question directed at the Board members.

(Please note while Ms. nic Grianna gave the above answer, board member Eunan Mac Cuinneagáin – the only one the four board members approached to answer in any way – wrote: In response to an invitation from Cuan Mhuire to Údarás na Gaeltachta, I visited the Cuan Mhuire centre in Newry on one occasion.)

6. QUESTION: What other organisations or individuals will be funding the proposed addiction clinic in Falcarragh? And how much will they be contributing (an estimate is fine)?

ANSWER: As stated above, any discussions between Udaras and any of its clients are confidential.

7. QUESTION: What other organisations or individuals will be involved in the proposed addiction clinic project? And in what capacity?

ANSWER: As stated above, any discussions between Udaras and any of its clients are confidential.

8. QUESTION: Please name the person at the Donegal Udaras office who is spearheading the addiction clinic proposal.

ANSWER: The Regional Manager of the Udaras na Gaeltachta office in Pairc Ghno Ghaoth Dobhair is Micheal Mac Giolla Easbuig.

9. QUESTION: Have any open, public discussion forums been organised by Udaras regarding the proposed addiction clinic where the community can contribute its input? If so, where and when? Please provide evidence of this.

ANSWER: On the 22nd of March 2012 a meeting was held in An tSean Bheairic, An Fal Carrach to which representatives of the local community groups/organisations were invited, including An tSean Bheairic Teo, Cumann Trachtala an Fhal Charraigh,  Pobal Eascarrach, CLG Chloich CheannFhaola, Cumann Gailf Chloich Cheann Fhaola, Pobalscoil Chloich Cheann Fhaola, Scoil Naomh Fionnan, Togra Solas, and Ionad na Seandaoine. The meeting was organised by Cuan Mhuire and Udaras na Gaeltachta and at the meeting the representatives were informed of the plans that Cuan Mhuire have for Eastait Bhaile Chonaill.

12. QUESTION: Has there been any other project proposals put forward to Udaras for the Ballyconnell House estate? If so, please provide details.

ANSWER: In 2000, 2004, and again in 2007 Udaras na Gaeltachta sought submissions from parties interested in redeveloping Baile Chonaill as a sustainable business. No proposals were approved by its Board arising from these open invitation processes. Such submissions are made in confidence.

Catholic Church-linked addiction clinic in Falcarragh: is this the best use of tax payers’ job creation money?

Is an addiction clinic run by the Catholic Church near the main crossroads in Falcarragh, west Donegal, where widespread clerical child abuse has taken place, the best way to spend hard-earned taxpayers’ job-creation money?
As Údarás na Gaeltachta, the area’s leading economic organisation, is expected to pour hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of euro into the project, I posed the question to Gearóid Ó Smaoláin, the group’s tourism officer, at a recent EU-backed CeangalG (ConnectG) conference on the development of cultural tourism in the Gaeltacht at An Chuirt Hotel. His response: “We’ve tried to develop Ballyconnell House for many years without success as no decent projects have been put forward to us about it, so negotiations are well advanced for the clinic.

Ballyconnell House: Crumbling edifice to be turned into Catholic Church-run addiction clinic?

Ballyconnell House: Crumbling edifice to be turned into Catholic Church-run addiction clinic?

This was strange as local businessman Milo Butler, who developed the 200-year-old hostelry in Gortahork ‘Maggie Dan’s’ into a successful eating establishment, told me in an earlier conversation that he and other local entrepreneurs including a fluent, local Irish-language solicitor, put forward a comprehensive business plan to Údarás to turn the estate – on which the Cloughaneely Golf Club stands – into a hotel and tourism venture, including an equestrian centre. “It is utterly ridiculous to say no decent projects have been put forward, especially at a time when this organisation says it wants to support the growth of tourism in the area,” he said angrily. “Even worse, our proposal did not even receive so much as a response from Údarás, a simple professional courtesy in such circumstances. I am left deeply disappointed by what I’ve heard. It is more than obvious that certain influential organisations and individuals can get funding from Údarás, and others cannot. It is tantamount to discrimination. Proper use of taxpayers’ money is very important and as such it has to be properly accounted for and well spent.”

Údarás officials, still recovering from the imminent closure of Largo Foods in Bunbeg with the loss of 142 jobs after it had invested over 6.2 million euro in it, say the proposed drug and alcohol addiction clinic could provide much needed jobs in a town bereft of them.
Ballyconnell House is historically a symbol of oppression, now it will be a symbol of healing, and it could provide as many as forty-five jobs,” explained John Curran, board member of Údarás.

Others, however, are angry that a Catholic Church-controlled institution, Cuan Mhuire (Harbour of Mary), would operate the facility. Their reaction follows the well-publicised cases of paedophilia by priests, teachers and caretakers at church-run schools in this tightly-knit rural area, as well as national media reports that Cuan Mhuire allowed convicted pedophile priests to hold religious services at their other addiction centres in Ireland and gave jobs to both nuns and priests who are up on charges of child molestation. Media reports concerned two priests convicted of child abuse who allegedly stayed at a Cuan Mhuire centre after their release from prison and were allowed to say Mass to recovering alcoholics there, unbeknown to the patients. In addition, media allege that a priest jailed on multiple counts of sexually abusing altar boys, aged 10 and 11, in a church sacristy, allegedly lived at a Cuan Mhuire centre. Officials at the Catholic organisation have denied many of the allegations but have not opened their books yet for verification.

Martin Gallagher, a victim of clerical abuse from the Falcarragh-Gortahork area, who was interviewed in the BBC BAFTA-winning programme, “The Shame of the Catholic Church,” is also deeply concerned. “After the horrific things that have happened in this small area – with paedophiles linked to the Catholic Church, including Father Eugene Greene in Gortahork who abused over a 30-year period and pleaded guilty to 40 charges, as well as convicted Michael Ferry, who studied to be a priest at Maynooth, taught religion and was a caretaker at a church-run school in nearby Derrybeg where he raped several children – there is understandable apprehension about anything the Catholic Church is involved in here,” he said. The BBC-winning documentary was hosted by investigative journalist Darragh MacIntyre, former owner of the Teach Ruairi Pub in Gortahork. Unfortunately, the Gaeltacht has the highest rate of clerical paedophilia per population than any other part of Ireland.

In a phone conversation with me, Gallagher said some of the addiction cases in the Donegal Gaeltacht are “a direct result of Catholic Church-linked paedophilia, such is the trauma to the victims.” “How can that be handled sensitively by an addiction clinic run, in effect, by the Catholic Church?” he asked. Cuan Mhuire is a Catholic group with strong ties to the Vatican and fees to it for its services would be paid either by private insurance or the HSE.

Asked whether he knew about the allegations against Cuan Mhuire and if he considered them important, Curran said simply “I can’t comment on the CM project due to the fact that the project is still at an exec level within the Udaras. I don’t want to hinder this process as I don’t know what stage the discussions are at and feel that the appropriate time for the Board to get involved is when we have a concrete proposal to hand.”

Others question the need for an alcohol and drug addiction clinic in the area when Donegal already has one close by – White Oaks in Muff, adding that the high cost of the clinic to the tax-payer – with no guarantee that local people will be employed in well-paid professional positions – would restrict available funding for cultural tourism projects for the Gaeltacht that was promised by the new Údarás board after taking office two years ago.

While social workers report an increased problem with drug and alcohol addiction in west Donegal for various reasons, research in the field has shown that people who suffer such addictions rarely attend clinics in their own areas, particularly when the areas in question are rural, due to the high level of stigma attached to such treatment. As such, few people in the immediate area of west Donegal would benefit from treatments provided by a proposed new clinic established there.

It terms of cultural tourism, at the CeangalG conference, Ian Joyce, an arts and culture entrepreneur who launched Cló Ceardlann na gCnoc near Gortahork a number of years ago, told me his multi-annual 40,000 euro budget from Údarás/the Arts Council was stopped this year, leaving him desperately searching for ongoing funding. He said his printing, visual arts and design centre, which lies in the heart of the Gaeltacht, is “an artist lead initiative” which, as its website states, “provides a platform for creative exchange between artists worldwide and the Gaeltacht community.” This includes tailored courses, both residential and non-residential. While Cló has received hundreds of thousands of euro in support from various organisations over the years, Gordan says his initiative attracts many international visitors to the Gaeltacht area while also strengthening links with other countries, thus putting as he described, “the Donegal Gaeltacht on the cultural map.” He added, “Many arts and culture organisations and initiatives in west Donegal, and elsewhere in the county, have been hard-hit by cuts.”

Údarás officials declined to say how many local people might be employed at the proposed clinic or whether they would be part-time, low-skilled such as floor cleaners or higher-paid executive positions.

Ironically, one Údarás official told me the organisation had paid the Catholic Church “millions of euro for Ballyconnell House some years ago” and now plans to offer it back at a “negligible or heavily discounted rental rate as part of an overall deal.”

With the perceived need within Údarás to show healthy job creation statistics to retain its multi-million euro annual budget and well-paid staff jobs in face of a rumoured takeover by the IDA or Enterprise Ireland, a fragile position exacerbated by the loss of 142 jobs at Largo Food that left the organisation with a minus 78 tally, the worse jobs record of all the Gaeltachts of Ireland, after spending more than two million euro in Donegal last year, could the addiction clinic be a way of making its job creation statistics respectable before its key annual year-end review?

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