Are Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labour and pseudo-Independents set on destroying power-sharing in Donegal?

Early last Monday morning as most of us woke up groggily and struggled out of bed to face the week, a dramatic closed-door meeting of the Independent Grouping within Donegal Council was taking place in Lifford at which the very future of politics in the county was being decided.

Or at least that’s one interpretation: that pseudo-Independents (my sobriquet for them) backed by the Coalition Government partners of Fine Gael and Labour together with Fianna Fail were aiming for.

But the political cat might be out of the bag, so to speak.

Could it be that someone poured (or was it self-administered?) poisonous elixir into the ears of certain councillors that the life of an independent within traditionally conservative Irish political circles is a short one, so they’d better rejoin the party fold again – before it is too late? “Being in a party makes for an easier life,” may have been the song on the hymn sheet. “You’ve got the company of like-minded people. Talk up the party you formerly belonged to until we win the Dail, then we – together with you – will control Lifford as well.” If it was, perhaps instead, without knowing, they’ve been listening to the Song of the Sirens.

Donegal councillors, county council meeting

(l to r) Let’s decide on a plan of action. Councillors Frank McBrearty and Michael McBride confer discreetly at Monday morning’s meeting of Donegal County council.

Intriguing backstory

As Councillor Michael McBride told me last week, a motion by John Campbell at Monday morning’s private Independent Grouping meeting to have John O’Donnell expelled from the group supported, by Michael Cholm MacGiolla Easbuig and himself, was defeated by five other councillors, a strange situation to say the least as only last month, they had all voted to make him resign.

But that wasn’t the biggest surprise of that morning.

That came just a few minutes later, immediately Campbell and Easbuig left the Independent Grouping in protest.

“Much to my amazement, someone suddenly called for the dissolution of the entire Grouping,” recalls McBride, who chaired the meeting but said he cannot remember who made what he considered a bizarre call (strange loss of concentration as chairperson at so vital a time). “And it was agreed upon so quickly I can’t but believe they had all discussed this much earlier, in private.”

The five councillors in the Independent Group who voted against O’Donnell’s expulsion were Nicholas Crossan, Tom Conaghan, Niamh Kennedy, Ian McGarvey, and John O’Donnell himself, most former party members.

Later that same evening McBride sent me an e-mail purportedly written by Kennedy stating that, “a decision has been taken to suspend the independent grouping and that no positions would be removed from any member as an investigation is currently underway by the ethics registrar of Donegal county council.”

She added, “None of us are involved in the 25/30 councillors referred to by Cllr.  O Donnell (on the RTE programme). This decision has been taken in the interest of the people of Donegal and in order to accommodate the smooth running of the business of Donegal county council following this past two months of turmoil.” But one is still left wondering why the Grouping was suddenly dissolved? Could it be, as McBride said, that they were fed up working with the fiery Frank McBrearty, who first proposed O’Donnell’s expulsion. Or with the intellectually able Campbell and passionate Easbuig? Or is something more sinister going down?

Franc McBrearty, Donegal councillors

Loosening his tie. But then again, Councillor McBride wasn’t wearing one, was he, at the council meeting? Just a bout of nervousness then? Or indecision?

Asked about his feelings on the dissolution of the Independent Grouping, McBride said, “I didn’t want that. It’s good for the council to have the four-group all-inclusive set-up that it has. To my understanding, that kind of power-sharing is unique in the whole country, something Donegal should be proud of.”

I asked McBride several questions

“Would you like O’Donnell – your former business partner in Dúncrua Teoranta, which was granted 120,000 euro from Udaras na Gaeltachta – expelled from all council committees.”

“I would have no problem with him being removed from all committees.”

“Why then did you abstain in the full council vote on the matter this Monday?”

“Because of the way I was treated fairly when I was co-opted on to the council for former Senator Jimmy Harte’s seat.”

“So, you would have been okay with a council decision to expel him, but not for you to vote on it?”

“Yes, it would have been democracy in action.”

Conversation ends.

Shakespeare: Is there something rotten in the state of …. Donegal?

Why would the trio of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour want the Independent Grouping at Donegal County Council dissolved? Here is a possible answer.

We’ll have a national elections very soon – we’ll know this week just when – and if the situation demands it, these three parties, regardless of what they say now, will try to ‘intermingle’ to form the next Government. But according to latest polls, their Donegal TD candidates desperately need all the help they can get even to shuffle lamely past the finish line – thus the pseudo-Independents. Fifteen years ago, the electoral breakdown was Fianna Fail a massive 70 per cent, Fine Gael 30 per cent, Sinn Fein 0.2 per cent and the rest Independents and Pseudos. Within the last five to six years, the Donegal political pendulum has swung dramatically and is now around 25 per cent Fianna Fail, Fine Gael 18 per cent, Sinn Fein a mighty 40 per cent, and rising, and the rest Independents and Pseudos.

And, let’s be quite clear about this: the main reason some pseudo-Independents are ‘Independents’ is that either their parties didn’t choose them to run last time out or that they’d never have won if they’d gone under that party’s ticket, especially if they’d gone under the Fianna Fail banner. In politics, however, such slights and inconveniences are often forgotten in the greedy grab for the prize piñata.

Concillor O'Donnell, Donegal politics

(r to l) Fianna Fail Donegal County Council chairperson, Ciaran Brogan, prepares for the meeting with council chief executive, Seamus Neely.

What happened behind closed doors Monday morning one week ago after Campbell and Easbuig stood on principle and left could be a classic political quid pro quo situation. ‘Talk up the party in the nationals in a few weeks time and you can run under our ticket for a council spot next time round, and, believe me, you’ll feel more secure for doing so,” could have been the way it was put.

Then again, my hunch might just be the workings of an over-active imagination. The truth might be that the Independent Grouping is a motley group, a raggle-taggle band with perhaps their hearts in the right places, but no cohesion. And so inexperienced and pulled apart by differences that they don’t even realize what their full potential could be if they created unity from diversity and voted for the right things.

This, however, is the perfect time – with national elections six weeks away – to find out which of the above-mentioned theories is the right one. True colors will begin to seep through. Threads will start to unravel.

If something more sinister is afoot, perpetrators of the cloak-and-dagger plotting have sadly overlooked one vital element – common decency. The overriding public mood is one of disillusionment, bordering on despair. If the three main political parties have indeed won the pseudo-Independents over – backed by business elites with much to gain by keeping O’Donnell on the council and on the ever-important ‘Roads’ committee which oversees tens of millions of euro in construction projects – trouble lies ahead. Keep in mind, the council’s annual budget is 133 million, 127 fixed and 6 to 7 discretionary. Construction of the Dungloe-Glenties road is in five-stages, the second, for example, cost around four million euro and the tender for the next stage is end of this month.

The ‘plotters’ may, however, have made the fatal mistake of ignoring the simple, unadorned hopes of ordinary folk, throughout Donegal and throughout the country, hopes for a sliver of common decency among politicians after all the putrid corruption they’ve been forced to roll in over the last five years or so.

Donegal people demonstrating, Donegal county council

Protestors inside the County Chamber voice their sentiments about Councillor John O’Donnell, corruption and cronyism within and outside Donegal County Council.

Another key question is now being asked in the corridors of power in Lifford: not if, but how many, high-level executives within Donegal Council – many of which were employed both within the county and imported from outside the county, with generous salaries and pensions under the previous, long-running Fianna Fail government – are involved in this purge of True Independents and the break-up of power-sharing? After all, they have to reward their paymasters.

What a shame if such a deceitful game is being played, in this of all years – the centennial anniversary of our national independence.

But in a very short time, you, dear Reader, will have the chance to put things right – by availing of your unalienable right to walk behind a curtain and put your ‘X’ exactly where you want it to be.

Perhaps, this blog will help you choose well. I certainly hope so. It’s a rare chance to truly show that we are indeed ‘different up here.’

As for Councillor O’Donnell….

Epitome of nonchalance

I was quite astounded watching the councillor last Monday morning nonchalantly reading that morning’s edition of the ‘Donegal News’ as the political maelstrom swirled all around him in the council chamber. Either this young man has nerves of steel, I thought, or he is so utterly sure of what will happen that there is absolutely no need for him to be concerned in any way, about anything or anyone. Wish I could wake up feeling that way, as I’m sure do thousands of unemployed, elderly, sick, disabled and struggling mothers trying desperately to feed their children on paltry, insufficient income coming into homes across this county, across the country.

John O'Donnell, Sinn Fein Donegal

Nonchalance or absolute certainty? John O’Donnell displays his lack of concern about the possibility he might be expelled from Donegal County Council on Monday morning. That very evening, he released a press statement thanking his fellow councillors for supporting him.

During a short adjournment, I approached O’Donnell and introduced myself as Gaeilge, thinking – as he had attracted so much Údarás funding – he would be fluent. Perhaps it was due to my poor pronunciation or stumbling vocal ways, but he didn’t seem to understand, so I changed my questioning to as Bearla.

“Can you speak? I’ve a few questions I’d like to ask.”

I’ve been told by my legal advisers not to say anything,” he responded. “They’ve told me to let the ethics investigation takes it course. I’ve nothing to answer for anyway. People are just out to get me and use me as a platform for their own political gains.”

“What would you say to your fellow councilors here if they ask you any questions about your various business interests and debts owed through them?”

“I’d say, ‘That’s none of anyone’s business. It’s my private affair, mine only.”

“What about the 120,000 euro granted to your company, Dúncrua Teoranta, by Údarás na Gaeltachta just before it went bust, can you explain that?

“My legal advisers have told me to say nothing and that’s what I’m going to do.”

“Will you pay the money back?

“No comment.”

Then he went back to reading his newspaper.

O’Donnell, a long-time family member of Fianna Fail, also declined to comment on the court case he faces this Wednesday, Feb. 3 for failing to pay 33,000 euro in compensation to a Creeslough woman whose foot he drove over in a car accident. If O’Donnell does not show up for that case, District Court Judge Paul Kelly has said he will have him arrested.

Next week’s court case should be just as entertaining as the county council meeting last  week – with potentially very serious consequences for all concerned. If, having said he has no money, he pays up, you have to ask yourself: where did the spondulix come from? If his solicitor delays the proceedings, you’ve got to ask yourself: why? Could it be waiting for the results of the upcoming elections? If, however, he is convicted, I am ainformed O’Donnell automatically loses his council seat. There’s a lot at stake.

Go along if you can. It should be as good as an episode of ‘Judge Judy,’ hopefully better – unless some shadowy person(s) gets to the judge before then.

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

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

John O Donnell Donegal, independent councilor Donegal

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

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

Dúncrua Teoranta

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

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

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

Kilmac Form Work Limited

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

Urgent questions require immediate answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Údarás na Gaeltachta lack good governance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changes required at Údarás?

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

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

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

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