Crooks, citizens or celebrities?

Ethics, or lack thereof, has been the raging catchphrase in Donegal recently with county councilor John O’Donnell  caught on RTE camera allegedly offering lobbying services for cash and Bunbeg-based, EU-funded former school principal, Finbarr Boyle, stealing more than 200,000 euro from a village school, including money earmarked for childrens’ food.

But what’s all the commotion about? Hasn’t there been such unsavory goings-on right here in Donegal for years? Why the shock? Or is there any, really?

In last weekend’s edition of ‘The Irish Times,’ columnist Fintan O’Toole, painted a scary scenario, a malaise spreading nationwide.

…other cultures criminalise the things they find unacceptable; we find unacceptable only the things that have been criminalized. If you can get away with it, we reckon, it can’t be all that bad.” He then quoted Central Bank Governor, Patrick Honohan on white-collar crime, saying, “It is remarkable, first of all, how long it takes, how heavy the procedures are and how light the consequences.

Back in Donegal.

Ardara-born Finbarr Boyle’s story is well-publicized “School principal pleads guilty to 7 counts of theft and forgery.”

As a journalist and editor for over thirty years, I thought sharpened instincts had made me a good judge of character – boy, was I ever wrong.

Sitting at a lunch prepared by my wife in my home with Mr. Boyle as guest some time ago, I would never have guessed the man across from me would stoop to such lows as using a village school’s money where he was principal to treat himself royally to holidays in England, Spain and other fine places, car and house payments and expensive golf equipment.

Finbarr Boyle Donegal, CeangalG,

(l to r): Concubhar Ó LIatháin, CeangalG Marketing Manager, Claire Nic Neacail, Alasdair Morrison CeangalG Director, Dinny McGinley Fine Gael TD and Fionbar Ó Baoill – CeangalG Training Manager.

Mr. Boyle was given space inside the headquarters of Údarás na Gaeltachta in the Gweedore Industrial Estate, Bunbeg as a training manager – surprising, as that particular organisation has refused to gave any free space to small, local entrepreneurs in that same estate, a situation local Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty, has consistently taken issue with.

I must admit, Mr. Boyle impressed me then, a fast talker, assertive and supremely confident. Yes, I know what you’re probably thinking – ‘Sounds like a conman to me.’ As things turned out, you are absolutely right. But I was left sad and disillusioned after learning of his multiple theft. He struck me then as the kind of person who could be a positive force for change, especially as we discussed the importance of ethics and the need for the Donegal Gaeltacht to rid itself of its historic cronyism and nepotism which have warped normal economic development of the region.

Yet this is the same person found guilty of seven counts of theft over a number of years (he admitted to many more as part of his plea bargain), for whom Judge John Aymler may not impose a custodial sentence because, in part, 25,000 euro of the money taken may be paid back within a year. That’s around a tenth of what was stolen.

Who says crime doesn’t pay?

A key question, however, still remains unanswered: Mr. Boyle was caught red-handed several years ago (the investigation has been ongoing for at least seven (7) years), so how did he obtain a well-paying position as training manager of a lucrative, multi-million euro, tax-payer supported EU funded project – ironically, one aimed at helping economically disadvantaged people? Was this , in itself, a classic case of nepotism and cronyism? Regardless of the multiple thefts, people have asked, “Does a school principal have the business credentials to train entrepreneurs?”

When contacted by me this week on the issue, Dr D. Munro, chair of the CeangalG Steering Group, Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Scotland, e-mailed back, saying, “Mr. Boyle’s actual contract of employment, for the post of Training Officer, with the wider CeangalG Project, was formally and directly managed through our Project Partners, Údarás na Gaeltachta.” He added that Mr. Boyle was “employed by the project between 9th Sept 2013 and 31st March 2015.” The Gardai investigation began as late as 2008 and Mr. Boyle, according to media reports, admitted his thefts almost two years ago (January last year).

Mr. Munro added, “At no stage in either the recruitment process or during his subsequent period of employment, was CeangalG ever made aware of there being any on-going police investigation.” Mr. Munro cc his email to the law company of Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie and to the University of the Highlands. Have I touched a red button?

Entitled CeangalG (ConenctG), this project is funded by the EU’s INTERREG IVA, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, MG ALBA, the Scottish Government, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich and focuses on the Gaeltachts of Donegal, Scotland and Belfast. On it’s website, it states:

CeangalG Donegal, INTERREG IVAAs for independent councilor John O’Donnell, the ball is largely in his court. He can do the dignified thing and bow out. If he stays, he places the entire council under a shadow. Independent councillor Frank McBrearty says he should be removed from all committees. But it seems resigning is the last thing O’Donnell will do. Another Independent councillor, Micheál Cholm Mac Giolla Easbuic, is right in asking fellow councilors to walk out of the chamber at the next meeting in protest. Someone has to stand up, otherwise – due to blatant impunity – it will get much worse. Let’s see if that happens. If not, then Fintan O’Toole’s words ring frighteningly true.

John O Donnell Donegal, independent councilor Donegal

Independent councilor John O Donnell: will he do the right thing?

But questionable dealings are nothing new in Donegal, as many local people have told me.

Under the auspices of the former Fianna Fáil government, Liam Cunningham (Liam Ó Cuinneagáin), was paid substantial sums for his services as member and long-time chairperson of Údarás na Gaeltachta – more than a quarter of a million euro. Between 2002 to 2012, his travel expenses alone amounted to 131,730 euro. His fees amounted to 206,962 euro.

More than that, documents requested by me under the Freedom of Information Act also now show that at least one company he established, Oideas Gael, received generous amounts of money – more than 350,000 euro in a series of payments – from the very same organization he chaired for so long. Mr. Cunningham said Oideas Gael was a hobby. With a financial return like that, that’s quite a hobby.

In stock market terms, is this not a case of insider trading, and therefore unethical? After all, no better-placed person to access money from a group than the person who’s on the inside track of that very same group, knowing intimately its budgets, its strategy and its key staff. When called by me about this situation in a phone interview, Liam said, “Sean, things were different then. I don’t see it as a conflict of interest.” Different then? How is it different? The question was never answered.

Oideas Gael, Liam Cunningham Donegal

Liam Cunningham: is it wrong to lobby for money from the very funding organisation that you chair?

Some readers might say, ‘Liam hosts Irish-language classes.’ That’s true, but so do many others and they don’t benefit from the rich financial backing Oideas Gael received so handily. Still others could do so – if they had that kind of money. Is such treatment fair and ethical? Is the playing ground a level one? How many times has Údarás said there’s not enough money for your project?

The particular situation of Mr. Cunningham also raises an inevitable question: was it linked to an ongoing quid pro quo agreement among local Údarás board members then? And has anything changed since? Interested to find out? You have the right to know, and here’s how. (See below).

Mr. Cunningham has since been named, ‘Donegal Person of the Year.’ Considering the dire economic development of the Gaeltacht, where I live, under his watch, the question must be asked, ‘Is this how we want the term ‘model citizen’ to be defined?”

Michael Heaney, formerly a director of services with Donegal County Council, has recently been appointed director of Enterprise & Investment with Údarás. Will his leadership change the way Údarás doles out money, how it selects projects to fund? Or will the same old cadre of elites be the recipients? Time will tell.

As Údarás is helping DLDC select projects for funding under the EU’s upcoming LEADER programme, it will be operating under much tighter European regulations than the rather loose Irish ones it has been working under thus far. It will be interesting to monitor the quality of their project selection process for LEADER.

As O’Toole writes in last Saturday’s column, “If corruption is very low on the list of priorities for criminal justice, it is little higher on the list of political priorities…. So long as impunity reigns, the rare eejit who gets caught will always evoke sympathy… What marks out (Ireland) is the breathtaking degree of impunity for all white-collar crimes.

Isn’t it long past time this situation changed? The upcoming election gives us the chance to affect such change. In  ofthis regard, it is worth noting the words  ‘Donegal News’ columnist Martin McGinley’s in Friday’s edition, “We get what we accept.”

You have the right to know:

You can find out additional information on the dealings of Údarás by e-mailing Judy Ní Dhubháin at judy(at)udaras.ie. Quoting the FOI Act 2014, you can ask for any information you like, financial or otherwise. The service is free.

Anyone wanting answers from CeangalG, can contact Dr D. Munro, chair of the CeangalG Steering Group at dm.smo(at)uhi.ac.uk or +44 (0) 1471 888352. Claire Nicolson is the organisation’s administrator claire(at)ceangalg.net Alasdair Morrison, a former minister in the Government of Scotland, is its director. Or through Údarás na Gaeltachta, Donegal. Tel: 074-9560100. Fax: 074-9560101. Email: dnag(at)udaras.ie

Be sure to tell me what you find out. I’d be curious to know.

Udaras na Gaeltachta consider challenges of creating new jobs

Meeting for the first time this morning (Friday), members of the new board of Udaras na Gaeltachta face the challenging tasks of analysing the organisation’s performance and brainstorming on ways to accomplish the goals for which the Irish-language body was established.

One priority is employment in Gaeltacht areas. “Job creation and language promotion go hand-in-hand,” Anna Ni Ghallchoir, 55, the new chairperson, told the Donegal News. “With my new board colleagues, I will be examining very closely if past strategies have been successful and come up with innovative ones to help us move forward.”

Depending on whom you speak to, Udaras has either an acceptable record on job creation, or a very poor one, reflecting the age-old comment that statistics are like sausages – they look good but you’re never quite sure what’s in them.

New jobs versus lost jobs

With total funding of around one billion euro so far, Udaras reported it had created 6,970 jobs as of last year in what it terms ‘client companies,’ defined as any company receiving support. When examined in the context of unemployment in Gaeltacht regions, this represents 7.75 per cent of the population there. As of last year, Udaras’ website shows it supported 1,876 jobs in the Donegal Gaeltacht, which represents 7.89 per cent of almost 24,000 people. Donegal Gaeltacht has the second largest number of Irish speakers, but ranks fifth in jobs created among the seven Gaeltacht regions.

Liam O‘Cuinneagain, Udaras chairperson for the last ten years, told the Donegal News he is “satisfied with our job creation performance,” adding, “It’s not easy to get companies to locate to rural Ireland, in part because of its remoteness and lack of transport links and limited skill-sets there.” As evidence in Donegal, he points to sectors Udaras has invested in – seafood processing, call centres (VHI), IT, sea angling, boat repair, even potato-crisp/fast food manufacturing (Largo Foods).

Other business analysts, however, are less satisfied with Udaras’ performance, including Tom Fitzgerald, fluent Irish speaker and business owner employing 50 people at Bard na nGleann, his information-management company in Béal Átha’n Ghaorthaidh in the Cork Gaeltacht. “A strong, well-run economic development organisation is important for the preservation and promotion of the Irish-language and for job creation in marginalized areas such as the Gaeltachts, including Donegal, but there’s no shying away from facts, Udaras is an extraordinarily expensive organisation,” Fitzgerald, whose company has an annual turnover of between one and two million euro, told the Donegal News. “There is little evidence of effectiveness in the statistics. By normal business practice standards, Udaras’ record so far is very poor.”

Expenditure

Fitzgerald points to the fact that the total number of jobs Údarás says it created was lower in 2010 than in 1996. “Furthermore, there’s no indication that the amount of money spent by Údarás in a single year has any impact on job creation in the Gaeltacht.  For example: Údarás spent more than 84 million euro in 2002 according to its own annual report. Yet there is no corresponding spike in jobs either in that year or following years.”

O‘Cuinneagain says during his tenure as chairperson, “cost per job was around eight thousand euro.” However, a simple look at Udaras’s total expenditure for the last ten years (613.5 million euro) relative to the number of jobs it reports creating by the end of last year (6,970) equates to 88,000 euro cost per job. As only around 10 per cent of budget goes to language-cultural activities, the final cost per job figure may be as much as ten times higher than stated. In Donegal, a case study in job costs is Largo Foods, headquartered in Ashbourne, Meath, but with facilities in the Gaoth Dobhair Industrial Estate. According to Udaras, it has received over 6.2 million euro in funding between 1999 and 2011 – with another half-million euro to be paid soon for automated equipment. Udaras said last year the company employed 120 people. Taking those figures, that works out to be over 55,000 euro investment per job created, not considering funding from other bodies for Largo. Ironically, following the installation of the automated equipment earlier this year, media reported 36 jobs were lost at Largo.

As some of Udaras’s ‘client companies’ are also the ‘client companies’ of other organisations, foreign and domestic, from whom they receive additional support, it is difficult to evaluate what specific job numbers Udaras contributions amount to. “The term ‘client companies’ is a loose one, easily manipulated to suit purpose,” said Fitzgerald. “Some organisations that partly support companies in the Gaeltachts often claim all the jobs as their own making, which is quite misleading.”

O’Cuinneagain acknowledges that criticisms of Udaras for not supporting enough micro companies – entrepreneurs wishing to hire a handful of people – are valid. “We’re not getting what we should be getting – smaller businesses,” he said. “We’ve focused too much trying to get big companies that might employ hundreds. Even though the finance and support system is there, Udaras has not been welcoming enough. Staff have not been as pro-active as they should be, have not scoured their Gaeltacht communities to find such entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, we have remained in a culture of factory jobs.”

Asked why, the director of Oideas Gael, a language group in Glencolmcille, lay the blame on factors outside Udaras ranging from lack of business teaching in education “Greek and Latin instead of entrepreneurialism” to lack of bank finance. But he did not rule out the possibility that as funding a small company with thousands of euro amounted to nearly as much paperwork for Udaras staff as funding large companies with millions of euro, there may have be a Udaras propensity for avoiding small business applications. Asked if the push for larger companies could have been simply a strategy to keep employment figures up and for Udaras to retain its all-important job-creation remit, which accounts for most of its annual budget, he said, “That’s ridiculous, sounds more like a conspiracy theory to me.”

Fitzgerald’s opinion differs, “About the only goal that Údarás is measured on is the creation of 800 or so new jobs per year, so they focus on doing just that. The problem is that this strategy doesn’t take into account what kind of jobs they are. In theory, Údarás is better off creating jobs that disappear quickly so they can place the same people again in a year or two.”

Analysts also say the Udaras board members may not have had enough business experience to spearhead a successful jobs-creation strategy. Of the Donegal members on the previous board, none could be identified as having long-time corporate management experience. O’Cuinneagain waved aside concerns that the previous national board was too large, numbering twenty, which some analysts said made it unwieldy to manage and hampered decision-making. “I did not find our board meetings too difficult to manage, but then again my experience as a teacher in inner city Dublin for many years helped a lot,” he said.

Lack of fiscal clarity within Udaras concerns some observers.

“I spent several years studying the organisation and found its finances extremely difficult to understand,” one leading business researcher told the Donegal News. “I also found frequent errors in its calculations. Some figures on spending simply did not add up. There’s really no excuse for that when we have so many accounting software programs such as Excel at our disposal.”

When the Donegal News requested a breakdown of Udaras spending for the seven Gaeltacht regions, particularly Donegal, for the last three years, Siubhán Nic Grianna, national communications and marketing manager, responded, “The distribution of total monies is not segregated on a county by county or Gaeltacht by Gaeltacht basis therefore I cannot provide breakdown for Donegal for this period.”

Bernard Allen, former TD and head of the multi-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which oversees the proper spending of public money, told the Donegal News that lack of transparency at Udaras may have hindered job-creation efforts. “We found its expenses system to be incomprehensible and could not understand how it was spending so much money on trips for so-called job creation efforts.”  Referring to the scandal over misspending by another state body, he added, “Udaras’ expenses read like a mini-FAS and it seemed to stymy our efforts to find out the truth and avoid disclosing pertinent facts and figures to us, especially related to board member, staff and associated expenses. With better accounting practices, perhaps its job creation efforts could have been more effective. ”

Some questions concerning expenses, including 30,000 euro over two years on trips to Halifax, Canada, to look at seaweed projects, costly business-class flights, trips to many international cities including Las Vegas, Shanghai, Los Angeles and Chicago, and expenses for spouses – which is counter to existing regulations – have still not been fully answered, Allen said.

Nic Grianna said such concerns lack basis. Describing the first story in this newspaper series as, “a slanted view, full of insinuations,” she added, “There was no reprimand from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). We are very open and transparent and explained everything. There has been no abuse of public money.” In response, Allen said simply, “We did not get all our questions answered satisfactorily and a national election was called and the PAC disbanded before we could investigate fully.” Even though the information is in the public domain, Nic Grianna declined a request for a breakdown of pensions for 136 Udaras former executives costing around 4.3 million euro this year, half of this year’s current budget. Efforts to contact retired executives Cathal MacSuibhne in Donegal and CEO Padraig O’hAolain through Udaras for comment, were unsuccessful.

With allegations of cronyism and clintelism tainting many public bodies, O’Cuinneagain said he did not experience conflicts of interest while Udaras chairperson. “My organisation, Oideas Gael, did not receive any money from Udaras so I certainly did not feel the need to excuse myself from board discussions on funding, nor did any of the other board members as they did not receive any money either.”

As the Udaras board meeting gets underway this morning, Sean O’Cuirean, a new member from Falcarragh, remains optimistic. “A good thing about this board is that there are a new set of eyes looking at the situation. Such fresh perspectives often result in greater success and money well spent.”

Published in Donegal News