Emperor’s clothes – convenient concealment

John Curran seems to have some of the attributes of an upstanding local county council member – so why is it the Falcarragh man failed to win one of the positions in last months’ elections in Donegal?

Especially as anyone with a snippet of local knowledge knows that at least one other candidate – Terence Slowey – by virtue of being found guilty of ‘double dipping’ on expenses, may be less deserving of a seat.

Could it be that John’s failure reflects the ordinary person’s displeasure with the lack of transparency by public bodies in Ireland and manipulation of public money to benefit the already well-to-do?

John Curran

John is a married man and father, a qualified solicitor and has experience within the county council, as well as in the voluntary sector – indeed he is now director of Donegal Volunteer Centre. More than that – he avows to be deeply interested in community affairs.

Okay, John has deep political ambitions but, hey, what’s wrong with that?  I would hope all of the candidates – the successful and the less so – had this in abundance. Otherwise they’re not worth voting for.

So what went wrong?

How is it others, with – in my view – much less integrity – won out over John? To some readers of this blog, these words may come as a surprise. After all, John lambasted me personally over the last month or so in the print media, on the Highland Radio airwaves (see A Better-Informed Donegal is a Better Donegal) and in his own Facebook, for daring to call for greater transparency on the proposed three million euro spending on an addiction clinic in John’s hometown.

Ironically, that was John’s big mistake.

Did John feel – as a government candidate, with money and party behind him, as well as being a board member of Údarás  na Gaeltachta – that he’d be a shoe-in? Perhaps. I’m not sure. What I am sure about, however, is what he didn’t realize – that people – young and old alike – in this rural area of northwest Ireland are, as one native-born Donegal man put it so poetically, ‘cute hoors.’ In more diplomatic language – they know a maverick when they see one. As Gaeilge, ‘amadáin’ they’re certainly not. Not a one of ‘em.

Running on a Fine Gael ticket probably didn’t help (John could have run as an Independent but, offered a chance to speak at the party’s pre-election Ard Fheis, he decided not to). But his failure to win a council seat amounted to much more than that. After all, Fine Gael candidate, Jimmy Kavanagh, was elected.

By heeding the advice of the golden circle who support him in the Donegal Gaeltacht and who are making big money off the public purse in northwest Donegal, mainly through the goings-on at Údarás, and by attempting to turn a simple call for greater transparency – which in other democratic societies would be considered a normal request (in fact, one that should have been led by John himself) – into a ‘personal’ issue, he – with unfortunate consequences for himself – overstepped the mark.

People in the Donegal Gaeltacht may sometimes be blindsided, but they’re not blind. They may be silent sometimes in face of authority (it’s inherent in our Irish nature, conditioned over generations) but they aren’t voiceless.

And at the recent elections they made their voices heard.

Though only a brave few – among them, Owen Curran, Theresa and Caroline Woods, Mary Bridget Sharkey; Mary Attenborough; Moire McCarry; R.J. McLean; James Woods; Gerard Gallagher and Martin McEhlinny – take to the streets regularly in northwest Donegal to protest injustices – deep down (maybe not so deep), many people are upset. They saw that somebody, some people, some institutions  – including the Catholic Church and Údarás  – were trying to pull the wool over their eyes over the addiction center. They noticed clearly that not enough open discussion was taking place over a major proposal that not only would cost the public around three million euro, but would leave very little, perhaps nothing, for other projects in Falcarragh and other areas of the Donegal Gaeltacht (do you really think other Gaeltachts in Ireland are going to readily vote even more money for Donegal over the three million euro, and from a dwindling public purse?….please).

So what exactly is it that is so sensitive about this proposed addiction centre that it needs be kept so tightly under wraps?

Ballyconnell House

With no answers forthcoming from Údarás na Gaeltachta itself about costs and benefits (see Openness and transparency required: Udaras still has questions to answer), I offered the opportunity directly to Cuan Mhuire – the Catholic Church group of nuns that badly wants this public money for the centre (the second such one in Donegal, a very unusual situation for a county with such a small population). The questions were sent to it before the news broke nationally and internationally about the dumping the bodies of around 800 dead infants in and around a septic tank in Tuam by nuns.

An interpretation of this organisation’s response, or lack thereof, indicates the clinic may focus on sex addiction treatments for convicted clergy, as well as for abusers of drugs and alcohol and that Cuan Mhuire may indeed – as earlier media reports suggest – be guilty of allowing convicted paedophile priests to conduct religious services inside its other addiction clinics in Ireland. And may do so again in Falcarragh if the proposal goes through. And perhaps it’s quite convenient for it to do so – treat convicted clerics, both nuns and priests, for sex addiction and have them conduct religious services inside the centre – in the northwest corner of Donegal. Such nefariousness would thus be far from the glare of the national media.

If Cuan Mhuire were a responsible organization, with nothing to hide, it would have answered, perhaps not every question, perhaps not in the detail that would be reasonably expected, but answer it would. If a responsible organization with the concerns of the local community at heart, it would have realized how sensitive this addiction centre proposal is and deal with the concerns in an open manner.

Instead, Cuan Mhuire, a fully-controlled arm of the Catholic Church, acts as if it’s above the societal norms we others must adhere to – and therein lies a great danger. In the past, and still now – while ordinary people, ordinary community groups, follow rules and regulations that make for a stable, secure world – the church considers itself above the law. That is a frightening path.

In conclusion, if John Curran really wants to be considered a serious candidate for future public office (remember, he was appointed to the board of Údarás by the Government, not elected by the people), he cannot be simply a toadie for a political party or an institution such as the Catholic Church or Údarás. He must do what any decent board member is supposed to do – something, unfortunately, we have NOT seen successive board members at Údarás and most other Irish institutions from FAS to the Central Remedial Clinic do: take his responsibilities seriously and both oversee public spending and the overall health of the community properly.

Owen Curran: well-respected Donegal community activist speaks out

Names his choices for local elections in the Glenties

Watching as stone cottages in England were leveled to make way for a nuclear power plant and seeing protestors trying to stop it being mistreated by police was the beginning of Owen Curran’s political awakening.

I was nineteen, living in England, but that planted a seed in me,” the 51-year-old explains simply during a recent two-hour interview at Lough Altan Hotel in Gortahork.

Owen, first from the left, looking at camera, displays his solidarity with protestors seeking greater equality and social justice.

In the intervening thirty-two years, that seed has grown into a sturdy tree, its branches used in the protection of basic civil and community rights and furtherance of a more equitable society. That’s why Curran, who was born in Glasgow but who grew up in Ray, west Donegal, and has lived the last 12 years in nearby Derryconnor, came to be one of the canvassers for a then aspiring Dublin political leader named Joe Higgins in the 1990s. That’s how he also ended up in the vanguard of the Cloughaneely ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign against the household and water taxes; among 15,000 people protesting outside the Fine Gael Ard Fheis two years ago in Dublin; and one of a small group of people behind the emergence of ‘May Day’ celebrations earlier this month in Falcarragh.

I suppose you could say I’ve always been involved in fighting for peoples’ rights and social fairness,” says the well-read, quiet-spoken Donegal county council employee. “These rights were hard-fought to get and keeping them is even more difficult, especially in times of economic crisis.

With the local elections but a few weeks away, Owen, who like many Irishmen before him has travelled to many places seeking work, including Neasden, Edinburgh, Bermondsey, Dunbar, Haddington and Port Seton, is eyeing the candidates with that view very much in mind. “I’m looking for people with genuine beliefs about social justice, the kind who get involved and don’t waver when things get tough, people like Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein, the best politician we’ve ever had in Donegal,” he says, before adding philosophically, “democracy is a living, breathing, thing and should be borne out to its fullest. We’ve been told there is an economic upturn, but we don’t see it. Most of our working people have emigrated or are simply unemployed. How can we talk about rural Ireland if we don’t put people back to work? We need to get back to basics, back to looking at agriculture, tourism, the environment. We need open public forums where people can have the right to their say in how the community in which they live should move forward. We’re not going to come out of this crisis automatically. That requires serious, long-term spending.

So why hasn’t that happened already? Why has there been so little protest from Irish people who have undergone such dire difficulties over the last five years?

There are many reasons,” he explains. “With our colonial past, including landlordism, there has been a ‘do-what-you-have-to’ attitude to survive. Also, the Catholic Church, while it has done much good, has left us over-deferential to authority. Further, emigration has always been Ireland’s safety valve. It lets pressure off. Those who would traditionally stand up are gone away.

Owen also believes history went amiss for the people of Ireland. “After the so-called revolution here, the wrong people grasped power, not the people who did most of the fighting, but larger farmers and those who were better off. Some people like to make a devil out of Éamon de Valera but he wasn’t alone. Some of what he and others beside him did was progressive but there has been an absence of social change. Ireland is a Republic in name only and even though the phrase annoys me, we are a ‘class conscious’ nation. In a country in which we felt we were in it together, resisting the might of the British Empire, we found we were no better, no worse, than them. The green flag is still waiting to be raised. There are still things to do.

That includes, according to Owen, “all people being given choices.” “People are not given their rightful place. Minorities should be able to voice their opinion. That is vitally important. Cutting them off is dangerous and we have to be ever vigilant that does not happen. We also need to relearn a lot of stuff, things we knew in the past, like solidarity and standing up for each other. Irish people like to say they didn’t like Margaret Thatcher yet we’ve taken many of her policies and applied them, thus the Celtic Tiger and the Charlie McCreevy’s of this world. Unions ‘in partnership’ with government? What does that mean? We cannot sit on both sides of the fence. It’s as if we are delighted to be allowed to ‘join the club,’ join the ruling classes. We have become so deferential to authority we let off those clearly guilty of white-collar crime. It has just become too easy for them.

Locally, Owen is passionate about the unfortunate situation at Largo Foods in Gaoth Dobhair. “This is a case where skills were honed over forty years, yet now, it’s all gone. Crocodile tears were shed by many politicians, but it took eleven days for Udaras na Gaeltachta to host a first meeting on the factory’s closure. It should have organized a special task force back in the 1980s when manufacturing was going down. I mean, has there ever been an audit of skills in the Gaeltacht community, not to mention a series of public meetings to find job-creation ideas or special training seminars on how to apply properly for funding? Udaras has spent hundreds of millions of euro of public money over the years and much of it has been wasted. It is long past time for greater transparency and much more public scrutiny of the way this organisation operates.

To whom does Owen owe such thoughtful and mature political thinking? “In Ireland, the lives and writings of people like James Connolly and Jim Larkin, and, of course, Joe Higgins, which is why I canvassed for him all those years ago, but others outside Ireland who were very influential during their time,” he says. Among these, Owen adds, are James Cannon in the United States, whom he sees as “an early stalwart of American socialism in the 1930s and who wrote ‘Socialism on Trial,’ which Owen considers “a masterful explanation of the ‘red scare,’ and even the writer, Jack London, who wrote ‘The Iron Heel,’ about the strength of the individual and the collective. Owen also greatly admires Barack Obama, who, he says, “has made a tremendous difference.”

With local elections up ahead, how does the local activist – with two brothers and two sisters and now married to Sheila – feel about the future?

I remain optimistic. I believe in people, in the human spirit. But we need to build peoples’ confidence, to encourage them to get involved in making their communities better. They will find they are well able but it’s a long process. However, it can work. There is not simply dark and light. There’s rarely an outright victory. The ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign, for example, made a number of people active. We all learned how to debate issues. In many ways, it was a model for local democracy within a group. I saw people who were too shy to speak, get up and chair a public meeting.

Regarding the ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign, Curran gives great credit to a number of people who he says “have been pioneers in the struggle for greater equality as well as anti-austerity stalwarts, including Theresa and Caroline Woods, founders of the group; Mary Bridget Sharkey; Mary Attenborough; Moire McCarry; R.J. McLean; James Woods;  Gerard Gallagher; and Martin McEhlinny.”

He continues, “Back to the issue of deference – some people on the left wasted an opportunity this economic crisis presented. They disengaged over spurious reasons. The landscape changed but they didn’t take advantage of the opportunity it presented. Forcing Fine Gael and Fianna Fail together would have made way for a stronger Left alliance….. but maybe it’s not too late.

Owen’s choices in the upcoming local elections for the Glenties area are –

  1. Michael McClafferty – “a decent, hardworking person who got involved in this election because he believes change can only come about if people go into politics and fight for it.”
  2. Cllr. Marie Therese Gallagher and John Sheamais O’Fearraigh of Sinn Fein “because that party has shown consistent loyalty to its principles, as well as strong discipline, especially at last year’s council budget meeting.”
  3. Seamus Rogers – “a genuine community activist, and a decent man.”