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?

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.”