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.

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Complaint about Udaras cover-up sent to Ombudsman

Ireland’s biggest fault is lack of accountability – the main reason we’re in the humiliating position of doffing our caps and begging for mercy from the IMF.

Instead of fairness and transparency in public affairs, we get cronyism and cover-ups. The Central Remedial Clinic, The Financial Regulator, FAS, the Rehab Group, the John McNulty scandal …. the list is a depressingly long one.

But what’s even worse is when our supposed independent media collude in supporting this kind of deception.

Damning evidence this week indicates that is exactly what the local office of Udaras na Gaeltachta and the ‘Donegal Daily’ news website have been involved in.

Earlier this year, Udaras’ local tourism officer Gearoid O’Smaolain contacted Stephen Maguire, the news website’s co-owner, complaining that a report on the site contained what he said was “a fabricated quote,” attributed to him when he spoke at the launch of the multi-million euro, EU-funded CeangalG project at An Chuirt hotel.

false accusation

At that conference, I had asked O’Smaolain about a proposed addiction clinic in Falcarragh that was rumored would cost taxpayers several million euro and run by the Catholic church. O’Smaolain said discussions were indeed underway with Udaras, that his organisation didn’t have millions to spend and that no decent projects had been put forward for the site at Ballyconnell House beside the town golf course. Thus the article below:

Angry reaction to setting up addiction clinic in Falcarragh

As it was I who compiled the news report, Maguire promptly called me, saying O’Smaolain told him he had an official transcript of the conference to prove his accusation. I asked if he (Maguire) had read or listened to this transcript. He said he hadn’t but that O’Smaolain had sent him an excerpt. See below –

transcript email

Sean Hillen Q and A

Upon reading this, I offered to give Maguire my notes from the conference so he could make a fair decision. Instead he sent this e-mail to both myself and O’Smaolain.

letter from Maguire

Imagine my shock, therefore when – without further notice – I then read this abject apology on the ‘Donegal Daily’ website the very next day.

GEAROID SMOLAIN – CLARIFICATION ON BALLYCONNELL HOUSE ARTICLE

I contacted Maguire repeatedly asking for an explanation and a copy of the official transcript of the conference. Months later, still no response.

I then contacted Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Scotland, the leader of CeangalG, which had also planned and supervised the conference at An Chuirt, asking them for a copy of the transcript.

Claire Nicolson, the organisation’s administrator, was helpful, initially saying she did not think there was such a transcript, and, when I requested a definitive answer, responded this week in the message below that was also c’d to Alasdair Morrison, a former minister in the Government of Scotland, now CeangalG director.

From: Claire Nicolson <claire@connectg.net>

To: Sean Hillen <sean.hillen@yahoo.com>

Cc: Alasdair Morrison <alasdair@connectg.net>

Sent: Friday, December 12, 2014 5:31 PM

Subject: Re: Donegal conference

Seán, a chara, thanks for your email.

That was our cultural tourism conference in February. I recall you asking for this information before. I’m sorry, there was no transcript or recording of the event.

Le gach dea-ghuí

Claire

O’Smaolain therefore, it emerges, not I, was involved in fabrication. Worse, Stephen Maguire and ‘Donegal Daily,’ fully supported him in doing so based on a transcript that never existed.

One might ask: Why was this subject so sensitive that such lies and deceit were used to keep it from the public eye? And why would an editor kowtow so easily to make an unjustified apology and retract a perfectly accurate news story from a website?

As the reasons for Maguire’s actions are obviously not in pursuit of journalistic excellence, are they merely financial? Did Udaras or organisations or individuals associated with Udaras either threaten him or Donegal Daily Ltd. with a lawsuit or through withdrawal of advertising? Or, indeed, did they promise future ad revenue if he simply did as they demanded?

By coincidence, John Curran whom Fine Gael appointed to the board of Udaras and who subsequently failed to win a local council seat recently, had a paid political banner ad in the ‘Donegal Daily’ when my addiction clinic broke. Did Curran threaten to withdraw his ad if the story was not squashed? See the ad at bottom of the same page as the story : Angry reaction to setting up addiction clinic in Falcarragh

If true, this is a most dismaying development, illustrating the reason why there is a falling level of trust by Irish people in today’s government.

Equally, O’Smaolain’s accusation in defense of Udaras – now shown to be false – illustrates why there’s a growing lack of faith in organisations trusted with spending scarce public money.

Gearoid O’Smaolain (l) and Stephen Maguire (r)

And most dismaying of all in many respects is the conduct of Stephen Maguire and the ‘Donegal Daily.’ As I pointed out in an earlier post, strong independent media underpins any democracy.

After more than 30 years in journalism both here at home and abroad, I still firmly believe this. As truth is the rudder that steers ethical decisions in journalism, it is most disappointing to see how Maguire and the ‘Donegal Daily abrogated responsibility in such a pathetic way.

Having investigated the situation comprehensively over the last few months, I forwarded a file to the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council of Ireland, only to be informed that it could not investigate further as ‘Donegal Daily’ is not a member of the council.

I find this ironic as only a few days ago the ‘Donegal Daily’ boasted of being among the most popular news websites, yet is not even a member of a nationally-respected organization to which all serious news media outlets belong.

I suppose, more than anything, this indicates how earnestly Mr. Maguire considers the importance of accuracy in news reporting.

My file outlining how Mr. O’Smaolain misused his authority in an effort to damage my reputation, is now with the Office of the Ombudsman. What action is taken, if any, will indicate if our government is serious about creating a more transparent and accountable society, thus preventing what happened to me, happening to others.