‘Whatever you say, say nothing!’ – motto of Údarás na Gaeltachta

‘People have no right to ask how we spend their money.’

That’s the attitude of Údarás na Gaeltachta, which has once again refused to release key information about how it spends public funds.

Udaras

A Senate committee revealed that Údarás pays millions of euro every year in pensions to former executives, some of whom were local Donegal employees including Cathal MacSuibhne, former regional manager based in Gaoth Dobhair.

cathal

Sinn Fein’s Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, a member of that Senate committee, exclaimed, “I nearly fell off the chair when I heard that almost half the current expenditure goes on pension payments to 136 people who are no longer employed by the organisation. Small wonder Údarás is not able to function more effectively.

He added, “This raises serious concerns regarding the levels of monies being paid and who is receiving them.”

Under transparency rules, other public bodies have made a breakdown of such pension figures available for examination, but in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I made, Údarás refused to do so, citing gobbledegook about data protection.

As a result, having brought the matter to the attention of a number of TDs, the Údarás pension issue has risen to the highest levels of national government, to the office of Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure.

I can reveal in this blog that on my behalf various leading politicians including Public Accounts Committee (PAC) member, Mary Lou McDonald, have attempted to find out the individual pension figures but Údarás has stonewalled every request, preventing their release.

MaryLou

How it happened

Údarás responded to my initial FOI request last year seeking details on pension and lump sum payments to former executives in a letter signed by Padraic O’Conghaile – a ‘cinnteoir’ at the organisation’s headquarters in Galway.

In the letter, he wrote, “I am refusing these records as they relate to the pension of an individual under Section 28.1 (Personal Information). The FOI Act defines personal information as information about an identifiable individual that: ‘would, in the ordinary course of events, be known only to individuals or members of the family or friends, of the individual.’ I believe that the right to privacy of these persons with regard to such information far outweighs any public interest there may be in this matter.

The fact, that all the pensions and payments are publicly-funded and thus not “known only to individuals or members of the family or friends, of the individual” as he asserts – did not seem to enter Mr. O’Conghaile’s thinking. Or, perhaps, did, but he refused to acknowledge it.

Following this response, I requested several TD’s to present formal written parliamentary questions in the Dail on the same issue.

For example, Mary Lou McDonald, a member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), submitted her parliamentary question to the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht asking the Minister to “reference the specific provisions of the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003 to which he referred (supporting Údarás’ denial of information); the basis on which he believes Údarás na Gaeltachta does not, unlike in the case of all other senior managers across the civil and public sector, have to make public the details of public service pension arrangements on retirement for senior management.

Dinny McGinley, then junior minister, wrote back in a vague response 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.

dinny

Put in simple words, it means Údarás, while deriving all its funding from public money, considers ‘People have no right to ask how we spend their money.’ McGinley’s response also has no logical meaning whatsoever under present Irish law. Instead it is a classic delaying tactic. The former Minister did not bother to question it or seek elaboration.

That response led McDonald to submit a follow-up question, this time to Minister Howlin, reading, “given the Minister’s stated commitment to transparency and accountability in the spending of public monies, whether in his view 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 is prepared to legislate to require all publicly funded bodies to make such information public in the interests of open government.

HOWLINBRENDAN

It is most disappointing that a simple request to a fully publicly funded body about its spending has led to such a reactionary response from an organisation such as Údarás, which is responsible for the economic, social and cultural development of the Gaeltacht.

Such utter lack of transparency and disregard for public concerns has already led to such widespread corruptive practices as those at FAS when it was discovered hundreds of thousands of euro went on lavish holidays including first-class travel and expensive rounds of golf for executives and their wives. Údarás itself has yet to account for trips paid out of public funds for board members, executives and wives to visit attractive international destinations, including Las Vegas.

Public money is a precious thing and every penny of it ought to be properly accounted for and judiciously spent.

I will reprint Minister Howlin’s response on this blog when it is received. It should provide a most interesting read.

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Yet another Irish political fiasco

I was shocked to read in a leading Donegal newspaper editorial over the last few days that John McNulty had behaved ‘with dignity’ over his recent Fine Gael botched Senate nomination.

Let’s call a spade a spade.

The last thing Mr. McNulty behaved with was dignity. He condoned the onward march of cronyism and ‘stroke politics’ thus giving his full support to this age-old blight on Irish society.

John McNulty – guilty as charged, complicity to hoodwink. Photo courtesy Independent Newspaper.

Selling Mars bars at a Mace grocery shop in Stranorlar hardly qualifies Mr. McNulty to contribute much, if anything, to the development of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) (unless his business is merely a front for a secret network of art collectors storing priceless Van Gogh’s under the petrol pumps). There are many throughout the country with decades of high-level experience in the arts sector and thus much more qualified than he.

Yet when Fine Gael spin-doctors whispered in his ear they’d pull a few strings and shove him on the (already full) board, thus giving him an easier ride into the Senate, he leapt like a deer in heat, omitting to point out the simple fact that he was completely unqualified for such a key position.

In doing so, the 37-year-old Kilcar man is as guilty as those people – mainly under Fianna Fail’s governing stewardship – who greedily grabbed places on other boards such as FAS and the Central Remedial Clinic and proceeded to claim hefty payments and generous expenses on the backs of struggling tax-payers. (Fianna Fail actually rushed 182 of their members on to public boards in the dying days of its last reign).

It must also be remembered that, far from being a credible Senate nominee, Mr. McNulty failed to even get elected to Donegal County Council having won just over 800 votes in May, less than half of the quota required for the six-seat electoral area. In fact, he finished the race at the rear of the pack at a distant 10th place.

Choosing him shows just how desperate Fine Gael are to shore up its political representation in Donegal, especially with the additional failure of John Curran, its choice for the Udaras board, to get elected to the local council (in great part over his willingness to hand over more than a million euro of tax-payers money to the Catholic nuns to run an addiction center in Falcarragh when there’s already one in Donegal, and after the dead babies scandal in Tuam). With Donegal South-West deputy Dinny McGinley due to retire at the next election, Curran’s failure and now McNulty’s means there’s nobody in place as a successor.

John Curran – until recent local elections, was being groomed as potential successor to TD Dinny McGinley?

Public boards or private clubs?

In a bizarre twist to the tale, Fine Gael Arts Minister Heather Humphreys said in the Dail this week that Mr. McNulty was appointed to the board of IMMA “on the balance of talent and experience.” That’s a joke. The minister then added that she and her party were committed “to using the public appointments procedure in line with the guidelines.” That’s an even bigger joke. It recently emerged that at least two of the six appointees to the Board of the Heritage Council last year were made by her colleague Minister Jimmy Deenihan in contravention of that very same formal application process.

Further, a 2012 report by the Institute of Directors In Ireland on state boards showed concern at the lack of transparency around the appointment process and the lack of consideration given to the skills required to fill them. Since then, board positions have featured on Government department websites and advertised via the Public Appointments Service but some describe this as ‘pure window-dressing’. The McNulty situation, and perhaps the Curran one too, are cases in point.

Plain-speaking (maybe too plain) Minister for Health Leo Varadkar said election to the parliament of a candidate who has withdrawn – as McNulty has done to avoid further embarrassment – would not be good thing for the political process. Duh, really?

Obviously, the only way forward is to make the recruitment process entirely transparent, minimise government involvement in choosing appointees, and actively engage individuals with the appropriate skill set to fulfill these positions.

Fine Gael’s Arts Minister Heather Humphreys in the Dail struggling to deflect accusations of cronyism and stroke politics. Photo courtesy RTE News

No crying over spilled milk

Ultimately, however, we have only ourselves to blame.

Most of those who voted for Fine Gael over Fianna Fail three years ago knew deep in their hearts exactly what they were doing. Being conservative, as we Irish are by virtue of our Catholic upbringing, we voted for one party knowing full well deep down it was little different to the other. Then we deigned to pat ourselves on the back for ‘taking a bold stand.’

What baloney! Ours was nothing less than a cowardly act.

To make matters worse, when we had the chance to regain some degree of pride and do away with a Senate that is, and always has been since the foundation of the state, a complete and utter waste of public money, we declined to follow our instincts and put pen to paper. How could any of us vote for such an anachronistic and discriminatory institution highlighted by the fact that with so many worthy universities and colleges throughout Ireland, only two – Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland – are permitted to have Senators? Not to mention that 11 Senators are simply appointed on the whim of the Taoiseach. No elections, no vote.

Padding expenses? Investigations well underway on shenanigans of Fianna Fail’s Brian O’Domhnaill: Handsome salary as Senator not enough?

Today the Irish Senate, unlike the American one, stands as a perfect model of cronyism and stroke politics, with even appointed party members such as Donegal’s very own Fianna Fáil Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill under investigation for milking the system by duplicating expenses.

We tossed away the opportunity to fling the Senate into the bin of history where it firmly belongs. Let’s not now cry over spilled milk. Like McNulty’s reluctance to apologise publicly for his complicity in attempting to hoodwink us ordinary folk, it’s so undignified.