Traditional Irish group Arcanadh woos and wins hearts of audience

Traditional Irish group Arcanadh woos and wins hearts of audience

Another cultural entertainment success for Amharclann

What a terrific cultural contribution this historic theatre provides not just for Bunbeg, not just for the Gaeltacht, not just for Donegal but for all-Ireland, north and south.

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by Sean Hillen

Six musicians-singers-songwriters with such a wealth of talent it seems blatantly unfair to the rest of us mere mortals – that sums up Irish-group, Arcanadh, which played to an enthusiastic audience at historic Amharclann theater, Bunbeg, northwest Donegal, Ireland this week.

Here I must admit my bias.

In a rare moment of wisdom, I invited this terrific group to tour Romania when I launched the first-ever Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in that former-Communist country. It was a decision I’ve never regretted.

The result more than 10 years ago was the same as that at Amharclann 72-hours ago – a boisterous appeal for more at the end and an appreciative standing ovation after their final encore.

Members of Arcanadh have known each other for more than twenty years and this is reflected in their smooth light-hearted banter off-song and their seamless harmonies on-song. Their passion for their…

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Mayo GAA: The Mighty and the Meek, They Shall Inherit the Earth

What I will write here may seem the realm of the fantastic, but bear with me and for a moment merely consider the possibility that it may be true.

Also, keep in mind, there is no existing evidence that it’s not true.

A few days ago, I had the utmost pleasure of sitting with novelist, playwright, radio and television social and political commentator and former public relations director of Sinn Fein, Danny Morrison, in the Upper Cusack Stand at the venerable Croke Park Coloseum to watch what – for me – was one of the most exciting, thrilling sporting spectacles I have every witnessed, either live or recorded.

Granted, my complete and utter support was with Mayo and I was devastated that particular, rather impoverished, mainly rural western county lost – especially in the aching way that it did. Though not half as heart-broken as the throngs of anguished people – hardy grown men, teenagers, young children, mothers and grandmothers – who shuffled past me for the exit gates at the final whistle, tears flowing profusely from their eyes.

For the purpose of this post, for those uninterested in Irish GAA football, Mayo – rank outsiders at 3-to1, considerable odds in view of the fact that there were only two teams on the pitch for this All-Ireland football final and both had 15 skilled, experienced able-bodied men each – lost its ninth final since 1989 and the chance to win its first Sam Maguire Cup in 66 years. Indeed, this was the third time in five years it has lost in the final (including a narrow defeat after a replay to Dublin last September, its rivals again this past Sunday). In sheer contrast, for Dublin Sunday’s victory marked their first three-in-a-row in 94 years.

In terms of probability, the cumulative odds of Mayo losing so many finals are probably calculated in the millions to one (not bad odds if you’re fond of punting a penny or two at the local bookmakers).

So how did this peculiar, bizarre defying-the-odds situation come to pass?

Let’s consider for a moment that it had nothing to do with football.

I know, I know you’re thinking: ‘that’s ridiculous, it’s football, one team wins and one team loses, that’s how the game is played, and the team that wins is the one that scores most goals/points.

But million to one odds of such a thing happening? By reason alone, is that even possible?

My contention is that something else – something strange, something far beyond football –could be at play here.

So, as a committed pantheist, this is my take on last Sunday’s fantastic football final.

It has been reported that there’s a curse on the Mayo football team that has prevented it winning the coveted All-Ireland football final since 1951. That curse, the reports go, was placed upon the team by an angry priest. The reason: the team on its victorious way back home across Ireland by bus with the Cup in safe stow came upon a funeral and failed to pay their rightful respects to the dead.

That story smells of a downright lie.

Why?

Because there are no funerals in Catholic Ireland on the Sabbath, the very day the football final is played. And don’t be telling me the Mayo team, any team, wouldn’t rush back home with the coveted trophy on the very day it won it.

You might then ask: ‘then where did this story originate, and why?

Credit where credit is due.

The Catholic Church, universally, not just in Ireland, has developed a highly-sophisticated propaganda machine over the centuries since it emerged from its ancient Egyptian forbearers (Google details on Isis and Osiris to find out how the Church unashamedly plagiarized and cunningly adapted an already existing mystery cult that also involved baptism in water).

mayo curse, GAA football

Thus, putting word out in the right circles, media and otherwise, that one of their priests had the power to curse a football team and prevent it from ever winning a national trophy after so many attempts is an easy-peasy task for such a rich and powerful institution.

But there’s another version, one that has been quashed quite easily by that same institution, for its own power-hungry, money-making purposes.

It’s not that the fine, upstanding people of Mayo – for which the players on the 1951 winning team are upstanding Ambassadors – are to blame. It’s not that they failed to pay their respects to the dead. As decent, honest people, they would surely have done so, with the same passion, dedication and sincerity that they showed last Sunday afternoon, even when three points down in the first 85 seconds and playing with just 14 men for almost the entire second half.

There is another possibility (remember, I merely asked at the beginning of this post that you humor me and consider a possibility).

That the players, coaches and management of that wonderful 1951 winning team were down-to-earth, honest-to-goodness people I have no doubt. And for this reason, I don’t agree for a second that they would not pay their sincere respects at the death of a fellow Man.

But what if it was not the dead person they didn’t respect (if there ever was one, which is now in grave doubt for the above mentioned reason), but the priest himself?

What if they didn’t believe, in their hearts of hearts, that this priest was neither dignified or decent enough to be a true representative of any God, regardless of its origin? Further, what if, in their heart of hearts, they actually believed they didn’t need Other Gods, that they themselves were Gods, mini-Gods all interlinked, like all of us here across the Earth, indeed throughout the Universe. That they were – to use Biblical terminology – among ‘the Mighty and the Meek, those who Shall Inherit the Earth.’

Mighty? Absolutely. Was there not more than ample evidence of that on the football pitch Sunday afternoon? In the way the Mayo players fought for every ball no matter how remote the chances were they’d catch it; supported each other so valiantly in every situation; placed themselves in considerable physical danger to capture every ball that came their way.

Meek? Absolutely. Was there not more than ample evidence of that on the football pitch Sunday afternoon? In the quiet, dignified way they accepted defeat, all the more admirable considering they were beaten by one single, solitary point scored by Dean Rock with mere seconds to go after six full minutes of extra time just after their own kicker, Cillian O’Connor, hit the woodwork in a grueling, hard-fought match.

You might now say: ‘it hardly makes a difference now anyway, the priest’s curse won the day, didn’t it?’ Maybe, or perhaps, just perhaps, it wasn’t the power of the priest at all. Maybe it was the misplaced power of belief in the priest by a mass of people. Maybe – as seems to be happening right now following multiple cases of horrendous clerical pedophilia resulting in lies and ruined lives – when more people stop believing in this misguided way, justice and righteousness will return to our Fair(y) Land.

All I ask, dear reader, is for you merely to consider the possibility that what I write here might just be true.

Then we can bang our drums for Mayo again in next year’s final –and hopefully cheer them on as they return Home to their Rightful place as Gods once again.

Author, playwright and civil rights activist, Danny Morrison, to attend ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’

Interesting experiences fire the imagination, so it’s little wonder Danny Morrison has become master of both the written and the spoken word as author of numerous books, including fiction and non-fiction, short stories and plays, as well as being a newspaper editor, insightful radio and television commentator, community arts festival chairperson and elected public official.

Ireland Writing Retreat‘ is proud to welcome Danny as one of the guest trainers at this year’s event which begins at Teac Jack in Gaoth Dobhair at the end of June. Participants from places as diverse as Minnesota, Cork, New Hampshire, Dublin and Missouri are to attend this year’s international gathering.

I have met Danny on many occasions over the years, often at political, media and writing events (the most recent being at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in Dublin) and was honored when he invited me to speak at the West Belfast Festival that he chaired a few years ago. Interestingly, before knowing Danny, I knew his lovely younger sister, Susan, as she and her friends and myself and mine would strut our stuff, teenage-style at the weekly Clonard dances on the Falls Road to the sounds of Sweet, T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, Queen and David Bowie. Susan, now sadly departed, married a close friend of mine, John Patterson, who came with their daughter to my 50th birthday party at the Gaoth Dobhair golf club where we wandered down nostalgia road together. Danny and I have much in common, both being from Andersonstown and having attended some of the same schools, including St. Theresa’s Primary and St. Mary’s Grammar in Belfast. I admire greatly what he has suffered in his lifetime, what he has achieved and what he has become. It’s  wonderful he has agreed to come to the Donegal Gaeltacht to be a trainer at this year’s writing retreat but also to take part in a special Q&A public event at Teac Jack about his life.

Danny Morrison author

Unique life experiences make for interesting stories as illustrated by published author and creative writing trainer, Danny Morrison.

Born in Andersonstown, west Belfast, the friendly, down-to-earth Irishman has led such an intriguing and eventful life, including internment without trial and imprisonment for eight years while barely in his 20s, that it has imbued him with multi-faceted views on both the world of politics and the world of literature.
Morrison grew up in a solid, working-class family, reaching teenage years just as the so-called ‘Troubles’ in northern Ireland erupted, with civil rights protests becoming widespread, then civil strife and finally a peace agreement based upon a fairer and more just society for everyone.

As a young man, influenced by what was happening around him and the anti-Vietnam protests in the US, Morrison developed a yearning to write and a need to confront injustice. When his sister loaned him the money in 1971 to buy a typewriter, his fate was sealed.

'Rudi - In the Shadow of Knulp, Danny Morrison

Later, both before and after becoming editor of An Phoblacht/Republican News, he wrote many articles, political pamphlets and even scripts for documentary films on Irish history until, in the 1980s, he became national director of publicity for the Sinn Féin political party.

His love of creative writing flourished even in jail and led to Morrison’s first novel, ‘West Belfast,’ being published in 1989 but never formally launched. In 2015 a revised edition was re-issued to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first publication. ‘On the Back of the Swallow,’ his second novel, was written in prison and published nine months before his release, in May 1995. ‘The Wrong Man,’ his third novel, also begun in prison, was completed after his release and published in 1997. Morrison’s three works of non-fiction are: ‘Then The Walls Came Down,’ based on his prison letters, published in 1999; ‘All The Dead Voices,’ a part-memoir, published in 2002; and ‘Rebel Columns,’ a collection of his political writings, published in 2004. He edited a book of essays, ‘Hunger Strike,’ which was published in 2006 by Brandon. His fourth novel, ‘Rudi – In the Shadow of Knulp,’ inspired by ‘Knulp,’ the 1915 novel by Hermann Hesse, was published in 2013.

Then the Walls Came Down book, Danny Morrison author

 

His writing also spans the short story format leading to published work in various magazines and broadcasts on BBC, RTE and Lyric FM radio. Interestingly, ‘We’ve Got Tonite’, a love story he penned, was banned by the BBC in 1992 despite having already been recorded. He also adapted ‘The Wrong Man’ for the stage. The play was hosted in London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin and was nominated by ‘Fest’ magazine as one of the top three dramas of the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Morrison has also written articles for such prestigious newspapers as ‘The Irish Times,’ ‘The Observer,’ ‘The Guardian,’ “The Washington Post’ and ‘The Boston Globe’ and is currently working on a fifth novel, ‘Band on the Run’ and a play, ‘The Mental.’

For a number of years, Morrison has been in strong demand as a trainer of creativity writing and recently completed a writer-in-residence program in Berlin.

1916 celebrations: a mixed basket of Easter eggs

Easter Monday 1916 Revolutionary celebrations in Dublin had its up and downs, its successes and its disasters.

And I was fortunate to have experienced many of them.

First prize goes to Mother Nature. Realising the heroic efforts of the men, women and children of the Rising had been pretty well ignored by the average JoeMacBlow in Ireland back then – it decided to put on a special show for the centennial.

And what a show it turned out to be, perhaps the brightest, prettiest, sunniest day this year. One that brought out thousands of Irish people to walk the sacred walkways tread by Connolly, Pearse, Plunkett and co., with many of the people wearing turn-of-the-20th century clothing, including tweed waistcoats, flat-caps, bonnets and brogues.

Being from West Belfast, I was also delighted to learn that security for Easter Monday’s 1916 commemorations in Dublin was organised by MICAB, the company owned by Andersonstown-based, former Republican prisoner, John Trainer. I guess all that experience in ‘security operations’ we got over the last few decades up North helps.

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Meeting friendly security guards from Ardoyne at the Dublin 1916 Easter Monday celebrations was an utter delight.

Last prize on the sacred day goes to highly-paid, long-time RTE Loyalist, Miriam O’Callaghan. Behaving like a Russian doll with seemingly nothing inside but herself, she got smaller and smaller as an event she hosted entitled “Reflections on Exile – How we are viewed by our American cousins” at The Gaiety Theatre near Stephens Green wore on.

Miriam O'Callaghan, RTE presenter, 1916 Rising events, John Lee historian

Oops! Overpaid RTE presenter, Miriam O’Callaghan, made a few screw-ups on Easter Monday- none more woeful than to eminent historian John Lee at a packed event at The Gaiety Theatre during Dublin’s 1916 Rising tribute events.

Dear Miriam, salary in excess of 300,000 euro, plus expenses, made so many gaffes, she became comical entertainment embodied.

First of all, she had the talented musician-cum-singer Mick Moloney perform his lovely rendition of the ballad, ‘James Connolly,’ twice as RTE’s ineptness meant it had failed to record him properly.

Then, speaking to eminent New York University Irish history professor John Lee, she said, “Is that the proclamation of independence you have there on your knee? Do you know how important that is?” The solemn professor looked aghast.

Later, in a pathetic transplanted D4 attempt to redeem herself, the misguided O’Callaghan asked the same unfortunate, “Let’s talk some more about 1916? How important was it?” adding for assertive emphasis, “Spell it out for me.”

Mairead Mooney of Donegal-based Altan fame deserves strong credit for her words and her singing, though dressed as she was in an All-Black outfit, one might have thought she was a cheerleader for the New Zealand rugby team. But with that sulky-blonde-hair-all-down-my-back look lending her that unique sexy-sensual-come-get-me-wide-eyed-innocence combo, she sang a beautiful, unaccompanied version of ‘Roisin Dubh.’

Mairead Mooney, Donegal-based Altan, 1916 Rising events

Entering the political arena, Mairead Mooney, lead singer and fiddle-player with Donegal-based Altan, said at an event at The Gaiety Theatre on Easter Monday that the 1916 Irish rebels would “turn over in their graves” if they saw what Ireland had become.

Then, sitting on the ‘intellectual’ couches with Lee and Armagh-born Pulitzer-prize-winning poet, Paul Muldoon, for the Q&A session (probably under her PR minder’s guidance to raise her profile for a future Senator’s spot on the Arts and Culture panel when Sinn Fein rises to Government status), she said, bravely enough, “the rebel leaders of 1916 would probably turn over in their graves to see what Ireland has become today,” adding, as a matter of course, “more money should be given for the arts. After all, that’s what Ireland is known for throughout the world.” (And there I thought it was for widespread nepotism, corruption and political and financial incompetence).

Joseph Hillen Ashbourne, Irish Citizen Army parade,

My younger brother Joseph practices his routines as a member of the Irish Citizens Army, encouraged by his Brasov-born partner, Angela.

Then there was my brother Joseph. So proud of him, I am. Selected to march up O’Connell Street on Easter Sunday, he was also chosen to be a member of the Irish Citizens Army and promptly dressed up in suitable 1916 attire the very next day to re-enact the Battle of Ashbourne, the only victory in the entire revolution. And that was just a few of his duties over the Easter celebrations.

Dublin Easter Rising events

Two against one isn’t fair, but having commandeered my brother’s Lee Enfield, I obviously have the upper hand against Joseph and our nephew. Dara.

When I left Dublin this morning, he was headed to Liberty Hall for yet another event he had been asked to participate in at which President Michael Higgins spoke.

And last, but not least, my Transylvanian-born wife, Columbia, now an Irish citizen, who duly took up with a Republican group and marched proudly (with me alongside as dutiful husband) past the GPO, Dublin Castle and the Four Courts to Kilmainham Jail where rebel leaders were executed.

Columbia Hillen, Sinn Fein, Easter Rising Commemorations

My Transylvanian-born wife, Columbia (in blue, with scarf, and the only person with such a name among 21 million Romanians) displays her Republican spirit on O’Connell Street on Easter Monday.

So let’s wait to see what the next 100 years brings. Considering her birthplace, Columbia may be the only one of us alive then.

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.

TV3’s Vincent Browne ‘People’s Debate’ in Donegal attracts lively discussion

While Fine Gael and Labour were expected to take a beating at yesterday evening’s Vincent Browne-hosted ‘People’s Debate’ in Letterkenny – in part deserved as the two parties refused to participate – Fianna Fail also took a drubbing.

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At one point, after listening to the party’s TD Charlie McConalogue berate government policies, the veteran TV host exclaimed, “I cannot understand how you can make these criticisms. Fine Gael is simply following Fianna Fail policies. Fianna Fail laid down the strategy for dealing with the banking bailout and Fine Gael and Labour are merely following it.”

McConalogue made another mistake later in the debate saying, “the agreement with the Troika was negotiable,” thus contradicting what the public had been told by Fianna Fail that the deal under former Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minster of Finance, Brian Lenihan, was non-negotiable. Browne was quick to make the point, “Your party said details of the agreement with the Troika were non-negotiable, yet now you say they were. Make up your mind.”

On the emotive issue of water charges, McConalogue – after much fudging said he would halt Irish Water and suspend water charges. Again, Browne responded, “Your party, Fianna Fail, already had a plan in place in 2010 to impose water charges, but now you’re saying you’re having second thoughts.”

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Browne, at his best as a current affairs host when pushing political guests for a clear-cut answer, didn’t let the lively capacity audience down, especially when badgering the four-member panel for their views on a potential coalition after the next election. Asked whether he would take a ministerial seat under a Fine Gael or Fianna Fail led coalition Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty seemed somewhat uncomfortable in his seat.

“That is a hypothetical question and such decisions are made at our party Ard Fheis,” he said finally, as if caught by surprise, but recovering. “What we have agreed is that unless water and property charges are dropped, we will not go into any coalition.” He acknowledged, “Some members have voiced their opinion that they would go into a coalition as a minority party. We are a party hungry for change, we are not hungry for power.”

When asked the same question, his Sinn Fein colleague TD Pádraig MacLochlainn was more direct, unhesitatingly replying, “I will not participate in a government led by either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.” As if taking strength from this, Doherty later stated categorically, “If asked by a government led by Fianna Fail or Fine Gael to be a minister, I would refuse.”

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After chastising the two Sinn Fein members for not giving a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, McConalogue himself began the dance of the slippery eel until, under bombardment from host and audience, he finally said, “I would not like to participate in a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition but if I was outvoted by my party colleagues I’d have to go along.”

In his two-minute intro, Doherty said “four years ago we were promised a democratic revolution yet all we have had is more of the same with cronyism, stealth taxes and high levels of unemployment, no more so than right here in Donegal. There is a fairer and better way of moving forward and Sinn Fein’s job strategy can reshape this county.” He added that it was little wonder Donegal was known as ‘The Forgotten County.’ “I know Vincent you didn’t come here by train because this is one of only five counties in all Ireland without a mainline railway service.” Under an FOI request he said he has asked for a government paper produced on the future of small schools, adding that Donegal has the second largest number of such schools, with four teacher or less.

When corruption and lack of transparency within Údarás na Gaeltachta was brought up, including its refusal to release key information on its public spending such as lucrative pension payments to former executives which amount to half of its entire annual budget, Doherty said his party had tabled formal parliamentary questions on the issue, adding, “there should be full disclosure about people in receipt of high public pensions, it is important to have complete transparency so such payments can be scrutinized by the public.”

McConalogue said in his intro, “the last four years of government have been an attack on Donegal with post office closures, agriculture being hard hit and worsening heath services,” adding, “we have strong potential here but we need better infrastructure including the A5 project up and running and wider broadband.”

Referring to the pre-election catchphrase ‘Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way,’ MacLochlainn said the government’s record has proved very different, “with a reduction in classrooms, budget cuts across the board and Donegal having the lowest allocation of medical staff of any county.” He added, “Donegal people are hard-working and passionate. All we’re asking is a fair chance and for Dublin to meet us halfway.”

Regarding the water charges, he added, “For thirty years, Sinn Fein has opposed these charges and now it has become the straw that broke the camel’s back. There has simply been too much austerity. Irish Water is a white elephant. My message is ‘scrap the water charges and go back to the drawing board.’ ”

While decrying the lack of proper health services and unfair stealth taxes, Independent TD Thomas Pringle said renewable energy had tremendous potential for Donegal as had the biomass wood industry. Speaking of Killybegs, he also said the fishing industry had been “hard-hit.’ He said water conservation should be a top priority because so much is being lost through poor network connectivity. He also said he was proud of challenging the bank bail-out through the courts and being in the forefront of water charge protests (continuing the momentum, a major ‘Right2Water’ protest took place earlier today – Saturday – in Letterkenny, with others elsewhere nationwide).

All four TDs, when asked directly, said they would vote ‘yes’ in the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage.

Over the lively, two-hour event at the Clanree Hotel, there was no shortage of questions from the floor with periodic rambunctious catcalls, cheering and booing, which caused short stoppages and words of warning from the presenter.

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True to his word, Browne attempted to cover as many topics as possible such as equality, including the upcoming same-sex marriage referendum; family services, education, employment and health. Speakers ranged from parents of terminally-ill children; school teachers, social workers and community activists working on behalf of people as diverse as lesbians, gay, bisexuals, transgender, cancer sufferers, the disabled, and many others.

Some light-hearted moments and biting comments helped take the edge of emotions as when a thirsty Vincent Browne ran out of water and promised he’d even pay for some and when James Woods from Gortahork commented that with so much emigration, Donegal was turning into a wildlife refuge.

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All in all, ‘People’s Debate’ is an excellent initiative by TV3, no doubt demanding detailed planning to host such shows in all the constituencies of Ireland.

Fine Gael and Labour’s decision to spurn them, indicating fear and a lack of understanding of the difficulties facing ordinary people, could ultimately cost them vital votes in the polling booths.

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‘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.

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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.