Is Féidir Linn – Donegal success story

It’s a wonder what focused, positive, down-to-earth community spirit can achieve especially in face of institutional apathy and paralysis – parkrun in Falcarragh in rural west Donegal being a prime example.

For years, the charming, bucolic grounds around the historic Ballyconnell Estate near the town center were left to wither, unused, disused, and pretty much forgotten by most, except for the odd few curious walkers. Talk of a Catholic church-run addiction center died a slow death, as did a thousand and one other ideas.

Then in stepped a group of local volunteers, with a fiery passion, an innovative idea and an unstoppable ‘can-do’ attitude.

Last Saturday morning under Spring sunshine (yes, it did happen in Donegal), I witnessed first-hand what such admirable leaders can achieve when they unite in the right place at the right time: an overwhelming wave of heartfelt enthusiasm from people of all ages, women, men and children, from eight months to eighty years old, all enjoying a self-supporting, self-perpetuating, united community get-together – with individual mental and physical health being the ultimate achievement.

In many ways, the strong-willed volunteers who kick-started the parkrun project – the first in Donegal – echoed the words of that Hawaii-born, basketball-playing, first African-American President, Barack Obama, when he uttered those immortal words outside Trinity College Dublin.

In many ways, perhaps those same volunteers were simply on the same wavelength as Obama when he said – “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

As a result, this happened. And I was proud to be among the very people who made it happen…

parkrun Falcarragh

Yours Truly (second from left) with parkrun Falcarragh volunteers and a Derry-based veteran of parkruns dressed in black, with more than 170 runs under his belt. 

They’ve come in their thousands – chimney-sweeps, farmers, van-drivers, landscape gardeners, shopkeepers, bartenders and students; top-notch athletes racing through five kilometres in under 20 minutes; young mothers pushing prams, septuagenarian grandmothers and grandfathers – all encouraging each other in the interests of better health.

Such has been the overwhelming enthusiasm for Donegal’s first-ever ‘parkrun’ that organisers in Falcarragh are now discussing how their year-old, volunteer-based community effort – which transformed a few acres of unused land tucked between the second and third holes of the local golf club into a scenic forest running circuit that has attracted more users than anyone anticipated – can be further improved and expanded.

parkrun Falcarragh, Ballyconnell Estate

Men and women of all ages take to the pathways – smilingly.

And they’re expecting a strong turnout this Saturday morning at 9.30, a holiday weekend, while preparing for a special ‘Darkness Into Light’ charity event on Saturday, May 6 on behalf of Pieta House, a suicide prevention service.

Paul McFadden, one of the volunteers, said the Falcarragh parkrun project began as a modest ‘Men On The Move’ event supported by Donegal Sports Partnership “where a few local men got together for a short walk and a cup of tea.” The group then contacted Údarás na Gaeltachta, caretakers of the grounds of Ballyconnell Estate, and raised funds through activities such as pub quizzes, as well as a ‘big breakfast’ sponsorship by McClafferty’s Eurospar in Gortahork for 120 runners, to buy construction materials and rent equipment.

parkrun Falcarragh, Sean Hillen journalist

Hard-working volunteers who made parkrun Falcarragh a reality.

Examples of individual generosity included that of Damian O’Donnell who donated 500 pounds sterling to the community cause.

Another volunteer, Tom Feeney, said generous local people also sponsored summer seats. McFadden, Feeney and colleagues met several times with Údarás officials and now community group, Falcarragh Parish Development, has signed a license to operate the parkrun grounds. Such has been the project’s success, RTE recently sent out a team to produce an ‘Operation Transformation’ programme and local doctors are prescribing participation as a ‘green’ remedy for some ailments. There are now hundreds of parkruns worldwide and two more in Donegal – in Letterkenny and Dungloe.

Ballyconnell Estate, parkrun Donegal

Cheering for success.

Hugh McGarvey, 35 from Bun na Leaca, a tour bus driver with John McGinley Coaches, has completed the circuit six or seven times in preparation for the Wild Atlantic Adventure Race (WAAR) in Donegal next month comprising a combination of sports including running, cycling and kayaking. “Parkrun Falcarragh is a very well organized event, one that I enjoy very much. It is even more impressive when you consider it’s an all-voluntary effort,” he said. Displaying strong family support, Hugh’s partner, Siobhain, has also participated, with their 14-month old infant, Maggie Mae.

Packie Doohan, aged 80, from Drumnatinney, just outside Falcarragh, husband of Creeslough woman, Veronica, with 16 grandchildren and retired after 43 years as a linesman for the ESB, has run the five-kilometre circuit 66 times already. “I started at the very beginning. It’s great exercise. It gets you out of bed on a Saturday morning. And you meet lots of people. And I’m among some very pretty ladies. What could be better?”

Also, preparing for WAAR, Falcarragh man, Eddie Curran, 55, said, “The Park Run is one of the most positive things to happen in this wee community. I see people who were walking the route last year, now running it, such has been the effect on everyone’s health and fitness.”

Ballyconnell House, Darkness Into Light

Hand of triumph. One of many happy finishers.

Support for the Falcarragh project has risen dramatically with many local social workers, teachers and medical personnel becoming involved. Carers at the nearby St. Martin’s House bring people with disabilities to the circuit for leisurely outings as does the local branch of Solas, a HSE project designed to engage people involved with the mental health system in outdoor activities.

St. Finian’s School use the route and have conducted a clean-up of the entire area while raising money for costs involved in its upkeep. Pobalscoil Chloich Cheannfhaola also regularly use it for training purposes. “Parkrun was developed by the people of the community for the people of the community and like the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ it works because it’s for everyone and it’s free,” said McFadden. “If there is praise to be given it should be to the people who walk, run and turn up every Saturday morning, from Mary who makes the tea to Maureen who processes the results.”

Turn out this Saturday morning at 9.30 and make Falcarragh proud!

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Who’s the mystery whistle-blower inside the corridors of Údarás na Gaeltachta?

Seems as if Donegal’s leading newspaper and Údarás na Gaeltachta are on a head-on collision over truth following publication by the ‘Donegal News’ recently of sensitive, confidential correspondence indicating the Irish language group has been planning wind-farms on many sites throughout the county and an immediate rebuttal of the article in a press release issued by the Irish language group.

Údarás na Gaeltachta has wind turbine plans for six sites

An tÚdarás dismisses wind turbine talks

If not for strong protest meetings by Stad An Tuirbín Gaoithe, a community-based Donegal group opposing Galway company, Lir Energy Ltd’s plans to construct 123- meter turbines on publicly-owned land in Gweedore and a flood of more than 100 objection letters to the county council, a forest of turbines could have gone up ‘under the radar’ – some in scenic sites and some close to homes.

According to the confidential correspondence obtained by the newspaper, these could include Ardara, Kilcar, Fintown, Cloghan, Termon and Glencolmcille.

A string of shady dealings have left many people disturbed by the clandestine way in which Údarás now seems to operate, both locally in Donegal and out of its Galway headquarters.

Following the secrecy of the sale by Údarás of Irish seaweed rights to Canadian multinational Acadian Seaplants, with an unprecedented ten-year confidentiality clause attached to the contract, by which no documents can be accessed, some observers say the Irish language economic group has lost public confidence.

An Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee (PAC) investigation queried why 30,000 euro was spent by Údarás on seven different trips by senior officials to look at “seaweed projects” in Halifax, Canada, according to a report in The Irish Times.

These suspicious situations plus behind-the-scenes talks with a Catholic Church group to construct what some say was to be an alcohol, sex-addiction and drugs rehabilitation clinic in Falcarragh in a landscaped green area now used for community walks and jogging, has left some wondering if the publicly-funded group has reneged on its responsibilities in terms of transparency and fairness.

Landscaped area in Falcarragh that was being earmarked for an addiction center to be funded by Udaras.

“This organization is funded out of the public pocket so at the very least it should be open about how exactly it’s spending that money,” said one irate Gaoth Dobhair resident at the recent ‘Scoil Gheimridh’ (Winter School) music festival. “People are also questioning the ownership of this Galway company, Lir, and what its connections might be to top executives of Údarás. It could be a re-run of the seaweed scandal.”

It has also become known that the Údarás office in Donegal is to be paid a whopping 600,000 euro for managing a 2.3 million euro EU LEADER scheme in the county, almost a quarter of the total funding, aside from several million euro it receives annually out of the national public coffers.

“Is the wind-farms’ project simply another way for Údarás executives to make money?” said a resident of Bunbeg earlier this week. “There’s no proof at all they’ll help reduce energy costs as we’ve had wide turbines for years in the area and there’s been no obvious public benefit at all. It’s long past time people were told just how much money is being used by Údarás for projects that create jobs and how much is simply being used to top up executive salaries and expenses. For God’s sake, Údarás staff have the highest salaries of any group under the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.”

While many criticize Údarás for its poor record in job creation in Donegal, it must be acknowledged that it is not easy to attract companies to Ireland’s most northwesterly region, but few would disagree that greater transparency is necessary to calm rising fears that scarce public money is being misspent.


If you’re interested in political and corporate corruption in a suspense novel linking Donegal to the US, read newly-published ‘Pretty Ugly,’ to be launched also in Dublin this month.  Can be purchased direct from Amazon, in eBook or print form and locally, in Donegal from Gallaghers or Matt Bonners Bunbeg, or Easons Letterkenny.

 

A sad, rather pathetic, Christmas story

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.’ (Clement Clarke Moore)

As winds howl around me and rain rattles my window panes like the chattering of false teeth, I recall this sad, rather pathetic, Christmas story…

Prominent politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness on the Irish national stage gets stuck on a knife-edge. Someone with access to key information can prove he falsified expenses on the back of the average Seamus/Sean/Patrick ‘Joe O’Blow’ citizen, both as a board member of Irish-language body, Údarás na Gaeltachta, and Donegal County Council.

Concerned about the effects on its chances of returning to Power if things get sour, spin doctors at his political party’s Dublin head office get involved. Politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness also calls in his own local cronies, most from the west Donegal Gaeltacht area – well-paid fellows in silk suits, some of whom made financial hay on the back of his and his party’s long-term, some say overly-long, stay in power.

Christmas story Donegal, politicians in Donegal

Money, money – who says I’m interested in money?

They say ‘deny, deny,’ which said politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness does. He’s hoping the custodians of the county council and the national Irish-language body – many of whose top brass owe their own cushy, well-paid admin jobs, expenses and pensions to his own political party – will sit on it like dementia-suffering chickens, and do nothing.

But the evidence is much too solid, and from a respected and knowledgeable insider too, comprising definitive documents that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the culpability of said politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness.

Also, hushed voices are alleged to whisper in the Corridors of Power, ‘there’s so much more that could easily come to light and make donkeys of us all.

Aforesaid local top brass know they must do what’s unavoidable. Otherwise their own jobs, generous expenses and pensions could be on the line. So, faced with no alternative, they bring the allegations – rather reluctantly – to the attention of the relevant authorities, hoping it will all go away and they can return undisturbed to their comfy desks, genteel lifestyles and holiday homes on the Spanish coast.

But that doesn’t happen.

An investigation begins by the six-member, national Standards in Public Office (SIPO) chaired by an experienced, former High Court Judge.

corruption in Donegal, what's on in Donegal

Now let me think: two places at the same time. Mmmmm, surely it must be possible. Anyway, who’s lookin’?

Re-enter stage left the local and national spin-doctors-cum-advisors to said politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness. Okay, not ‘deny, deny,’ but ‘delay, delay.’ Until it all blows over and our All-Consuming Party climbs back on to its Rightful Throne. ‘Knowing the fickleness of the average dumb, thick-as-shite, Irish voter, that’s inevitable,’ they say, ‘quicker than you can slip a brown envelope into a pocket.’ Then we can blow this under the carpet as we have done with much more serious stuff in the past.’

But national elections come around. And, lo and behold, the hoped-for Dramatic Return to Power, which they feel is theirs by Right, they being the ‘Soldiers of Destiny,’ doesn’t happen.

The battle cry, as per the silk-suited, well-heeled advisers and cronies, then becomes not ‘deny, deny’ or even ‘delay, delay’ but that bastion of Irish patriotism. The one, they feel, will blind the thick-as-shite voters to the insignificant wrongs of falsifying expenses and screwing the average Seamus/Sean/Patrick Joe O’Blow.

The sacred language. The language of Pearse, Plunkett and Wolfe Tone.

Let’s tell them, by George: ‘We want any investigation to be conducted in our native language, as Gaeilge, le do thoil. If not, we’ll not recognize this court.’ Quite ironic, as the comprehensive falsifying of expenses, by all accounts, was done in the dignified language of the Royal British Crown.

And so it’s done.

And so the cost continues to rise…and rise…and rise even more.

Finally, the rather inevitable conclusion was reached, just last week after around two years of delay: politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness has indeed screwed over the average thick-as-shite Seamus/Sean/Patrick ‘Joe O’Blow.’ Regardless of our rapid technological development, it seems it’s still impossible for a homo sapien to be in two separate physical places at the very same time.

But guess what?

poverty in Donegal, Senator O'Donnel Donegal

Hey Mister, Merry Christmas, can ye spare a penny cos the politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness stole all our parents’ money?

Instead of costing the average Seamus/Sean/Patrick thick-as-shite ‘Joe O’Blow’ a couple of thousand euro, it costs, wait for it – with lawyers’ fees, documents, photocopying, translation costs, administrators and secretarial overtime etc – a whopping 350,000 euro.

To put this sum in perspective, this is the equivalent of around 12,000 (that’s twelve thousand) round-trip airfares on flybe for cancer patients from Donegal’s Carrickfinn Airport for specialist treatment in Dublin.

Yet, even sadder, so unimportant and insignificant is scarce public money, both Donegal county council and Údarás na Gaeltachta have just announced they’re not going to ask for the money back from said politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness.

Now isn’t that a sad and pathetic Christmas story?

But know what the even sadder thing is?

Said politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness continues to be paid out of Seamus/Sean/Patrick ‘Joe O’Blow’s’ thick-as-shite’ pocket. In fact, between 2011 and 2015, said politician was among the top ten most expensive Senators in the entire Irish nation – 409,183.06 euro to be exact in salaries and expenses. That’s about a 100,000 euro a year. Did you ever earn that figure?

As for the party of our politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness. Fianna Fail by name. Beset by ever-increasing, power-hungry pains and after spending a great deal of time, effort and money defending ‘Their Man’ and spinning the truth, they – in their instantaneous wisdom – cut him loose. Snip. You can always come back another day, they say, the Seamus/Sean/Patrick thick-as-shite-Irish-voter suffers genetically from short-term memory problems, so we’re all okay, in it together, if you know what I mean.

Now, you tell me. Who’s the real loser in this sad, rather pathetic, Christmas story?

Donegal politicians, Fiana Foil Donegal

Yeah, it’s pretty bad. We ain’t got no shoes or socks. Where did the money for them go anyway, you ask? Well, it’s a sad, rather pathetic, Christmas story…


If you’re interested in political and corporate corruption in a suspense novel linking Donegal to the US, read newly-published ‘Pretty Ugly.’ Can be purchased direct from Amazon, in eBook or print form, or in Donegal from Gallaghers or Matt Bonners Bunbeg, or Easons Letterkenny.

 

Soap-opera style farce diminishes Údarás promotion of EU LEADER scheme

For a well-paid state official to sit down in a childlike huff in an open public meeting and refuse to speak because someone is recording information on a key issue – funding under the EU LEADER scheme for community and entrepreneurial projects for Donegal – borders on ‘Coronation Street’ soap-opera style farce.

That’s exactly what happened at Áislann Ghaoth Dobhair this past week when Gearóid Ó Smoláin, a staff member of Údarás na Gaeltachta, refused to continue speaking to local people on how they could best access money under the EU rural development programme – one for which the local office of Údarás is entitled to a whopping 600,000 euro out of a project budget of 2.3 million for the Donegal Gaeltacht alone, as regional manager, Mícheál Mac Giolla Easbuig, told me in private when asked.

Not only, but while the meeting was billed as a bilingual one, Mac Giolla Easbuig spoke only in Irish until I asked if he would also please speak in English as there were some people in the room who were not fluent ‘as Gaeilge’ and would not understand what he was saying.

Initially, when asked to do so, Mac Giolla Easbuig declined, saying words to the effect of ‘well, we’ll just go on and see how things go.’ When I reminded him that EU regulations indicate such meetings should be conducted so that everyone understood (and indeed, reading later, that Article 8 of the Irish Constitution states both Irish and English as official languages of Ireland), he relented and nodded to his colleague, Ó Smoláin, to do so.

Such attitudes can easily lead to accusations of discrimination and racism by language.

Udaras Donegal Leader program

On the issue of recording (I was taping on my mobile phone some of the more pertinent information), Mac Giolla Easbuig supported Ó Smoláin’s rather ill-tempered ‘not speaking’ huff and also asked me to stop. Instead of relenting when reminded that this was billed by Údarás itself in its promotions as an open public “information meeting” and also that EU regulations permitted recording of it, he turned to the audience and asked for their opinion.

As someone put it to me afterwards, “it was like offering Jesus or Barabbas to the crowd.”

Saying I acknowledged his preference but that I would continue to exercise my civil right and record key elements of the information being imparted, Mac Giolla Easbuig finally had a whispered word with Ó Smoláin and the latter stood up and continued where he’d left off – bilingually.

Ironically, it is interesting to note that Ó Smoláin complained to the ‘Donegal Daily that he was misreported by me in an earlier story related to an alleged Catholic Church operated pedophile treatment and drug addiction center funded by Údarás being established in Falcarragh. In that case, Stephen Maguire, the news website’s co-owner, informed me that Ó Smoláin told him an official recording showed I had misreported what he had said. When I contacted the Scottish organizer of that event held at An Chuirt hotel, I was informed by e-mail that no such official recording existed, indeed that the meeting was not recorded at all. Based on that alone, one would think Ó Smoláin, of all people, would have welcomed an actual recording by me last week, rather than the reaction he displays below.

What is most disappointing, indeed sad, about what happened last week at Áislann Ghaoth Dobhair, aside from my own discomfort as a member of the local community at being subjected to such ill-treatment, was that this kind of socially embarrassing situation – which some might say is tantamount to linguicism (racism by language) and racial profiling, and thus contravening EU rules and regulations – could have, and should have, been easily avoided. That is if indeed the main aim of Údarás was to provide relevant information, as opposed to just ticking the EU ‘public meeting’ box to qualify for its generous administrative ‘handling fee.’

Earlier that day, interested in contributing to community development, I had called the Údarás office and had been informed the meeting would be bilingual. Thus my surprise when Mac Giolla Easbuig spoke only in Irish. In today’s convenient age of technology, providing simultaneous translation should be mandatory, especially on such a key issue and as the LEADER ‘handling fee’ is so high so it can easily be afforded. I believe such translations ‘as Gaeilge’ should also be conducted for all meetings taking place here in English. This would help those not fluent in Irish to improve their language skills.

More important than potential accusations of xenophobia – meaning hundreds of non-Irish speaking people living in the Donegal Gaeltacht from other countries including EU-members such as Holland, France and Italy and other parts of Ireland might be facing linguistic discrimination by Údarás when applying for funding – such social exclusion could be a tragic loss to the struggling economy of the Donegal Gaeltacht with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

Údarás’s role is to strengthen the Gaeltacht’s economy and keep our proud native language alive. Well-funded – staff at Údarás have the highest salaries of any organization under the The Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs – it is expected to perform its duties in many ways, including job creation. Speaking only ‘as Gaeilge’ and not bilingually, Mac Giolla Easbuig and Ó Smoláin would, in effect, have prevented non-fluent Irish speakers in the Donegal Gaeltacht community from participating fully in the meeting. Worse, some non-Irish speaking members of the audience might well have excellent project ideas that could provide gainful employment to needy local people, people with families who wish to stay in the Donegal Gaeltacht and speak our native language on a daily basis.

Wanting to align our business ethics with those of global mainstream thinking, it would have been better for both men to remember one of the principles of the recently-signed ‘Conscious Business Declaration’ being presented to the United Nations – ‘Business must behave as a positive and proactive member of the local and global communities in which it operates.’

If last week’s meeting was any example, then Údarás na Gaeltachta – with its obvious inherent bias – perhaps should not have been given the EU LEADER programme to administer, for which it will receive the whopping ‘handling fee’ as mentioned above. Keep in mind, Údarás also receives millions of euro annually from the Irish public pocket.

Gearoid O’Smaolain Udaras, Leader program

Gearoid O’Smolain, staff member in the Donegal office of Udaras na Gaeltachta, speaks during last week’s meeting.

No mature analyst doubts the challenges facing Údarás in attracting major companies to such a peripheral rural area with substandard road infrastructure as the Donegal Gaeltacht – but that still does not excuse the organization from doing simple things well. This lack of attention to detail may be one of the main reasons why there is consistently high unemployment in the Donegal Gaeltacht, which in itself indicates the organization is not doing its job properly and needs experienced entrepreneurs with know-how, technocrats and public relations specialists on its staff.

I had already raised the issue regarding the potentially positive economic contributions non Irish-speaking people could make within the Gaeltacht here with Donegal-based Michael Heaney, Údarás national director of enterprise & investment with, at an international ‘TransAtlantic Connections’ conference organized by the Institute of Study Abroad Ireland and Drew University, New Jersey earlier this year. I then sent a follow-up e-mail directly to him to meet and discuss how such a strategy could be developed. As yet, in the intervening six months, I have not received a single invitation to meet and discuss. That sort of attitude does not bode well for the future.

Isn’t it better for the common good of the community to work together in an inclusive, transparent manner, rather than in an exclusive and opaque one? My hope is that this blog encourages open, mature debate on a thorny dilemma and also helps prevent cronyism, the same ‘inner circle’ elites accessing LEADER funds while ‘blow-ins’ and ordinary local people lacking ‘the right connections’ being left empty-handed. That only results in emptier pubs, cafes and restaurants and a depletion of our Gaelic sports teams as more families board emigration planes for far-off places.

It is also worth questioning whether Údarás na Gaeltachta contravened strict EU regulations last Tuesday evening by strongly promoting a single financial lender, Clann Credo, a Catholic Church run entity, to the exclusion of other national and international lenders. This was done both through printed materials (a color brochure in the EU LEADER information package) and by its main on-stage speaker, Ó Smoláin. The inevitable question must be asked: Was this a paid promotional advertisement and did the Donegal chapter of Údarás or the national Galway-based headquarter receive the payment?

All comments welcome.

Are Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labour and pseudo-Independents set on destroying power-sharing in Donegal?

Early last Monday morning as most of us woke up groggily and struggled out of bed to face the week, a dramatic closed-door meeting of the Independent Grouping within Donegal Council was taking place in Lifford at which the very future of politics in the county was being decided.

Or at least that’s one interpretation: that pseudo-Independents (my sobriquet for them) backed by the Coalition Government partners of Fine Gael and Labour together with Fianna Fail were aiming for.

But the political cat might be out of the bag, so to speak.

Could it be that someone poured (or was it self-administered?) poisonous elixir into the ears of certain councillors that the life of an independent within traditionally conservative Irish political circles is a short one, so they’d better rejoin the party fold again – before it is too late? “Being in a party makes for an easier life,” may have been the song on the hymn sheet. “You’ve got the company of like-minded people. Talk up the party you formerly belonged to until we win the Dail, then we – together with you – will control Lifford as well.” If it was, perhaps instead, without knowing, they’ve been listening to the Song of the Sirens.

Donegal councillors, county council meeting

(l to r) Let’s decide on a plan of action. Councillors Frank McBrearty and Michael McBride confer discreetly at Monday morning’s meeting of Donegal County council.

Intriguing backstory

As Councillor Michael McBride told me last week, a motion by John Campbell at Monday morning’s private Independent Grouping meeting to have John O’Donnell expelled from the group supported, by Michael Cholm MacGiolla Easbuig and himself, was defeated by five other councillors, a strange situation to say the least as only last month, they had all voted to make him resign.

But that wasn’t the biggest surprise of that morning.

That came just a few minutes later, immediately Campbell and Easbuig left the Independent Grouping in protest.

“Much to my amazement, someone suddenly called for the dissolution of the entire Grouping,” recalls McBride, who chaired the meeting but said he cannot remember who made what he considered a bizarre call (strange loss of concentration as chairperson at so vital a time). “And it was agreed upon so quickly I can’t but believe they had all discussed this much earlier, in private.”

The five councillors in the Independent Group who voted against O’Donnell’s expulsion were Nicholas Crossan, Tom Conaghan, Niamh Kennedy, Ian McGarvey, and John O’Donnell himself, most former party members.

Later that same evening McBride sent me an e-mail purportedly written by Kennedy stating that, “a decision has been taken to suspend the independent grouping and that no positions would be removed from any member as an investigation is currently underway by the ethics registrar of Donegal county council.”

She added, “None of us are involved in the 25/30 councillors referred to by Cllr.  O Donnell (on the RTE programme). This decision has been taken in the interest of the people of Donegal and in order to accommodate the smooth running of the business of Donegal county council following this past two months of turmoil.” But one is still left wondering why the Grouping was suddenly dissolved? Could it be, as McBride said, that they were fed up working with the fiery Frank McBrearty, who first proposed O’Donnell’s expulsion. Or with the intellectually able Campbell and passionate Easbuig? Or is something more sinister going down?

Franc McBrearty, Donegal councillors

Loosening his tie. But then again, Councillor McBride wasn’t wearing one, was he, at the council meeting? Just a bout of nervousness then? Or indecision?

Asked about his feelings on the dissolution of the Independent Grouping, McBride said, “I didn’t want that. It’s good for the council to have the four-group all-inclusive set-up that it has. To my understanding, that kind of power-sharing is unique in the whole country, something Donegal should be proud of.”

I asked McBride several questions

“Would you like O’Donnell – your former business partner in Dúncrua Teoranta, which was granted 120,000 euro from Udaras na Gaeltachta – expelled from all council committees.”

“I would have no problem with him being removed from all committees.”

“Why then did you abstain in the full council vote on the matter this Monday?”

“Because of the way I was treated fairly when I was co-opted on to the council for former Senator Jimmy Harte’s seat.”

“So, you would have been okay with a council decision to expel him, but not for you to vote on it?”

“Yes, it would have been democracy in action.”

Conversation ends.

Shakespeare: Is there something rotten in the state of …. Donegal?

Why would the trio of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour want the Independent Grouping at Donegal County Council dissolved? Here is a possible answer.

We’ll have a national elections very soon – we’ll know this week just when – and if the situation demands it, these three parties, regardless of what they say now, will try to ‘intermingle’ to form the next Government. But according to latest polls, their Donegal TD candidates desperately need all the help they can get even to shuffle lamely past the finish line – thus the pseudo-Independents. Fifteen years ago, the electoral breakdown was Fianna Fail a massive 70 per cent, Fine Gael 30 per cent, Sinn Fein 0.2 per cent and the rest Independents and Pseudos. Within the last five to six years, the Donegal political pendulum has swung dramatically and is now around 25 per cent Fianna Fail, Fine Gael 18 per cent, Sinn Fein a mighty 40 per cent, and rising, and the rest Independents and Pseudos.

And, let’s be quite clear about this: the main reason some pseudo-Independents are ‘Independents’ is that either their parties didn’t choose them to run last time out or that they’d never have won if they’d gone under that party’s ticket, especially if they’d gone under the Fianna Fail banner. In politics, however, such slights and inconveniences are often forgotten in the greedy grab for the prize piñata.

Concillor O'Donnell, Donegal politics

(r to l) Fianna Fail Donegal County Council chairperson, Ciaran Brogan, prepares for the meeting with council chief executive, Seamus Neely.

What happened behind closed doors Monday morning one week ago after Campbell and Easbuig stood on principle and left could be a classic political quid pro quo situation. ‘Talk up the party in the nationals in a few weeks time and you can run under our ticket for a council spot next time round, and, believe me, you’ll feel more secure for doing so,” could have been the way it was put.

Then again, my hunch might just be the workings of an over-active imagination. The truth might be that the Independent Grouping is a motley group, a raggle-taggle band with perhaps their hearts in the right places, but no cohesion. And so inexperienced and pulled apart by differences that they don’t even realize what their full potential could be if they created unity from diversity and voted for the right things.

This, however, is the perfect time – with national elections six weeks away – to find out which of the above-mentioned theories is the right one. True colors will begin to seep through. Threads will start to unravel.

If something more sinister is afoot, perpetrators of the cloak-and-dagger plotting have sadly overlooked one vital element – common decency. The overriding public mood is one of disillusionment, bordering on despair. If the three main political parties have indeed won the pseudo-Independents over – backed by business elites with much to gain by keeping O’Donnell on the council and on the ever-important ‘Roads’ committee which oversees tens of millions of euro in construction projects – trouble lies ahead. Keep in mind, the council’s annual budget is 133 million, 127 fixed and 6 to 7 discretionary. Construction of the Dungloe-Glenties road is in five-stages, the second, for example, cost around four million euro and the tender for the next stage is end of this month.

The ‘plotters’ may, however, have made the fatal mistake of ignoring the simple, unadorned hopes of ordinary folk, throughout Donegal and throughout the country, hopes for a sliver of common decency among politicians after all the putrid corruption they’ve been forced to roll in over the last five years or so.

Donegal people demonstrating, Donegal county council

Protestors inside the County Chamber voice their sentiments about Councillor John O’Donnell, corruption and cronyism within and outside Donegal County Council.

Another key question is now being asked in the corridors of power in Lifford: not if, but how many, high-level executives within Donegal Council – many of which were employed both within the county and imported from outside the county, with generous salaries and pensions under the previous, long-running Fianna Fail government – are involved in this purge of True Independents and the break-up of power-sharing? After all, they have to reward their paymasters.

What a shame if such a deceitful game is being played, in this of all years – the centennial anniversary of our national independence.

But in a very short time, you, dear Reader, will have the chance to put things right – by availing of your unalienable right to walk behind a curtain and put your ‘X’ exactly where you want it to be.

Perhaps, this blog will help you choose well. I certainly hope so. It’s a rare chance to truly show that we are indeed ‘different up here.’

As for Councillor O’Donnell….

Epitome of nonchalance

I was quite astounded watching the councillor last Monday morning nonchalantly reading that morning’s edition of the ‘Donegal News’ as the political maelstrom swirled all around him in the council chamber. Either this young man has nerves of steel, I thought, or he is so utterly sure of what will happen that there is absolutely no need for him to be concerned in any way, about anything or anyone. Wish I could wake up feeling that way, as I’m sure do thousands of unemployed, elderly, sick, disabled and struggling mothers trying desperately to feed their children on paltry, insufficient income coming into homes across this county, across the country.

John O'Donnell, Sinn Fein Donegal

Nonchalance or absolute certainty? John O’Donnell displays his lack of concern about the possibility he might be expelled from Donegal County Council on Monday morning. That very evening, he released a press statement thanking his fellow councillors for supporting him.

During a short adjournment, I approached O’Donnell and introduced myself as Gaeilge, thinking – as he had attracted so much Údarás funding – he would be fluent. Perhaps it was due to my poor pronunciation or stumbling vocal ways, but he didn’t seem to understand, so I changed my questioning to as Bearla.

“Can you speak? I’ve a few questions I’d like to ask.”

I’ve been told by my legal advisers not to say anything,” he responded. “They’ve told me to let the ethics investigation takes it course. I’ve nothing to answer for anyway. People are just out to get me and use me as a platform for their own political gains.”

“What would you say to your fellow councilors here if they ask you any questions about your various business interests and debts owed through them?”

“I’d say, ‘That’s none of anyone’s business. It’s my private affair, mine only.”

“What about the 120,000 euro granted to your company, Dúncrua Teoranta, by Údarás na Gaeltachta just before it went bust, can you explain that?

“My legal advisers have told me to say nothing and that’s what I’m going to do.”

“Will you pay the money back?

“No comment.”

Then he went back to reading his newspaper.

O’Donnell, a long-time family member of Fianna Fail, also declined to comment on the court case he faces this Wednesday, Feb. 3 for failing to pay 33,000 euro in compensation to a Creeslough woman whose foot he drove over in a car accident. If O’Donnell does not show up for that case, District Court Judge Paul Kelly has said he will have him arrested.

Next week’s court case should be just as entertaining as the county council meeting last  week – with potentially very serious consequences for all concerned. If, having said he has no money, he pays up, you have to ask yourself: where did the spondulix come from? If his solicitor delays the proceedings, you’ve got to ask yourself: why? Could it be waiting for the results of the upcoming elections? If, however, he is convicted, I am ainformed O’Donnell automatically loses his council seat. There’s a lot at stake.

Go along if you can. It should be as good as an episode of ‘Judge Judy,’ hopefully better – unless some shadowy person(s) gets to the judge before then.

D-Day approaches inside the Donegal County Council Chambers

As D-Day (O’Donnell Day) approaches within the chambers of Donegal County Council this morning perhaps it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that beleaguered Councilor John O’Donnell has simply been misunderstood over the last few weeks and that this occasion, the first full council meeting since airing of the RTE ‘cash for favors’ controversy, gives him the opportunity to clarify matters.

As the debate gets underway, the eyes and ears of many of the nation’s political and financial elite will be on little ole Donegal, that ‘wee beautiful place on the edge of the Atlantic’ in the very far corner of the country, that is and isn’t an integral part of the island of Ireland, depending which perspective from which you look.

Councillors John O’Donnell, Michael McBride, Ciaran Brogan and all their fellows in the chamber will have the chance to show that, in the right and proper way, “we are different up here.”

Now what that ‘difference’ means is the key question we all hope will be answered truthfully and forthrightly today, hopefully before lunch-time comes around – though that is as likely as seeing a polar bear wearing suntan lotion eating brussels sprouts with a spoon at the side of a heated swimming pool.

Will this morning’s open public event echo the catchphrase that became so popular in the 1970s after the Oscar-winning movie ‘Network’ was first screened? Then lead character, Howard Beale, (played wonderfully by actor Peter Finch), on the brink between brilliance and madness, says passionately, “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad,” then screams, “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” his words being carried swiftly from person to person, young and old, man and woman, boy and girl, city to city across the whole of the nation.

If these words are echoed in the council chamber today in Lifford, who’s going to say them first? And will they mean them?

Could they be the battle-cry for a new, rejuvenated Donegal?

Could this be the historical moment we begin to shrug off the cloak of cronyism and corruption that has draped this county for far too long, with the collusion of various governments, and stymied our cultural, social and economic development?

To achieve this not small feat, a comprehensive, collective community effort is required and for that we, in turn, require the strength of the media, broadcast, print and digital  – not the way the print media acted over the last few days, publishing what was in effect a joint press release from  Údarás na Gaeltachta and John O’Donnell on the front and inside pages, nor Highland Radio, avoiding the controversial, not-so transparent payments made from one entity to the other.

If efforts to rid this county of counterproductive ‘goings-on,’ we need local media to be brave, enterprising and outspoken. It is their future as much as it is ours that is at stake.

While this article in yesterday’s ‘The Sunday Business Post’ gives most of the facts surrounding Mr. O’Donnell and Údarás, there is still much more to be said.

Sean Hillen Sunday Business Post, Councillor O'Donnell Donegal

For the sake of fairness and democracy, let Cllrs. O’Donnell and McBride have their say. Give them the chance to explain how and why they were granted the 120,000 euro from Údarás and about how much exactly, and O’Donnell to clarify to whom one of his other companies, Kilmac Form Work Limited, owes millions of euro in debt, and where indeed those millions are now. And why he has still not paid 33,000 euro in injury compensation to an unfortunate Creeslough woman who’s foot he drove over in a car accident.

John O'Donnell Donegal, Donegal councillors

Oh, and let there be an explanation by O’Donnell about how his former company K&F Sarolla Teo (‘wool’ in English) went bust owing over 76,000 euro in 2013, which intriguingly led him to set up Glenveigh Woollen Mills Ltd in May of the same year .

Glenveigh Woolen Mills Ltd, councillor John O'Donnell

Strangely – perhaps merely a coincidence – K&F Sarolla Teo looks very much like K&F Superwools in Northern Ireland, with – and again it may just be a coincidence – the same director, namely John O’Donnell.

Would it be too much of a coincidence if it was discovered there were grants– those chunky cross-border kind of ones – involved in these companies also?

K&F Superwools, Donegal counicllors

For goodness sake, while we’re at it, as anyone who’s anyone will be there in the council chamber this morning, let Councillor Ciarán Brogan, Donegal County Council Chairperson, explain how his company, Sark Construction, perhaps now renamed Kasmor, managed to obtain an estimated 10 million euro in Donegal council construction contracts.

Gosh, it all sounds as if the craic will be mighty at the Donegal Council meeting this morning (kick-off 11am). For what it’s worth, alternative entertainment options on the box at exactly the same time are (and I kid you not) – ‘Wanted Down Under’ on BBC1; ‘The High Chaparral’ (or is that ‘Hang ‘Em High’) on TG4; ‘Judge Judy’ on TV3; ‘Conspiracy Theory’ on TCM; and ‘Four in a Bed’ on Channel 4.

Funny how all of them – including the local council option – have a similar ring to them.

I know which one I’m choosing.

Exclusive: Donegal councillors John O’Donnell and Michael McBride funded by Údarás na Gaeltachta

At a time when controversial ‘cash for favors’ Donegal councillor John O’Donnell was refusing to pay more than 33,000 euro compensation to a Creeslough woman he injured in a car accident 16 years ago, Údarás na Gaeltachta granted him and fellow councillor Michael McBride more than 122,000 euro in public money (see document here Udaras grant), I can reveal exclusively in this blog.

John O Donnell Donegal, independent councilor Donegal

O’Donnell was founder, director and secretary of Dúncrua Teoranta, the company receiving the money. Interestingly, a second director of the company was fellow councillor, Michael McBride, who also acted as company secretary. Both men – now declaring themselves independent councillors – were then members of Fianna Fail. A third director named was Sarah Doherty.

Documents show McBride and O’Donnell became directors of Dúncrua Teoranta on the same day, 14 Sep 2006, when it was set up to sell metal ore. They are also listed as company secretaries. McBride was director for a year and four months, until February 2008 when he resigned. The company’s address was listed as just inside the Gaeltacht, at Cuirin, Termon.

Dúncrua Teoranta

Údarás approved funding for Dúncrua Teoranta of 122,300 euro in 2008, paying out 66,850 euro in that year alone. The owners put the company into bankruptcy within months of the money being given. Aidan Garcia of Collins Garcia Corporate Recovery, 28 Fitzwilliam Place, Dublin was appointed as liquidator.

“As the money was given at a time when the company was close to bankruptcy, it seems it’s yet another case of cronyism, money given to two Fianna Fail politicians by a Fianna Fail dominated organization,” commented one observer with inside knowledge of Údarás operations.

Interestingly, O’Donnell was granted the money by Údarás at a time when he owned another company, Kilmac Form Work Limited, which later went into receivership with documents showing it had liabilities of 4.8 million Euro. Much of that debt, as declared during a High Court hearing in 2012, was owed to AIB Finance, thus to ordinary Irish people as the bank was bailed out by the State through injections of billions of euro of public money.

Kilmac Form Work Limited

O’Donnell registered Kilmac Form Work Limited on 6 April, 2005 in Ballyherrin, Kilmacrennan, several kilometers from Duncrua Teo, described as being involved in the manufacture of metal structures. It is currently listed as ‘Receivership’ with two directors, O’Donnell and his brother. The ‘Irish Independent’ reported recently that O’Donnell was forced to make back settlements to the taxman totaling over 330,000 euro. I have contacted both Councillors McBride and O’Donnell for comment but neither has responded. Údarás finally released a statement confirming it did grant O’Donnell the money. Where were Údarás officials when the RTE ‘cash for favors’ investigation was aired to such national furore weeks ago? Cowering in a corner hoping no-one would notice it had given scarce public money away so recklessly?

Urgent questions require immediate answers

The documents unearthed for this blog call into question the actions of both O’Donnell and Údarás na Gaeltachta.

O’Donnell is already firmly in the public spotlight due to his being caught on RTE camera allegedly offering ‘favors for cash’ on Donegal council business, as well as being under threat of arrest for failing to pay compensation due to Ms. Petra Kucklick of Creeslough whom he injured when he drove his car over her foot in 2000. District Court Judge Paul Kelly was quoted in the local media saying he will have the councillor arrested if he does not appear in person at the Letterkenny court on February 3rd to explain why he has failed to pay any of the compensation to the injured woman. O’Donnell seemed to have had lots of money at one time and could have easily paid the compensation, why did he decide not to do so?

Almost all of the main political party representatives in Donegal have called directly for O’Donnell’s resignation, as did Independent councillors, Micheal Cholm Mac Giolla Easpuig, who has called for a boycott of next week’s full council meeting due to take place on Monday, January 25, Dessie Shiels, who left a meeting Letterkenny Municipal District Council last week in protest, and Frank McBrearty, former Mayor, who resigned last week from the Independent Grouping on Donegal County Council in protest as O’Donnell not being expelled.

Donegal Now‘ news service said Cllr. McBrearty explained that Cllr Michael McBride’s casting vote as party whip means he has the power to expel Cllr John O’Donnell from the group and the committees given to him under the all inclusive deal. The news service quoted McBrearty saying: “I will perform my duties as an Independent councillor and do my very best for the people that elected me. I will not be associated with Cllr John O Donnell when he clearly said he could get the backing of 25 to 30 other councillors. I am not one of these councillors and am making my position clear by taking this stand. I do not understand the reluctance of some councillors to support my decision but that’s for them to decide.”

The information these documents reveal also come as councilor Shiels, who will contest the next national elections, recently left a meeting of the 10-member Letterkenny Municipal District Council in protest at O’Donnell’s attendance. “In the aftermath of the RTE investigates programme which aired on RTE in November past, I personally cannot involve myself in county council meetings, whether at Municipal District Level or at full plenary council level in the presence of councillor O’Donnell,” Shiels said. “To do so would, to my mind, compromise everything that I have tried to do to date since being elected to Donegal County Council to restore public confidence in politics in Donegal.”

Added another observer, who prefers his identification to remain confidential at this times, said, “I wondered why Michael McBride was so quiet in his condemnation of O’Donnell.”

Is John O’Donnell the kind of political leader the people of Donegal want? Is this what we mean when we say proudly, “we’re different up here?”

Does Údarás na Gaeltachta lack good governance?

Key questions also remain about the operations of Údarás na Gaeltachta, particularly in Donegal.

Did anyone at the organization check into the financial health of O’Donnell and his companies before granting him 122,000 euro of public money? If so, why did it go ahead and approve the grant? If it did not check, then it is guilty of ignoring its duties to the public whose money supports the organisation’s entire operation.

Perhaps, in addition to the controversial wind farm development issue that was the focus of the RTE program, perhaps O’Donnell can clarify how he got the money from Údarás for Dúncrua Teoranta. It is not believed either O’Donnell or McBride have paid any of the money back.

Also, as the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) identified the requirement for a ‘Section 56’ on O’Donnell’s company – which allows interested parties to bring concerns before the liquidator and thus try to recuperate their money – has Údarás done so in relation to the loss of public money (the grant)? If, not, why not? Is this yet again willful disrespect of public interest?

Or in the light of the allegations arising from the RTE program – did some people at Údarás get kick-backs for pushing the money through for O’Donnell? Considering Fianna Fail’s long-time dominance of Údarás and that party’s record of skullduggery in bankrupting Ireland, such allegations cannot be ignored. In addition, this blog revealed that Údarás hired Finbarr Boyle as business training manager for local entrepreneurs through the EU funded CeanaglG project in Donegal even though Boyle was already under investigation, had already pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain and was later proven guilty of stealing more than 200,000 euro from a village school, including money earmarked for children’s food. Does the organization suffer from a severe lack of good governance?

Oh, and by the way, where did the 122,000 euro go? As Cuba Gooding Jr. said in that wonderful film, ‘Jerry Maguire’ – “Show us the money!”

Changes required at Údarás?

With frequent revelations about the operations of Údarás – including free trips for executives, board members and their wives to Las Vegas (to meet officials of Enterprise Ireland) and ‘insider trading’ schemes whereby former Údarás board members and top executives received money for their own organizations and projects – economic experts are questioning whether the group is fit for purpose. These concerns are especially sensitive locally as well as in Brussels as the Government decided recently it will operate the multi-million euro EU LEADER programme in the Donegal Gaeltacht where decisions on money allocation will take place over the coming months.

Some sector analysts as well as ordinary people in the Gaeltacht community say that after several decades of failure and with unemployment in the Gaeltacht at an all-time high, the economic regeneration model for the regions is simply not working and that Údarás na Gaeltachta should simply be dismantled and replaced with a new and more efficient organization, one featuring well-trained technocrats, not politically-appointed personnel.

Others say that much-needed changes are already underway, an example being the recent appointment of Letterkenny-based, former county council director of services for community, culture and planning, Micheál Ó hÉanaigh, as director of enterprise and employment, marine and natural resources at Údarás. Ó hÉanaigh, credited with launching the Donegal Diaspora project.

However, one must also note the recent reaction by Joe McHugh, Fine Gael Minister for the Gaeltacht, to the questionable activities at Údarás – he said the organization would receive an extra one million euro in public funding this year.