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.

FOI

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.

cartoon

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.

lenses

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.

Advertisements

Falcarragh celebrates ‘May Day’ for first time

An ancient event is being brought back to life this weekend as local people for the first time celebrate the feast day of ‘May Day’ in Falcarragh, west Donegal. The event will take place this Saturday afternoon at 2pm at the main crossroads.

Originally, in Pagan times, a day commemorating the feast of Bealtaine, in May 1890 it became a holiday recognising international workers’ day and the fight for better working conditions.

“We decided to celebrate it as an act of solidarity with our own working people, many who have been made unemployed or who have been forced to emigrate over recent years,” said Owen Curran, one of the leaders of the four-year-long ‘Cloughaneely Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign against household charges, and now water charges. Curran gives great credit to a number of people who he says have been pioneers in the struggle for greater equality as well as anti-austerity stalwarts, including Theresa and Caroline Woods, founders of the group; Mary Bridget Sharkey; Mary Attenborough; Moire McCarry; R.J. McLean; James Woods;  Gerard Gallagher; and Martin McEhlinny.

“The stark facts are that despite the Government telling us we’re ‘turning the corner,’ mass un-employment and emigration remains the reality here,” said Curran. “More than 400,000 people are on the live register with many more on ‘Job Bridge’ type schemes. Our young people continue to emigrate.”

Curran believes there are two reasons for continuing unemployment. “One is the slump in demand because of the cuts to peoples incomes. The second is lack of investment. Meanwhile, large profits are being made and wealth has increased for the rich. Oxfam estimates that the super-wealthy have 700 billion euro stashed in Irish bank accounts. The policy of incentives for the private sector to create jobs clearly has not worked. It most certainly has not worked in the Gaeltacht where Udaras has spent large sums of tax-payers money since their foundation. The result: mass unemployment levels and emigration from the area. What is needed is a real jobs plan, with investment channeled into a programme of necessary works such as school building, the fitting of buildings for rain-water harvesting, upgrades to sewage and water infrastructure, with work to begin immediately.”

The ‘May Day’ event begins at Falcarragh crossroads and there will be an open-mike discussion on pertinent issues such as local and national government job-creation strategies, as well as the planting of a tree in solidarity with all those from the area who have been made unemployed or forced to emigrate. Mr. Curran added that there will also be music and song, “because in the words of Emma Goldman, political activist, writer and feminist, ‘If I can’t dance to it, it is not my revolution.’

For further information, contact Owen at 086 312 2784 or Maire at 086 739 3116. Organisers say everyone is welcome.

Údarás na Gaeltachta – a secret society?

Living in Gaoth Dobhair, the heart of the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht area of Donegal in northwest Ireland, I take a strong interest in how this beautiful region – arguably the most scenic part of the entire country – is governed and develops, both economically and socially.

As such, I have vested considerable investigative journalistic experience, gained after 30 years in the media sector, in analyzing the workings of the largest economic development organization here – namely Údarás na Gaeltachta, an organization that has benefited from a spending budget of around one billion euro, mainly for job creation, since it was first established in 1980.

I have penned many news and feature articles on the organization over the last five years, the latest (below) published today (Friday) in the largest circulation newspaper in Donegal, the Donegal News.

For context, it’s probably worth reading the much more comprehensive, three-part series on Údarás that I wrote for the same newspaper. You’ll find it in the earlier posts below.

Pulling the ropes

Údarás na Gaeltachta – a secret society?

Like Br’er Rabbit, west Donegal’s largest economic development group is captive.

Captive to the belief that call centres and large manufacturing companies are the only way to create jobs – and to a golden circle that benefits from such thinking.

As such, Údarás na Gaeltachta is a Tar-baby, ever-more entangled in a sticky situation.

With the recent announcement that Largo Foods in the Gaoth Dobhair industrial estate will now close, with the loss of over 140 jobs, and after spending more than two million euro in the Donegal Gaeltacht over the last year, the Irish-language organisation has suffered a net loss of 78 jobs, according to its own figures, the worst record for many years.

So what has gone wrong? Seemingly, plenty!

Remoteness, poor infrastructure and a narrow skills’ set are the reasons most often given for few companies coming to the rural Gaeltacht of west Donegal. But does this excuse Údarás’ poor performance and lack of transparency as a public body?

After announcing recently it created 220 jobs in Donegal last year, Údarás promptly declined to give a breakdown of the figure. Following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I made earlier this year seeking a list of funded companies and their job numbers, as well as pension payments, it replied, “For data protection and commercial sensitivity reasons. We do not release specific information collated for the purposes of the Údarás employment survey to the general public,” adding that pensions, while funded by the taxpayer, were private matters.

I asked Sinn Féin Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh of the Oireachtas Joint Committee, which revealed Údarás pays half its annual budget in pensions for 136 former executives, to follow-up. His party leader, Gerry Adams TD, submitted Dail question Nr. 127, as well as Questions 416 and 417, asking the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to “detail final salaries levels, lump sum or additional payments and the pension payments made to each chief executive officer or regional executive of Údarás who retired in the past three years.” Minister Jimmy Deenihan answered: “I have been advised by Údarás na Gaeltachta it considers the payments referred to are covered under the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003. Accordingly, it is not in a position to supply the information requested.”

Mary Lou Nolan, TD, Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on public expenditure and reform, then submitted yet another Parliamentary question, Nr. 148, asking the Minister to “reference the specific provisions of the Data Protection Acts to which he refers; the basis on which he believes Údarás na Gaeltachta does not, unlike all other senior managers across the civil and public sector, have to make public, details of public service pension arrangements.” A full answer is still awaited.

Such lack of co-operation by Údarás is disconcerting and leads inevitably to suspicion, making the words of its Arranmore Island-born chairperson Anna Ní Ghallchóir to me – “utter transparency is a given” – seem pale.

About one billion euro has poured into the Donegal Gaeltacht since Údarás was founded – for a population of 24,000. Result: the highest unemployment rate nationally, ugly, empty, ghost-like industrial estates blighting a rural landscape and a horrendously under-developed tourism sector.

Two years ago, under the Fine Gael-Labour ruling coalition, a new board promised change, with both ni Ghallchoir and fellow board member John Curran saying to me in separate interviews that widespread funding for ‘cultural tourism’ projects would be given to create sustainability by attracting more visitors to west Donegal. Two years later, less than five per cent of Údarás’ budget has gone to such projects, leading people at a recent EU-backed cultural tourism CeangalG (ConnectG) conference at An Chuirt Hotel in Gaoth Dobhair to complain of dwindling support.

In the case of Largo Foods, where is the sustainability that Údarás grants totaling 6.2 million euro to it (over 43,000 euro per job) should have created, and what business-sense does it make for Údarás to allocate half a million euro for two years for this company, which didn’t even bother to draw it down? With call centers and large manufacturing units merely band-aids for local unemployment problems, why has Údarás shown so little trust in small businesses forming the backbone of the local area’s economy? Especially so when a national economist who completed her Doctorate on Údarás operations, concluded, “on supply chain factors alone, a long-term, job creation strategy based on manufacturing was, and will continue to be, insane.” Could the fixation with short-term job numbers be linked to retention of Údarás’ own staff jobs, whose salaries average 80,000 euro annually, excluding expenses?

Instead of cultural tourism being expanded with serious money, Gearóid Ó Smaoláin, the organisation’s tourism officer, said in a recent public forum that “discussions are well-advanced” on building an alcohol and drug addiction clinic in the coastal town of Falcarragh, beside an existing golf course in the Ballyconnell House estate. It is believed Údarás, having already turned down several tourism ideas for the area, will allocate between several hundred thousand and one million euro to the project, which will be run by an arm of the Catholic Church.

Ultimately, decent Donegal people deserve better. How many more millions of euro must be wasted, how many more years lost, before Údarás changes its vision, and for transparency and accountability to be achieved? Perhaps only then will the ceaseless brain-drain halt and our native language escape from withering on the vine.

Published in Donegal News

Many challenges facing Donegal Gaeltacht and Udaras

Fresh from her first meeting recently as board chairperson of a revamped Udaras na Gaeltachta, Anna Ni Ghallchoir faces discouraging news – the number of fluent Irish speakers in Gaeltacht areas is falling and urgent measures are needed to reverse the trend.

“Without doubt, Irish is in decline, we must realise that and put in place a concrete plan to deal with it,” said Ni Ghallachoir, director of the Languages Centre at the NUI in Maynooth.

Meanwhile, a strategy, enshrined in the 2012 Gaeltacht Act and a 20-year strategy plan, is in place, with twin aims of promoting Irish and creating dynamic Gaeltacht communities. Minister of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, told the Donegal News he remains “open and flexible” in his approach. “If the system supporting the Irish-language and economic development in Gaeltacht areas requires streamlining or enhancing for greater efficiency and more effective use of public money, then we are certainly open to doing so.”

Promoting Irish

The proposed plan under the act has several strands, including support for Irish-speaking families and a greater role for community groups such as co-ops, schools, sports and music clubs in each Gaeltacht area, Ni Ghallachoir said, adding, “Local Gaeltachts must take ownership of the plan, be the foundation upon which growth takes place. With different socio-linguistic-economic factors in every Gaeltacht, each must be analysed and area-specific programmes initiated so they become pivotal drivers. ”

Referring to the act, Eoin O’Murchu, former political editor at Raidio na Gaeltachta  and a national commentator on Irish-language affairs, says, “all that reads well, may not be so,” adding, “It comes down to value for money, especially important in the present difficult economic times. Before, there was a lack of purpose from the State, with no clear vision. Co-ordination could have been more efficient with recognition of the specific differences in each Gaeltacht. Now, with a chance to implement a specific strategy, politics unfortunately has entered the fray and that opportunity is being missed.” Added Concubhar O’Liathain, board member of TG4 and former editor of La, the Irish-language newspaper, “Some appointments to important Irish-language boards such as national funding body, Foras na Gaeilge, are being made on party political grounds. People on boards should be challenging officialdom. Those interested in the language but not in party politics are more likely now to be overlooked.” Officials at Foras, who direct a multimillion euro annual budget, said all projects are selected on merit before funding.

Salaries, transport, board fees and pensions

O’Murchu also said what happened in the corporate world recently in Ireland now happens in the Irish-language one. “A small handful of the same people are on boards, each supporting one another’s projects. This prohibits substantive evaluation of Irish-language project proposals. A person is hardly likely to turn down another’s project for funding when they know that person may be voting on theirs at the next meeting. Such meetings are often merely a way to mark time, nothing more.”

Third-level education in Irish in Donegal is also a challenge. Ionad an Acadaimh, established in Gaoth Dobhair in 2004, has received generous funding but cannot recruit enough students. “It is a problem, we need improved marketing, better outreach,” said former Udaras chairperson, Liam O’Cuinneagain, whose language organisation Oideas Gael, which employs four full-time people, received over 350,000 euro from Udaras and more than that from Foras and other sources.

Jobs: tourism or industry

All those involved in Irish-language planning consider job creation key in preserving it, describing it as “an essential element of dynamic Gaeltacht communities.”

“If we don’t succeed in keeping Irish-speaking population in Gaeltachts, how can we possibly expect to maintain the language,” said Dinny McGinley, Minister of State for the Gaeltacht, saying he reduced the Udaras board from 20 to 12 because it was “too large, too expensive and too political.”

But what sort of economic development meets Gaeltachts’ needs? Lacking proper infrastructure especially rapid transport such as motorways, rail-lines and a multi-destination airport that major manufacturers require, the odds are against rapid employment pick-up in this sector in the Donegal one. “On supply chain factors alone, a long-term, job-creation strategy based on manufacturing was, and will be, insane,” said a leading Dublin-based academic whose research has focused on Udaras over several years. “Look at the fate of Fruit of the Loom to see the consequences. Many call centres have also failed, with some still owing Udaras lots of money on outstanding loans.” She added, “Much of what Galway-Connemara – where Udaras is headquartered – got, would help Donegal greatly. Many people there got clean, well-paying, long-term jobs in sectors such as IT, Irish translation services and media, while Donegal, the poor cousin, ended up with lower-paying, short to medium-term, conveyor-belt type jobs in factories.”

The consequences of manufacturing failure dot the Donegal Gaeltacht landscape today, with Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty pointing out that almost half of the industrial parks there lie empty, estimated to be around 45,000 square meters. “Manufacturing in the Donegal Gaeltacht is not sustainable,” he said. “We don’t have the necessary transport links and the government’s withdrawal from the Dublin-Donegal A5 project means we are hardly likely to get them any time soon. That means looking for alternative ways to encourage young Irish speakers to stay here and help create dynamic Gaeltacht communities. Broadband offers one solution. It’s like electricity and running water was years ago, ‘must-haves’ in today’s modern world. With it, the Gaeltacht here can chase the jobs the Connemara Gaeltacht got.”

Instead of easy-to-build ‘mortar and metal’ industrial estates, which analysts said made “fabulous profits for builders and developer,” Udaras chairperson, Ni Ghallachoir, board member, Sean O’Cuirean from Falcarragh and TD Doherty point to tourism, particularly the environmental and cultural variety.

For decades, west Donegal tourism relied on northern Irish holiday-makers flooding across the border, local officials said. That ended with the arrival of low-cost airlines. The entire hospitality sector in the Gaeltacht has declined rapidly since.

“Cultural and green tourism offer tremendous opportunities but its potential has not been exploited enough here,” O’Cuirean said. “Udaras has an important role in this, by supporting large and small tourism projects across the Gaeltacht. Compared to places like Galway and Kerry, we lag far behind. We should adopt environmental tourism models, Norway and Scotland, for example. Mayo hosts meditation retreat type holidays. Whether they are participatory projects in re-afforestation or archaeology, we should be offering them.”  Sabba Curran, an angling tourism entrepreneur in Dore, agrees. “We have all we need, the ocean, the islands, the fishing grounds, but we need Udaras help to develop the sector.”  Added Doherty, “West Donegal has so many tourism pearls scattered around – Errigal, Glenveigh, Dunlewey, Glencolmcille, Tory, Gola – but we have failed to make a necklace out of them. They can’t stand alone. With peace in the north and an all-Ireland tourism body established, now’s the time to act.”

Udaras staff in Donegal declined to talk about tourism development nor job-creation statistics here. When contacted, Micheal MacGiolla Easpuic, acting regional manager based in Gaoth Dobhair, told the Donegal News, “We’re a centralised organisation, you’ll have to call Galway.” But Siubhan Nic Grianna, Udaras communications director in Galway, also declined to provide details as did Gerry O’Smaolain, who oversees Udaras tourism projects here.

Budget constraints

Challenges to Irish-language development include a much-reduced Udaras budget, but also that most of its budget goes towards staff salaries, expenses and pensions rather than supporting job creation projects in Gaeltacht areas. Nic Grianna declined to give specific figures on pensions, even though it is public information. A Joint Oireachtas committee, however, learned recently that pensions of 136 people take up half the current Udaras budget. “Pay levels at Udaras are the envy of people in the Irish-language sector and the pension situation needs looking at,” said O’Liathain, “There could be less bureaucracy in terms of funding also. Udaras has its weaknesses, but it’s not so drastic it can’t be fixed.”

Those interviewed for this three-part series on Udaras na Gaeltachta over the last few weeks were agreed on one thing – Gaeltachts require continuing support. “Promoting Irish in the Gaeltachts may seem like selling coal in Newcastle,” O’Liathain said. “You’d think people would have enough of it. But it is very important in preserving our native culture and heritage.”

Published in Donegal News

Udaras na Gaeltachta consider challenges of creating new jobs

Meeting for the first time this morning (Friday), members of the new board of Udaras na Gaeltachta face the challenging tasks of analysing the organisation’s performance and brainstorming on ways to accomplish the goals for which the Irish-language body was established.

One priority is employment in Gaeltacht areas. “Job creation and language promotion go hand-in-hand,” Anna Ni Ghallchoir, 55, the new chairperson, told the Donegal News. “With my new board colleagues, I will be examining very closely if past strategies have been successful and come up with innovative ones to help us move forward.”

Depending on whom you speak to, Udaras has either an acceptable record on job creation, or a very poor one, reflecting the age-old comment that statistics are like sausages – they look good but you’re never quite sure what’s in them.

New jobs versus lost jobs

With total funding of around one billion euro so far, Udaras reported it had created 6,970 jobs as of last year in what it terms ‘client companies,’ defined as any company receiving support. When examined in the context of unemployment in Gaeltacht regions, this represents 7.75 per cent of the population there. As of last year, Udaras’ website shows it supported 1,876 jobs in the Donegal Gaeltacht, which represents 7.89 per cent of almost 24,000 people. Donegal Gaeltacht has the second largest number of Irish speakers, but ranks fifth in jobs created among the seven Gaeltacht regions.

Liam O‘Cuinneagain, Udaras chairperson for the last ten years, told the Donegal News he is “satisfied with our job creation performance,” adding, “It’s not easy to get companies to locate to rural Ireland, in part because of its remoteness and lack of transport links and limited skill-sets there.” As evidence in Donegal, he points to sectors Udaras has invested in – seafood processing, call centres (VHI), IT, sea angling, boat repair, even potato-crisp/fast food manufacturing (Largo Foods).

Other business analysts, however, are less satisfied with Udaras’ performance, including Tom Fitzgerald, fluent Irish speaker and business owner employing 50 people at Bard na nGleann, his information-management company in Béal Átha’n Ghaorthaidh in the Cork Gaeltacht. “A strong, well-run economic development organisation is important for the preservation and promotion of the Irish-language and for job creation in marginalized areas such as the Gaeltachts, including Donegal, but there’s no shying away from facts, Udaras is an extraordinarily expensive organisation,” Fitzgerald, whose company has an annual turnover of between one and two million euro, told the Donegal News. “There is little evidence of effectiveness in the statistics. By normal business practice standards, Udaras’ record so far is very poor.”

Expenditure

Fitzgerald points to the fact that the total number of jobs Údarás says it created was lower in 2010 than in 1996. “Furthermore, there’s no indication that the amount of money spent by Údarás in a single year has any impact on job creation in the Gaeltacht.  For example: Údarás spent more than 84 million euro in 2002 according to its own annual report. Yet there is no corresponding spike in jobs either in that year or following years.”

O‘Cuinneagain says during his tenure as chairperson, “cost per job was around eight thousand euro.” However, a simple look at Udaras’s total expenditure for the last ten years (613.5 million euro) relative to the number of jobs it reports creating by the end of last year (6,970) equates to 88,000 euro cost per job. As only around 10 per cent of budget goes to language-cultural activities, the final cost per job figure may be as much as ten times higher than stated. In Donegal, a case study in job costs is Largo Foods, headquartered in Ashbourne, Meath, but with facilities in the Gaoth Dobhair Industrial Estate. According to Udaras, it has received over 6.2 million euro in funding between 1999 and 2011 – with another half-million euro to be paid soon for automated equipment. Udaras said last year the company employed 120 people. Taking those figures, that works out to be over 55,000 euro investment per job created, not considering funding from other bodies for Largo. Ironically, following the installation of the automated equipment earlier this year, media reported 36 jobs were lost at Largo.

As some of Udaras’s ‘client companies’ are also the ‘client companies’ of other organisations, foreign and domestic, from whom they receive additional support, it is difficult to evaluate what specific job numbers Udaras contributions amount to. “The term ‘client companies’ is a loose one, easily manipulated to suit purpose,” said Fitzgerald. “Some organisations that partly support companies in the Gaeltachts often claim all the jobs as their own making, which is quite misleading.”

O’Cuinneagain acknowledges that criticisms of Udaras for not supporting enough micro companies – entrepreneurs wishing to hire a handful of people – are valid. “We’re not getting what we should be getting – smaller businesses,” he said. “We’ve focused too much trying to get big companies that might employ hundreds. Even though the finance and support system is there, Udaras has not been welcoming enough. Staff have not been as pro-active as they should be, have not scoured their Gaeltacht communities to find such entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, we have remained in a culture of factory jobs.”

Asked why, the director of Oideas Gael, a language group in Glencolmcille, lay the blame on factors outside Udaras ranging from lack of business teaching in education “Greek and Latin instead of entrepreneurialism” to lack of bank finance. But he did not rule out the possibility that as funding a small company with thousands of euro amounted to nearly as much paperwork for Udaras staff as funding large companies with millions of euro, there may have be a Udaras propensity for avoiding small business applications. Asked if the push for larger companies could have been simply a strategy to keep employment figures up and for Udaras to retain its all-important job-creation remit, which accounts for most of its annual budget, he said, “That’s ridiculous, sounds more like a conspiracy theory to me.”

Fitzgerald’s opinion differs, “About the only goal that Údarás is measured on is the creation of 800 or so new jobs per year, so they focus on doing just that. The problem is that this strategy doesn’t take into account what kind of jobs they are. In theory, Údarás is better off creating jobs that disappear quickly so they can place the same people again in a year or two.”

Analysts also say the Udaras board members may not have had enough business experience to spearhead a successful jobs-creation strategy. Of the Donegal members on the previous board, none could be identified as having long-time corporate management experience. O’Cuinneagain waved aside concerns that the previous national board was too large, numbering twenty, which some analysts said made it unwieldy to manage and hampered decision-making. “I did not find our board meetings too difficult to manage, but then again my experience as a teacher in inner city Dublin for many years helped a lot,” he said.

Lack of fiscal clarity within Udaras concerns some observers.

“I spent several years studying the organisation and found its finances extremely difficult to understand,” one leading business researcher told the Donegal News. “I also found frequent errors in its calculations. Some figures on spending simply did not add up. There’s really no excuse for that when we have so many accounting software programs such as Excel at our disposal.”

When the Donegal News requested a breakdown of Udaras spending for the seven Gaeltacht regions, particularly Donegal, for the last three years, Siubhán Nic Grianna, national communications and marketing manager, responded, “The distribution of total monies is not segregated on a county by county or Gaeltacht by Gaeltacht basis therefore I cannot provide breakdown for Donegal for this period.”

Bernard Allen, former TD and head of the multi-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which oversees the proper spending of public money, told the Donegal News that lack of transparency at Udaras may have hindered job-creation efforts. “We found its expenses system to be incomprehensible and could not understand how it was spending so much money on trips for so-called job creation efforts.”  Referring to the scandal over misspending by another state body, he added, “Udaras’ expenses read like a mini-FAS and it seemed to stymy our efforts to find out the truth and avoid disclosing pertinent facts and figures to us, especially related to board member, staff and associated expenses. With better accounting practices, perhaps its job creation efforts could have been more effective. ”

Some questions concerning expenses, including 30,000 euro over two years on trips to Halifax, Canada, to look at seaweed projects, costly business-class flights, trips to many international cities including Las Vegas, Shanghai, Los Angeles and Chicago, and expenses for spouses – which is counter to existing regulations – have still not been fully answered, Allen said.

Nic Grianna said such concerns lack basis. Describing the first story in this newspaper series as, “a slanted view, full of insinuations,” she added, “There was no reprimand from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). We are very open and transparent and explained everything. There has been no abuse of public money.” In response, Allen said simply, “We did not get all our questions answered satisfactorily and a national election was called and the PAC disbanded before we could investigate fully.” Even though the information is in the public domain, Nic Grianna declined a request for a breakdown of pensions for 136 Udaras former executives costing around 4.3 million euro this year, half of this year’s current budget. Efforts to contact retired executives Cathal MacSuibhne in Donegal and CEO Padraig O’hAolain through Udaras for comment, were unsuccessful.

With allegations of cronyism and clintelism tainting many public bodies, O’Cuinneagain said he did not experience conflicts of interest while Udaras chairperson. “My organisation, Oideas Gael, did not receive any money from Udaras so I certainly did not feel the need to excuse myself from board discussions on funding, nor did any of the other board members as they did not receive any money either.”

As the Udaras board meeting gets underway this morning, Sean O’Cuirean, a new member from Falcarragh, remains optimistic. “A good thing about this board is that there are a new set of eyes looking at the situation. Such fresh perspectives often result in greater success and money well spent.”

Published in Donegal News

New start for Udaras na Gaeltachta

With its national board due to meet for the first time as early as next week and its all-important job-creation remit still intact, a new start seems in order for Udaras na Gaeltachta.

But controversy still bedevils the beleaguered organization with criticisms of misspending of public money and investigations into alleged petty corruption by former board members in Donegal hanging over its head.

Over the next few weeks, the Donegal News analyses the Irish-language organisation, with emphasis on its operations here, in an effort to understand whether it has accomplished its tasks with adequate self-governance or whether various criticisms it faces are justified. And what, if anything, can be learned from the findings.

On a positive note, Anna Ni Ghallchoir, from Arranmore, the newly-appointed national chairperson of Udaras, told the Donegal News, “We have a very committed team with varied experience on the board now and I have every confidence their combined efforts will lead to success.”

Udaras

Sean O’Cuirean, Falcarragh solicitor, manager of Donegal Volunteer Center, and new board member, added, “Selection of board members was via open, competitive applications. I’m really looking forward to working with my colleagues to build dynamic Gaeltacht communities.”

The two, alongside ten other members, including Eunan MacCuinneagain, manager of Westbic, in Kilcar and a yet-to-be selected Donegal Council representative, face what Ni Ghallchoir termed “some daunting and challenging tasks ahead.”

At present, several former Donegal Udaras board members are under investigation by respective public ethics bodies for allegedly padding their expenses.

Concern over board and employee expenses accrued came to the fore over the last week when TDs at an Oireachtas Joint Committee were told by Minister’s Jimmy Deenihan and Dinny McGinley that half this year’s budget (€9.8 million in 2012) goes towards paying pensions of 136 former employees. Details are forthcoming as yet as to how much of the remaining budget goes into salaries and expenses of the 90 full-time employees and board members. Sinn Fein Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh said, “I nearly fell off the chair when I heard that,” adding, this raises serious concerns regarding the levels of monies being paid. Mean salaries at Udaras are around 80,000 euro.

In addition, it has been revealed that five Donegal board members were paid more than half a million euro in fees and expenses over the five-year period, 2004 to 2009. In this regard, board member O’Cuirean  said, “It is a major step forward that we can save half a million euro on fees and expenses by reducing the board while maintaining full geographical representation and that the money saved can go towards worthy community or entrepreneurial projects.”

Frank McBrearty, Mayor of Donegal, bemoans the delay in having a council member appointed to the board. “It is a sad reality that investigations into former board members’ expenses, including our council nominee, David Alcorn, is underway but that means we are short one person on the Udaras board. That does not benefit the community here. It must also be remembered, those being investigated are innocent until proven guilty. I can understand Minister McGinley’s not wanting to have egg on his face by appointing someone until things are clarified.

Udaras has come under criticism in the past by various national bodies in the past including the Dail’s own multi-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which examines the spending of public monies. Bernard Allen, former Fine Gael TD and head of the PAC, who launched an examination of Udaras financial affairs that helped lead to the board’s restructuring, told the Donegal News this week, “I recall being very concerned about the lack of transparency in the accounts of Udaras, especially in terms of travel expenses and extra payments, both for trips within Ireland and abroad.” Those trips included, it was claimed, to Las Vegas, for officials to meet with representatives of the Irish Development Authority (IDA).

Speaking to the Donegal News, Liam O’Cuinneagain, chairperson for five years, defended his and the record of Udaras, “There was a lot of paranoia at the time about whether public bodies and semi-state ones were spending public money properly, a lot of exaggeration and misinformation. We have done a relatively successful job in helping Gaeltacht communities.”

New board members are reluctant to talk about the controversies, saying they occurred before their appointment. Chairperson Ni Ghallchoir, said, “I’d rather not comment on what went on before as I was not in any way involved with Udaras then, but to my mind, utter transparency is a given. Every citizen is fully entitled to as much information as they wish about public bodies such as Udaras and as chairperson I will make sure they have complete access to the workings of the organisation.”

Falcarragh’s O’Cuirean added, “Everyone is aware of the lack of transparency in Ireland in the past on certain matters and the unfortunate results for the country as a whole. My commitment is that in future Udaras will be completely open in its dealings so that projects – whether in culture, language or economics – are selected on merit and need, not on who certain people know. Cronyism should play no part in its affairs.”

Published in Donegal News