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Council chief Anne Donaghy risked Irish language group Conradh na Gaeilge 'reputational damage' report finds

Anne Donaghy, chief executive of Mid and East Antrim council
Brendan Hughes

A COUNCIL chief executive has refused to say sorry after an independent report recommended she apologise for causing an Irish language group potential "reputational damage".

Conradh na Gaeilge (CnaG) made a formal complaint against Anne Donaghy following inaccurate comments she made at a meeting of Mid and East Antrim council.

Ms Donaghy claimed she had contacted CnaG and arranged a meeting but it had failed to turn up. CnaG strongly rejected the allegation.

An independent complaints investigation has found Ms Donaghy's remarks misrepresented CnaG, negatively impacted on the council discussion and "had the potential to cause reputational damage to CnaG".

The report said her comments were "ill-judged" and may have "inadvertently misled council".

It recommended that Ms Donaghy should "read out a statement at a public council meeting” to acknowledge her comments "may have inadvertently misled council and that she apologises to council and to Conradh na Gaeilge for any reputational damage her comments may have caused".

The report said CnaG's request for the record to be set straight publicly was "reasonable".

However, Ms Donaghy has not issued a public apology and has told CnaG she does not intend to do so.

The chief executive sent CnaG a copy of the report and a signed letter, in which she acknowledged her comments may have inadvertently misled councillors and caused unintended reputational damage.

But when CnaG asked whether a statement of apology would be read out at a council meeting, Ms Donaghy responded: "I have made a statement to you in writing and I do not intend to take any further steps."

Sinn Féin councillor Patrice Hardy branded it "deeply disappointing", while SDLP councillor Declan O'Loan said it showed "very bad judgement".

Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin, advocacy manager for CnaG, welcomed the findings of the report but said they were "surprised and disappointed" its recommendations have not been fully met.

The row erupted in February after councillors discussed whether to hold an event to mark Irish Language Week.

CnaG had written to the council asking it to consider providing funding for groups or organising its own event.

During the public discussion, Ms Donaghy defended the council's efforts to look at holding events for Seachtain na Gaeilge 2018.

She said: "I have done the best I can and I did contact Conradh na Gaeilge and had a meeting and sat at the meeting with two officers and they didn't turn up."

Instead of holding an Irish Language Week event, most councillors agreed to note the correspondence and refer CnaG to the council's grants scheme following a proposal by TUV councillor Timothy Gaston, who said it was "embarrassing they couldn't even turn up".

Mid and East Antrim council later said its mayor was still "committed to hosting an event to mark Irish Language Week".

An Irish News report on the dispute prompted DUP MP Ian Paisley to accuse the newspaper of "running a hate campaign" against Ms Donaghy.

It later emerged Ms Donaghy's comments related to a meeting in August last year arranged by a councillor to discuss a language policy for street signs.

In the complaints report, it was said the councillor accepted a dates mix-up and sent her apologies ­– and CnaG was unaware of the scheduled meeting.

The report found that because Ms Donaghy "did not provide any context", most people would presume she was referring to a meeting arranged directly with CnaG and regarding Irish Language Week 2018.

The report was completed in May and passed through a council committee in August. The minutes of the meeting were then approved at full council before the report and Ms Donaghy's cover letter were sent to CnaG last month.

Ms Hardy said the chief executive has not responded to her queries regarding the report.

"The chief executive needs to explain why she hasn't followed the recommendation," she said, describing it as "deeply disappointing and somewhat concerning".

"Mid and East Antrim council once again is in danger of presenting itself as a cold house for anything remotely Irish," she said.

Mr O'Loan said he was prevented from raising the report at last month's full council meeting, and was unimpressed with Ms Donaghy's response to his own written queries on the matter.

"The chief executive has diminished herself by avoiding a simple apology. Irish language issues are sensitive, and allowing this matter to fester shows very bad judgement, in my view," he said.

A Mid and East Antrim Borough Council spokesman said: "This matter has been dealt with in line with council policy."

He added: "Mid and East Antrim Borough Council worked closely with Conradh na Gaeilge to deliver a very successful event to mark Irish Language Week earlier this year."

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IT'S NOT the first time Mid and East Antrim council's chief executive Anne Donaghy has faced controversy.

Ms Donaghy has faced questions over the council paying £1,500 for a table at a DUP dinner hosted by Ian Paisley and featuring British government environment secretary Michael Gove.

The payment is being investigated by the Electoral Commission as a "donation" to the North Antrim MP as under electoral rules, councils are not considered "permissible donors".

The council has insisted the money was paid to the hotel where last year's event was held.

But some councillors have complained that they were not properly informed of the DUP's role when Ms Donaghy proposed the event.

At the time it was presented to councillors as a "major business in the community event", with Ms Donaghy saying it would be a "chance to shape forthcoming agriculture policies".

Last year SDLP councillor Declan O'Loan said Ms Donaghy contacted him to say she was making a complaint after a search of his emails – which Mr O'Loan said were searched without his consent or knowledge.

In October last year Ms Donaghy also faced criticism after claiming that UVF flags put on display during a loyalist band contest were "historic and not illegal".

And in September last year, a court heard Ms Donaghy confronted her elderly father alongside two of her siblings in a bid to force him to sign over ownership of his property.

The allegation was made by her father Johnny Fee in a case against his son-in-law James Anthony McBride (52), of Ballybeg Road, Coalisland, Co Tyrone.

McBride was found guilty of assault and threatening to “put a bullet behind the ear”.

Following the case, Mid and East Antrim council was forced to deny involvement in an incident where a freelance reporter told of receiving a call from someone posing as a BBC journalist attempting to find out details about the case.

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