Barrett flew business class to China as TDs in economy
CEANN Comhairle Sean Barrett and his private secretary flew business class on a recent Oireachtas trip to China, while other TDs and officials flew economy.
Mr Barrett and his private secretary, Brendan Conroy, both flew business class at a cost of €3,035 each to China, including a stopover for business in Dubai.
But other TDs and senators – including Paddy Burke, the Cathoirleach of the Seanad – all flew economy, which cost between €850 and €1,110.
Documents released to the Irish Independent under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) also show the Clerk of the Dail, Kieran Coughlan, sent Mr Barrett a letter in which he said "it is difficult to justify expenditure on outgoing delegations" from certain Oireachtas funds.
The relationship between Mr Coughlan, the most senior civil servant in Leinster House, and Mr Barrett has deteriorated, and the pair had a row at a recent meeting of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, which runs Leinster House. The row centred on how a successor for Mr Coughlan, who retires this month, will be chosen.
They also had a testy exchange of letters over the China trip, where the only costs paid for by the taxpayer were the cost of the flights, since the rest of the bill was footed by the Chinese government. Mr Barrett and Mr Burke were invited by the Chinese ambassador to Ireland to bring a delegation to Beijing.
Mr Barrett in turn invited a handful of Oireachtas committee chairmen, as well as a representative of the opposition, which was Fianna Fail TD Dara Calleary. In total, four TDs, one senator and two officials, as well as Mr Barrett travelled.
A spokeswoman for the Oireachtas said business class flights were allowed on trips more than nine hours long, and would be "par for the course" for Mr Barrett, since he was at the equivalent level of a government minister.
But the TDs opted for economy class to save money from their own funds. Each committee gets an annual allowance of approximately €11,000 for travel. The spokewoman also said Mr Conroy's travel had been approved internally in the Oireachtas.
The pair also stopped over in Dubai on the way out and back, and had meetings at each stopover. The Ceann Comhairle was invited to visit the speaker of the Dubai parliament, and paid for one night of the four nights in Dubai from his own pocket.
The dispute between Mr Barrett and Mr Coughlan – which was only in an exchange of letters since they never sat down to discuss it – stemmed from how the payments for the flights should be accounted for – even though they would ultimately be paid for by the Oireachtas either way.
Mr Coughlan said: "I am making these points for the record with a view to reducing the significant reputational risk for the Houses, Office of the Ceann Comhairle and the proposed members of the delegation".
"In the current climate it is difficult to justify expenditure on outgoing delegations in the normal course but this would be exacerbated if regular and appropriate funding streams . . . are in effect bypassed."
Mr Barrett said this was "not the most appropriate structures in this instance", and pointed out the delegation had been invited by the Chinese government.
Mr Barret also tartly wrote in his reply letter to Mr Coughlan: "I had intended discussing this matter with you personally, but unfortunately, while I requested such a meeting, due to some misunderstanding, this never occurred.
"I regret that you felt it necessary to write to me in the manner in which you did, when a short meeting, which I had requested, could have cleared up any misunderstandings."