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Friday 22 August 2014

Hogan feels heat on return from €30,000 trip

MAEVE SHEEHAN

Published 09/12/2012 | 05:00

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Desert mission's costs could have reversed cut in respite care grants for 92 families

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MINISTER for the Environment Phil Hogan has swapped the searing heat of Doha for the chill winds of home, returning today from a week-long trip that is expected to cost close to €30,000.

The bill is enough to reverse a €325 cut to the €1,700 respite care grant – introduced by last week's Budget while Mr Hogan was in Qatar – for 92 families.

Mr Hogan and his ministerial entourage of nine spent a week at the UN talks toiling at back-to-back round table sessions, bilateral meetings and political briefing.

But the lasting image of the jaunt will be the Irish Daily Mail's pictures of the minister relaxing over drinks in his five-star hotel bar with his press adviser Yvonne Hyland, a former Fine Gael press officer.

The photographs were published on Budget Day, hours before the public was to discover the extent of the tax increases emanating from his department on cars and homes. They were reportedly taken at the end of a long day of back-to-back meetings.

Meanwhile, the burdened citizens back home who are paying for Mr Hogan's trip were counting the cost of his latest austerity measures.

For a Government bent on selling a message of austerity, the timing was poor. The department said the costs of the trip came to €5,000 for flights and €16,000 for hotel accommodation. On top of the cost of flights and accommodation, the group of 10 would be entitled to claim foreign subsistence rates intended to cover any food, drinks and other costs incurred by Mr Hogan and his civil servants while abroad.

Daily subsistence of about €100 over seven days adds €7,000 to the bill, bringing the final cost closer to €30,000.

Although the sum is relatively modest in the scheme of Ireland's debt problems, €30,000 is enough to reverse the €325 cut to the €1,700 respite care grant for 92 families or to extend the newly-cut €1,375 grant to an additional 21 families.

The department said it had "no response" to the publication of photographs last week showing Mr Hogan and Ms Hyland relaxing over a drink.

One of the few TDs to query Mr Hogan's absence

ANALYSIS PAGE 28

from the Dail on Budget week was Sinn Fein's Aengus O Snodaigh.

Mr Hogan and his ministerial entourage were in Doha to bone up on international environmental issues in advance of Ireland's assuming the EU Presidency next month.

He was accompanied by his private secretary, Eddie Kiernan, Ms Hyland, and John McCarthy, the assistant secretary at the department's environment division. Six other officials were also in the group but his department did not name them. Some of the party travelled in advance, no doubt to get in early to prepare the ground. They flew economy on flights from Dublin to Doha via Abu Dhabi – at a cost of around €500 each.

"The numbers attending (Mr Hogan and nine officials) on the department's part are being kept to the minimum necessary to allow us to be able to cover multiple parallel tracks of meetings and to prepare us for the Presidency role that we will have to discharge from January to June, including leading for the EU at an inter-sessional meeting in Bonn,with the possibility of a second inter-sessional also being mooted," a Department spokesman explained.

Mr Hogan and his officials stayed at the Kempinksi Hotel in Doha, which offers a range of luxury suites and "sky villas" with "Arabian sun peaking through the floor-to-ceiling windows."

But far from living it up in solo luxury, the department staff doubled up to save money. A spokesman said they shared "what are, in effect, two-bedroom apartments".

Mr Hogan, meanwhile, had what the department called his own "one-bedroom unit" but which was reportedly one of the suites touted by Kempinski on its website, on the 49th floor, complete with four bathrooms, a kitchen and panoramic sea views.

"In both cases the accommodation is the cheapest of three available categories of accommodation in the hotel," the spokesman said, coming in at a relatively modest €149 a night

Although Qatar governs itself according to strict Sharia law, luxury hotels are allowed to sell alcohol to non-Muslims.

The department claimed the delegation was among the smaller groups attending the international conference. Almost 200 nations attended the climate change talks which were aimed at negotiating a new international treaty on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2015. Mr Hogan will be the minister leading the EU's work on climate change when Ireland takes over the EU presidency in January.

And it was necessary to send nine officials to various parallel meetings going on at any one time.

During the seven days, Mr Hogan gave one three-minute address to a UN plenary session in which he spoke about the need for urgent action on climate change.

He also promised delegates "an ambitious environmental agenda" when Ireland takes over the Presidency of the European Council in January.

According to a schedule released by his department, he spent much of the week attending daily co-ordination meetings with 27 EU ministers; bi-lateral talks with EU ministers and the UN; ministerial round-table talks; and multiple "bilateral talks" with small island states, with Russia and with "least developed countries" and with non-government agencies.

He also attended a ministerial breakfast hosted by Mary Robinson.

Sunday Independent

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