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Thursday 30 March 2017

Ministers celebrated St Patrick's on cheap

Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

THE Government has more than halved the cost of the annual exodus abroad of ministers for St Patrick's Day, new figures obtained by the Irish Independent reveal.

Last month's festivities are set to cost taxpayers in the region of €230,000 when all the bills are in, compared to the €523,000 racked up just two years ago.

Records reveal how, this year, ministers were forced to ditch a whole host of costly perks which would have been the norm during the Celtic Tiger years.

Luxury hotel rooms, limousine hire, VIP airport lounges and first-class flights became a thing of the past.

Instead our politicians, for the most part, stayed in cut-price hotel rooms, eschewed lavish entertainment and used embassy cars and public transport to keep costs down.

New documents reveal 17 of the 22 ministerial trips taken last month had a combined cost of just under €200,000.

Records for the remaining five ministerial trips have yet to be released but the combined cost of these is not expected to be more than €35,000.

The cutbacks came after a wave of public outrage over the amounts spent by ministers on foreign travel in recent years.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen instructed ministers to tighten their belts ahead of this year's visits.

Correspondence seen by the Irish Independent revealed how civil servants haggled with hotels and other service providers to bring down prices for many trips. The thriftiest of the lot was Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, whose only expense claimed on a visit to Paris was a €182 plane ticket.

Mr Ahern paid the cost of bringing his wife on the visit and used embassy vehicles and public transport to get around.

European Affairs Minister Dick Roche managed to stay in a Moscow hotel free of charge, while several ministers stayed in economy-rate rooms.

The most dramatic example of cost-cutting came from Mr Cowen himself, whose visit to Chicago, Washington and San Jose cost less than a third of former Taoiseach's Bertie Ahern's final US jaunt in 2008.

Luxurious

On that occasion, taxpayers forked out €65,000 so Mr Ahern could address the Joint Houses of Congress.

During the visit, Mr Ahern stayed in the €2,250-a-night presidential suite of the luxurious Mayflower Hotel and ran up a €16,650 limo bill in just two days in the US capital.

In contrast, the Washington hotel used on Mr Cowen's visit cost €189-a-night, while the car-hire bill was a quarter of Mr Ahern's.

The total cost of the visit, which involved 25 separate engagements, was €21,800.

The costliest of this year's trips involved jaunts to the Far East, Australia and New Zealand.

Health Minister Mary Harney's visit to New Zealand cost over €34,000; Enterprise Minister Batt O'Keeffe's trip to Korea and Japan cost almost €30,000, while junior trade minister Billy Kelleher's journey to Australia cost just over €25,000. Much of the cost of these trips was accounted for by the use of business-class flights, which were allowed because of the long-haul nature of the trips.

Some of the trip costs were revealed on foot of Freedom of Information requests, while others were released following Dail questions by Fine Gael TD Jim O'Keeffe. Mr O'Keeffe said this year's costs "only served to show how wasteful ministers were in the past". It is "important in these times that the costs involved are reasonable," he said.

Records relating to Transport Minister Noel Dempsey's visit to the US, Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith's trip to Italy, and Social Protection Minister Eamon O Cuiv's visit to Poland are among those yet to be released.

Irish Independent

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