Thursday 23 February 2017

Shock over €40m bill for queen and Obama visits

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Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor

THE bill for the visits of Queen Elizabeth and US President Barack Obama is now close to €40m -- almost double the previous estimate.

Some TDs reacted with shock yesterday when Justice Minister Alan Shatter revealed the cost of the "massive garda effort" -- which accounted for €36m of the final bill. It prompted complaints that the security operation was "over-the-top"-- and that some of the money would have been better spent on reversing special needs cutbacks.

But at the Oireachtas Justice Committee yesterday, Mr Shatter strongly defended the cost of getting thousands of gardai to provide security for the queen and Mr Obama.

"The vast scale of the security operation put in place by An Garda Siochana was commensurate with the very real security threats involved," he said.

Mr Shatter also said there was a risk of enormous damage to the country's reputation if anything had gone wrong during the visits -- which passed off successfully without any major incidents.

"It is important that the cost is balanced against the substantial long-term benefits to the country in terms of favourable press coverage and 'free advertising', in particular through the international televised media," he said.

The Government has put the value of international media coverage at €300m and has said the gardai and the Defence Forces "did us proud" during the two visits.

Gardai had all their leave and rest days cancelled during the visit and were required to work shifts of up to 18 hours. The bill for their work includes overtime, accommodation costs, catering and the purchase of security equipment.

But Independent Dublin North Central TD Finian McGrath said he felt that Mr Shatter and garda management had mounted an "over-the-top" security operation when only a small number of people posed a threat.

"It's always easy to find €36m for these visits but when I'm looking for €7m for special needs it's always a big deal," he said.

Astounded

Mr McGrath said he was absolutely astounded that the security costs were much bigger than previously thought. Taoiseach Enda Kenny had told the Dail last month that he expected the bill for the two visits to be around €20m.

But the €36m garda bill has been much higher than expected. There is also a €1.8m bill for the Defence Forces' security operation; a €600,000 bill for organising Mr Obama's College Green event; and a €280,000 bill for Department of Foreign Affairs staff working on the visit.

The Government is now going to have to find additional money to pay the €36m garda security bill because it had not been provided for in the €2.3bn garda budget.

There is a further shortfall in the garda budget because the previous government assumed that the numbers of gardai would drop from 14,500 to 13,500 this year. But Mr Shatter said the average number of retirements from the force was only 350-500 each year.

"I don't know how my predecessor as Minister for Justice (Dermot Ahern) could have anticipated when he was doing the deal with the IMF and EU that an extra 500 to 600 guards would automatically magically retire this year," he said.

Mr Shatter said he also planned to review the Criminal Assets Bureau to see if he could extend its remit. He has already had a discussion with the relevant EU Commissioner about a legal framework to allow for the seizure of assets in one state which have been accumulated as a result of criminality in another state.

"I think this is an area where a lot of work can be done at a European Union level," he said.

Irish Independent

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