Saturday 19 January 2019

Watchdog calls for transparency over Irish Presidential spending

The chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says it is important that information is released before the election.

Aras an Uachtarain, home of the Irish President (Niall Carson/PA)
Aras an Uachtarain, home of the Irish President (Niall Carson/PA)

By Aoife Moore, Press Association

The chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says it is important that information about presidential spending be released before the election.

The PAC has decided to examine the expenditure related to the Office of the President next week, in defiance of the state’s top civil servant.

PAC Chairman, Fianna Fail TD Sean Fleming said on Thursday that people should be able to draw their own conclusions before they vote.

I think its important that the information be put out before people go to vote and make their own judgment Sean Fleming

“It will be a bit like what we learn under Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, that way the information will be out there and the public can make their own conclusion.

“I think its important that the information be put out before people go to vote and make their own judgment.”

Mr Fleming added that if the examination did not go ahead, it could cause members of the public to cast aspersions on the expenditure, which could be damaging to the Office of the President.

The PAC plan for the meeting to take place next Tuesday, a day before the Presidential election campaign officially kicks off.

President Michael D Higgins is seeking re-election (Liam McBurney/PA)

At the meeting of the committee on Thursday TDs debated at length about the probe going ahead amid an election campaign.

However, Mr Fleming, stated that the committee doesn’t stop working during an election.

The majority of committee members agreed in a vote that the meeting to examine the expenses should go ahead.

The State’s top civil servant, secretary general to the government Martin Fraser, has already written to the committee that such a meeting could be “unconstitutional” and could be seen as political interference.

He  also questioned why the committee is only now scrutinising presidential spending, seven years after Michael D Higgins was elected.

“Given that we’re now in the middle of an election I think the Public Accounts Committee, in my view, should desist and in the coolness of the aftermath of an election,” he said.

As the accounting officer for the President’s office is the Secretary General to the Government, Mr Fraser would be required to appear before the committee.

Mr Fleming confirmed Mr Fraser will be asked to account for how and where money was spent, but will not be able to answer why or who made the decisions.

No questions about the President himself will be permitted.

Michael D Higgins at the National Ploughing Championships (Liam McBurney/PA)

Labour’s Alan Kelly raised concerns that no matter how well the committee is chaired what’s said in committee could be detrimental to Mr Higgins’ re-election campaign.

“The fact is; there is campaign going on live at the moment, in the committee next week comments will be made and you can’t unsay what is said, and it will have political consequences be it positive or negative for any candidate.”

Mr Kelly’s request that the committee ask for legal advice before going ahead with the meeting was rejected.

A recent analysis of spending connected to the Presidential Office during Michael D Higgins’ time at the helm showed spending of more than 55m euro between Aras an Uachtarain and other State agencies like the Office of Public Works and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

There have been unconfirmed reports that President Michael D Higgins stayed in luxury Geneva hotel, the Beau-Rivage, when he visited the city to address the International Labour Organisation.

The issue was first raised by Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell who said he had received information that Mr Higgins stayed at the hotel, where suites are advertised for euro3,000 a night over the summer.

Mr Fleming confirmed that the committee had received several requests to examine the President’s expenses.

Records relating to the presidency are exempt from Freedom of Information (FOI) laws.

Press Association

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section