Sunday 22 April 2018

Why the ambassador's parties are utterly flash

While Ireland's costs and national debt mount, the State continues to sit on its millionaire-style luxurious residencies and properties abroad

AS our national debt mounts up by tens of thousands of euro every minute and Nama takes control of more and more land and properties by the day, the Sunday Independent has learnt that the State is sitting on a sizeable portfolio of foreign embassy properties worth about €114m at the last valuation.

The news emerges only weeks after this newspaper revealed that the Government has splurged €30m since 2007 on refurbishment work to both Irish embassies and the residences of Irish ambassadors abroad.

While a number of embassy properties were bought in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, between 2006 and 2008 the State spent €9.47m on the purchase of five residences for ambassadors in Ankara, Brasilia, Ljubljana, Mexico and Pretoria. The most expensive of these was the Ljubljana residence, which cost €1,742,757.

We also shelled out for two chanceries -- which house offices and usually meeting and function rooms -- in Strasbourg and The Hague, at a cost of €3.2m.

In addition to this questionable spending, perhaps we should also ask if we really still need an ambassador in Belfast: his house was valued at €2.59m in 2005.

Some of the foreign embassy properties that we own are even more valuable. Topping the list is a mansion close to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on Avenue Foch, one of the city's most expensive streets.

A functioning chancery and ambassador's residence, it was purchased for €192,946 in 1954 according to information from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

Last valued at €25m in 2005, if it was put on the market today the State would undoubtedly book a decent and much-needed profit.

However, although we all own this luxurious property, unless you happen to call in if on holiday in the French capital, the DFA seems rather reluctant to show taxpayers just how much we are spoiling the ambassador Paul Kavanagh -- as its website features just one photo of the outside of the building.

This is in marked contrast to our neighbours in Britain who allow their taxpayers to view plenty of photos of the interior and exterior of their similarly grand ambassadors' residences in Paris and Rome, leaving us to wonder at what kind of lavish living we might be funding.

We got a taste of this when this newspaper revealed last month that, in 2009, despite the introduction of painful public spending cuts here, €4.4m was spent on a 15-month revamp of the ambassador to Canada's eight-bedroom pile in an affluent area of Ottawa.

The 24,000sq ft residence has features that some millionaires would envy: a gym, sauna, jacuzzi, wine cellar, art gallery, recreation room, two powder rooms and a 2,000sq ft master suite.

We may be paying for a similarly lavish lifestyle at the Holy See combined chancery and ambassador's residence in Rome. Our second most valuable embassy property, it was bought by the State for €203,158 in 1946. When last valued in 2005, Villa Spada, which dates from the 1630s, was worth €16m.

Surrounded by manicured gardens, with a fountain in the middle of a gravel drive, and with balustrade-lined steps leading up to the front doors, the three-storey property also has ornate carved stonework on its front exterior wall.

According to figures recently revealed by the Sunday Independent, €1.4m has been spent refurbishing Villa Spada over the past five years and €3m has been spent running it.

The Vatican will not accept the accreditation of an ambassador who is also our ambassador to Italy, meaning we have to maintain and run a second separate embassy in Rome costing millions of euro a year.

Perhaps the State should simply put Villa Spada on the market and lease a less lavish property or ask the Catholic Church to either buy it or put its hand in its pocket to pay for the cost of running it.

Our third most valuable property is our ambassador's residence in Madrid. Purchased for €53,079 in 1964, it was valued at €6m in 2005, according to information from the DFA.

Fourth on the list is our ambassador's residence in the affluent Kalorama district of Washington DC, where the neighbours include former secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld and the French ambassador.

Purchased by the State in 1964 for €130,000, the opulent three-storey red-brick house, built in 1916, was valued at €4.18m in 2005. According to US public records, the 7,800sq ft property has nine bedrooms and eight bathrooms.

Other valuable properties include our ambassador's residence in Berlin, valued at €4m, and one in Athens valued at €3.5m. Meanwhile the ambassador to Switzerland's residence in Berne was valued at €2.58m in 2005.

Sunday Independent

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