Saturday 20 January 2018

PAC chief, his wife and the €22,000 trip funded by taxpayer

Kenny in unprecedented attack on John McGuinness

Fiach Kelly and Lise Hand in Rome

PUBLIC Accounts Committee chairman John McGuinness is under growing pressure to step down from his post as it emerged that a St Patrick's Day ministerial trip to Seattle with his wife and one official cost the taxpayer almost €22,000.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny launched an unprecedented attack on the embattled chair of the Dail spending watchdog – a role usually independent of party politics – and called on Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin to "reflect" on his decision to appoint Mr McGuinness to the post.

Mr Kenny and Mr Martin clashed publicly over Mr McGuinness's claims the taxpayer should pay for ministers' spouses to travel abroad and Mr Martin is standing firm behind his TD.

The appointment of the PAC chairman is in the gift of the main opposition party. However, a spokesman for Mr Martin said he still had ethical concerns about ministers bringing their spouses or partners on state trips, as Mr McGuinness had argued for.

Mr McGuinness has insisted it was always his intention to pay his wife's way on state trips, but argued there was a "strong case" for the taxpayer to fund the travel in some cases.

PAC members expressed concern about the damage being done to the committee over the revelations, with some calling on Mr McGuinness to consider his position.

It also led to calls for his resignation from Independent TD Finian McGrath, with Public Transport Minister Alan Kelly calling Mr McGuinness's position "questionable" and saying it "should be considered".

It is open to the PAC to table a motion of no confidence in Mr McGuinness.

Sasa Kirkpatrick, Margaret McGuinness, Mr McGuinness and Ken Kirkpatrick attend an event during the Seattle trip
John McGuinness (left) and John Jnr hold Andrew McGuinness aloft in an election celebration.

The Irish Independent yesterday revealed that Mr McGuinness tried to bring his wife with him on foreign trips while he was a junior minister in 2007 – and argued that the taxpayer should foot the bill for ministerial spouses to travel abroad.

He said he never wanted the taxpayer to pay for his wife, but admitted there were some occasions when the State paid for her to accompany him on ministerial trips.

He said the "state position" was that St Patrick's Day trips were funded by the taxpayer, and Dail records from 2009 show his trip to Seattle in 2008, when he was accompanied by his wife Margaret and an official, cost the State €21,784. He did not return calls on it last night and it is unclear if any of the money for the trip was repaid. It is not known how long the Seattle trip lasted.

Since all three were paid for by the taxpayer, it worked out at more than €7,000 per head.

"My wife travelled with me on three occasions in 18 months which the State paid for but the protocol around those trips was that the partner or the wife in my case would attend," Mr McGuinness said earlier yesterday.

He said one of the trips took in Edinburgh and Canada, but did not mention Seattle.

"Every minister would travel, not every minister but most nominated ministers, and I was a nominated minister (that) would travel on St Patrick's Day and they would bring their spouse or partner and that partner or spouse would be paid for by the State."

Another junior minister in the Department of Enterprise, Michael Ahern, also took his wife away to Birmingham. An official accompanied the pair, and the entire trip cost €3,6778.

Mr Martin – then senior minister in the department – and Billy Kelleher, another junior minister, did not bring their wives.

And documents released under Freedom of Information to the Irish Independent show Mr Martin insisted he paid for his wife on St Patrick's Day trips when she did travel.

Mr Martin also had "strong ethical views" about bringing spouses on ministerial trips. Even as his spokesman insisted Mr Martin still held the same views now, the Fianna Fail leader backed Mr McGuinness – describing his claims as personal views.

Mr Kenny, speaking from Rome where he was meeting Italian prime minister Enrico Letta, called the revelations "damaging" and said it "smacks of traces of the abuse and arrogance that we inherited after 14 years of mismanagement".

"I think it's an issue now that the Fianna Fail leader has to reflect on," Mr Kenny said.

"I know I'm in Rome, and the old saying is that Caesar's wife has to be above reproach. This is the Public Accounts Committee, it is a matter of credibility in respect of politics and accountability."

Mr McGuinness accused Mr Kenny of undermining the PAC, and called his comments "a disgrace".

Mr Martin was quick to defend his Carlow-Kilkenny TD, and said he had watched "with growing alarm" a campaign he claimed had developed "to undermine the position of one of the final and most important elements of independent Oireachtas scrutiny of this Government, namely the position of Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee".

"No one, from any corner of politics or the media has questioned John McGuinness's performance as Chair of the PAC committee in this regard," Mr Martin said, adding queries on Mr McGuinness's position "reek of political opportunism" and reflected a government agenda.

Fine Gael PAC member Simon Harris was the first to criticise Mr McGuinness, saying the ongoing controversy "now risks undermining the work of PAC".

"This distraction is not sustainable," the Wicklow TD said. "The chairman needs to think long and hard about his role."

PAC vice-chairman Kieran O'Donnell said he was concerned for the committee's integrity, and called on Mr McGuinness to make a full statement at its next meeting on Thursday.

Another member, Labour's Robert Dowds, also said the chairman of the PAC needed to be "above reproach".

Independent TD and PAC member Shane Ross – who fought with Mr McGuinness for the position of chairman – said it was wrong for spouses of ministers to travel at state expense "in virtually any circumstances".

"It is impossible to justify," the Dublin South TD said. "Holding this misguided opinion is in my view totally inappropriate. Obviously if any minister has contravened this principle by his actions and taken his spouse on a junket at taxpayers' expense, that is a very serious matter."

European Affairs Minister Lucinda Creighton called Mr McGuinness's comments "bizarre".

Irish Independent

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