Sunday 18 March 2018

How our globe-trotting officials spent €200k on trips

Shanghai was just one of the cities visited by high-flying councillors
Shanghai was just one of the cities visited by high-flying councillors
Lighthouse along picturesque waterfront of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada, which is twinned with Monaghan

Paul Melia and Shane Phelan

CITY and county councillors spent more than €200,000 travelling to China, the US, Middle East and across Europe over a two-year period, records obtained by the Irish Independent show.

Some 143 local politicians took trips at the taxpayer's expense – which included meetings to discuss potential town twinnings, broadband, political studies conferences and trips around St Patrick's Day.

Among the largest bills incurred during 2012 and 2013 was for €33,000, spent by 14 members of Dublin City Council, the country's largest local authority. They included official trips to San Jose in the US, with one in March 2012 for three councillors – Fine Gael's Naoise O Muiri and Ruairi McGinley, who is now an Independent, and Labour's Lucy McRoberts – costing €7,600.

A second trip to San Jose the following year for Independent members Paddy Bourke and Mannix Flynn cost €3,151, while Labour's Andrew Montague combined a trip to San Jose with a stop in Mexico City at a cost of €1,822.

But it wasn't just councillors in Dublin who were busy travelling.

In Meath, almost €9,400 was spent over the two years for councillors who travelled to London, New York, North Carolina, Brussels, and Guiyang and Shanghai in China.

In Cork County Council, one of the largest in the country and which 10 councillors undertake foreign travel, destinations included Brussels, Maryland in the US, New York, Lille in France and Chicago.

In all, more than €13,100 was spent over the two years. Limerick City Council spent almost €9,800 sending delegations to the Far East, Slovenia and the US in 2012. One trip, where two councillors went to Nanjing in China that March, cost the council €3,600.

Fine Gael Councillor Jim Long, who was the mayor at the time, said government officials from the Chinese city had been looking at Shannon Airport and Foynes for transport and export links. Three delegations have visited Limerick in the past two years, with Limerick sending local politicians to Nanjing twice.

While the passenger and export hubs have yet to materialise, Mr Long defended the visits. He said there had been a rise in the number of Chinese students studying at the University of Limerick and businesses have also been able to exhibit at trade shows in Nanjing.

"The potential has yet to be reached. We haven't even opened the door yet, but they have already shown they are positively disposed to doing business in Limerick," he said.

The council also sent Mr Long to Spokane in Washington State, which is a sister city of Limerick, in May 2012. The week-long trip cost almost €2,600 and involved a stop-over in New York.

He was also part of a four- councillor delegation which signed a co-operation agreement in Zasavje, Slovenia, at an international tourism conference. Most of the €4,100 cost of the trip was met by the Slovenian government.

The travel bills were not just incurred in the country's larger local authorities.

One of the largest bills was from councillors in Monaghan, where 11 councillors left the country over the period studied. The council has 20 members.

The total bill for 2013 was €6,774, with mayor Hugh McElvaney (FG), deputy mayor Noel Keelan (SF) and Paudge Connolly (Ind) visiting Prince Edward Island in Canada in 2012, which is twinned with Monaghan.

Return trips were made by other members the following year, and also to Miramichi in Canada which is also twinned with the county. In 2012, some €10,534 was spent.

In Roscommon, the total spent was €6,000 across the two years, with trips to New York, London, Manchester and Birmingham undertaken.

In Galway City, more than €17,000 was spent as nine councillors racked up the air miles travelling to Lorient, Milwaukee, Seattle, Menlo Park in California and London.

Former councillor, and now senator, Hildegarde Naughton (FG) was among the most travelled. The Mayor of Galway between 2011 and 2012, she incurred bills totalling €5,698 in 2012 alone travelling to Sanya in China in February (€2,866) and Miami, Florida, the following May (€1,959).

Many city and county councillors traverse the globe around for St Patrick's Day with trips to New York and London, but they also attend functions throughout the year.

Town twinning, and exploring establishing formal connections, is also a priority. Some 15 councillors travelled to the district of Hohenlohekreis in Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany, which is twinned with Limerick County, at a cost of €6,750 in 2012.

Other twinning visits included Barcelona by Dublin City Council, Coventry by Cork City councillors, Lorient by Galway City, El Prat in Spain by Fingal, and Maryland in Washington by Cork County councillors.

Mayo County Council is actively seeking towns to form closer links with, as councillors spent €1,248 in 2012 travelling to Marijampole in Lithuania and Luzinay in France to discuss twinning.

Any foreign travel must be approved by a vote of members and some local authorities did not approve trips abroad. They included Wicklow, Kildare, North Tipperary, Laois, South Dublin and Westmeath.

Other fact-finding missions included the World Tourism Cities Federation Expo in Bejing, China, the One Young World global summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, and a diversity summit in Korea.

A trip on intercultural cities to Hammatsu in Japan, European Cities Against Drugs in Stockholm, Sweden, a political studies seminar in Cardiff, Wales, an Airport Regions conferences in the Czech Republic and Germany and conferences on climate change are also included in the total spend of €205,237 over 2012 and 2013.

Irish Independent

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