Wednesday 18 July 2018

The Irish political Rich List - lifting the lid on money and power

A research project, by the Sunday Independent has revealed the wealth of those whom we have elected to serve us, writes Philip Ryan

The Sunday Independent is today publishing a first-of-its-kind Political Rich List.

A month-long research project into our politicians' assets has produced a comprehensive list which aims to gives voters a unique insight into the estimated net worth of the TDs whom they elected to parliament.

Central to the wealth of many of our long-serving national representatives are their lucrative public service pensions, which would cost millions of euro to buy in the private sector.

Many politicians are also privately wealthy through shareholdings, mini-property empires or ownership of vast swathes of farmland.

For the first time, this newspaper is also revealing the State-supported farming grants paid to TDs, including three ministers (Page 18).

We are not suggesting politicians are not entitled to the assets they have accumulated over the course of, or before, their political careers.

However, the 158 men and women of Dail Eireann make decisions that affect every aspect of our lives, whether it is in relation to our health, housing or finances.

For much of the last decade, those decisions resulted in our incomes being substantially reduced. Things have picked up. But now those decisions, or lack thereof, mean the vast majority of the country is priced out of the property market.

That is why voters deserve, at the very least, a glimpse into the financial standing of the politicians whom they elected to make decisions which will affect their household budgets.

Most of our TDs are never off the clock. Their telephones are 24-hour helplines for the sick, the poor and the stranded. They also have to face the ultimate job interview every five years - if they are lucky enough to get that far.

There are plenty of career politicians but it is a dying trade. Those who do dedicate their lives to politics are rewarded for their public service with pension pots that a private sector worker would envy.

Most public representatives had professional lives before they entered politics. They may have been teachers, accountants, lawyers, business owners and farmers. With all this in mind, we should still remember that we pay their salaries and their pensions.

They are accountable to us - the taxpayers of Ireland.

That is why they are required to give details of their properties, land, businesses and shareholdings.

The Register of Members' Interests is published annually on the Houses of the Oireachtas's official website.

It is far from prescriptive and information provided by each TD is nowhere near uniform. It is also not policed and politicians are taken at their word.

The Sunday Independent decided to look deeper into the details provided by our lawmakers.

A trawl of the register and other publicly available resources by this newspaper, along with financial analysts Karl Deeter and Simon Farrell, found significant differences in how TDs fill out the statutory declaration.

Some TDs are happy to give detailed information of their assets and interests, while others seem to believe less is more.

This is not to suggest that politicians are flagrantly breaking the law by purposely providing inaccurate information. Rather, they are not required to provide precise details of assets and interests which, in certain scenarios, could present them with a conflict of interest.

Take the many TDs who own shares in multinational companies.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe transferred his shares in international drinks company Diageo to his wife when it was pointed out to him by the Sunday Independent that the holding could be seen as a conflict.

It could still be argued that transferring the shares to his wife has done very little to remove the conflict.

The minister also has shares in consumer goods conglomerate Proctor & Gamble. We do not know how big a shareholding he has.

The rules state that politicians do not have to declare anything below €13,000.

For instance, if a minister held €10,000 of shares in 10 companies (a €100,000 shares portfolio) we wouldn't know because they wouldn't have to declare it.

Education Minister Richard Bruton is, we estimate, the third richest TD, with a potential value of just under €5m. This includes an estimated €117,000 of shares (seven different holdings multiplied by €13,000) .

Within that portfolio, he has shares in both Bank of Ireland and AIB - two institutions in which the Government also holds shares.

Mr Bruton's spokesperson said: "While the minister cannot discuss matters relating to Cabinet proceedings, he is guided by the Cabinet handbook in relation to any potential conflicts of interest."

He is not alone. Transport Minister Shane Ross has a holding in Bank of Ireland, among other shares which he holds, including shares in Independent News & Media - the company that publishes the Sunday Independent.

Sean Haughey, the son of former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, has the largest declared share portfolio, with an estimated value of €351,000 calculated based on the methodology outlined by Karl Deeter elsewhere on this page.

Mr Haughey has shares in everything from tech giants Amazon and Facebook to international food company Nestle. He is also an executive director in Larchfield Securities, which is an unlimited company described as a 'family holding company' in Mr Haughey's declaration.

We don't know any more about the company because it is unlimited, meaning it is not required to publish detailed financial statements.

But again, Mr Haughey is doing nothing wrong and breaking no rules. TDs are free to be directors of companies which don't need to produce annual accounts.

Michael Lowry only recently changed his refrigeration business, Streamline Enterprises, to an unlimited company. Mr Lowry, whom we estimate to be Dail's highest-valued TD financially, was doing quite well in the refrigeration game before he decided to change the status of his company. We estimate the company was worth around €2m when it last filed accounts three years ago.

Another aspect of the rules of declaration which leaves a lot of be desired as far as consistency is concerned is around land and property.

TDs, for the most part, do accurately declare the property they own and abide by the rules set out by the Oireachtas.

However, some give more details than others.

Take Tanaiste Simon Coveney. Mr Coveney's declaration says he has one rental property in Cork, which he is currently letting.

It does not mention that the Foreign Affairs Minister also owns a family home in Cork and a Dublin city centre apartment. He does not have to declare these two properties because he lives in both.

But still it's a substantial property portfolio for a politician who was once housing minister.

Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny, on the other hand, lists every single one of his properties, including the Dublin apartment he stays in during the days that the Dail is sitting.

There are similar diferences around farmland.

Some TDs give the size of their land down to the last acre, while others merely mention the townland where their fields are situated.

Again, no-one is breaking any rules. It's just some TDs are more transparent than others. TDs are reluctant to give details of their assets and many are quick to point out that they have large mortgages on their properties.

They are also anxious to note that the land they own has generally been passed down through generations and they intend to hand it over to their children.

An essential ingredient of a functioning democracy is the openness and honesty of its politicians. In Ireland, we tend to trust our politicians.

There is a presumption that they hold themselves to the same high standard which they expect of us as citizens.

However, history has shown us we have been wrong to blindingly trust all of those who govern us.

The Political Rich List is not highlighting any wrongdoing by our lawmakers.

The aim is to simply make the playing field even.

Voters deserve to know the wealth of those who make decisions on their behalf.

Sunday Independent

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

Also in this section