Monday 16 September 2019

Comment: Double standards could see Higgins re-elected as untouchable monarch


President Michael D Higgins canvases for votes on Dublin’s Grafton Street (Niall Carson/PA)
President Michael D Higgins canvases for votes on Dublin’s Grafton Street (Niall Carson/PA)
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

Michael D Higgins is set fair to be re-elected on October 27. Polls suggest he may surpass his final tally of 58pc secured in 2011. He's seen as a good President, likeable, experienced - a safe pair of hands for the political establishment to co-exist with, as it controls the real power.

Paddy Power's odds reflect this all too predictable scenario: Michael D Higgins 1/6; Seán Gallagher 5/1; Gavin Duffy 14/1; Joan Freeman 25/1; Liadh Ní Riada 33/1; Peter Casey 66/1. As a punter, very short odds-on shots don't deter me, they are good value.

A tax-free 16pc return on capital invested compares favourably on current investment returns.

But ask yourself, is this really a fair contest? Objectively Michael D appears to have been given a free pass by the political elite, in an effort to facilitate a coronation.

There appears to be one rule for President Higgins. Another applies to everybody else, to retirees and other office holders.

Let's start with the age issue. Any job in the public realm provides for age restrictions.

For public sector personnel who enrolled before April 1, 2004, the statutory retirement age is 65; for those joining after January 1, 2013, the formal retirement age is 66.

But, there's also a mandatory retirement age, which shall not exceed 70 years.

There is an exception for gardaí, where the compulsory retirement age is at 60 years. The highest mandatory public retirement age is for general practitioners under the General Medical Services Scheme who must retire at 72 years. This is the outlier retirement age, except it appears if you're Higgins.

Recently advertised coveted position of authority that come with lesser salaries are that of Garda Commissioner Drew Harris and the post created from the retirement of Dr Tony O'Brien as HSE director-general.

Someone over 70 years won't even be considered for senior posts.

Yet, there is not a murmur about Mr Higgins continuing beyond the age 77.

No medical examination is even suggested.

Bluster about a yoga teacher and "downward dogs" says enough for me.

It's all a bit disrespectful apparently.

Any rigorous questioning is dismissed. You'll rapidly find yourself labelled misogynist, racist or ageist; or perhaps all three.

By Higgins's own criteria, no retirement rules apply to him. Many public sector workers would relish options to continue working into their 80s. Well they can't. It's illegal.

But there's a deeper dichotomy between what is demanded by standard taxpayer transparency and accounting procedures for all public expenditure, and that applied to the Higgins's Áras expenditure. Monies voted through the Oireachtas are subject to retrospective legal verification through the Public Accounts Committee. Accounting officers and Comptroller & Auditor General audits are all involved to identify wastage, fraud, mismanagement or fiscal errors.

But Article 13.8.1 of the Constitution provides a 1937 style lacuna in the law, whereby normal accountability is waived for Áras An Uachtaráin expenditures.

The Presidential Establishment Act 1938 provides a special allowance payable directly from the Central Fund, which amounts to an untaxed, unvouched personalised expense account of about €6,000 per week.

This €317,000 is apparently allocated to provide hospitality for some 20,000 visitors to the Áras and to host State dinners. It's completely unclear when the Department of Taoiseach/Finance/Foreign Affairs picks up the tab under their protocol divisions for formal dignitary dining occasions.

Who counts whether 400 people per week actually attend garden parties in the Phoenix Park? Where did this mega round number come from and where do the funds go? Caterers under tender? Gifts? We simply don't know because there's no scrutiny as the Freedom of Information Act doesn't cover Higgins's Áras.

In 2014, Brendan Howlin specifically rejected the inclusion of the presidency under the remit of a new disclosure regime.

Despite amendments being pressed by Fianna Fáil's Thomas Byrne. The minister even cited Queen Elizabeth's non-disclosures as defence.

I have to admit to blanching a little at Labour's brand of smoked salmon socialism while having to endure lectures on poverty.

The PAC exposed an absentee internal audit committee 2014-17. Neither Martin Fraser nor Seamus Murphy did anything. Nor do they intend to. The President issued to my mind a disingenuous statement.

It argued annual costs of the presidency were €3.6m, some of which relates to the Centenarians Bounty (€2,500 a head which was paid to 405) at a total cost of €1.1m.

Appropriation accounts confirm total costs of the presidency are in fact €8.1m a year.

This is explained by an additional €4.5m being designated under estimates for departments of Justice, Defence, Finance and OPW - presidency costs just itemised elsewhere.

The Áras statement ignored other unexplained revelations. In 2016 presidential foreign travel cost €667,000.

This President has accrued three times more air miles than any previous incumbent.

Nine state visits, plus 40 'official' visits abroad. When questioned in New York about the use of the government Lear jet, Higgins refused to give details. He dismissively described questions as "rather sad".

Unanswered questions also remain about a further €391,000 spent under the heading of 'training and development and incidental expenses'.

Higgins says this week no information about Áras expenditures will appear until after the election.

No voluntary protocols of detailed disclosures. Normally, politicos would be frantically seeking answers if this was the HSE, Solas or even the most minor regional fisheries board - rightly so.

The shutdown of any presidential expenditure probe has been led by Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin and Labour with an equally cosy consensus from the entire spectrum of muted left-wing TDs.

All seem so committed to Higgins's re-election, but what about their duty to taxpayers?

Contrast this with political/media treatment of Ceann Comhairle John O'Donoghue in a similar expense controversy.

Check out the months of Dáil debates/newspaper columns leading up to his forced resignation on October 6, 2009. A full exposure of lavish foreign travel, fine dining, limousines, hotel rooms and extravagance was relentlessly pursued. Hypocrisy is alive and thriving in Leinster House.

Higgins has all the enormous electoral advantages of an incumbent, yet offers no little accountability of expenditure on his watch.

The charge is that Higgins has been a good president, but given recent questions over expenses, there remains to my mind a sense of opulent entitlement.

Certain political crony classes sweep awkward questions under the Dáil's plush carpets.

Yet he can carry on regardless.

His opponents have hopelessly failed to lay a glove on our untouchable monarch.

Irish Independent

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