Monday 18 December 2017

Spending watchdog asked to bring wife on trips

PAC chief John McGuinness and his wife, Margaret, outside Leinster House
PAC chief John McGuinness and his wife, Margaret, outside Leinster House

Fiach Kelly Political Correspondent

THE chairman of the Dail public spending watchdog tried to bring his wife with him on foreign trips while he was a junior minister – and argued that the taxpayer should foot the bill for ministerial spouses to travel abroad.

John McGuinness, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), argued with civil servants and then-senior minister Micheal Martin during his time in the Department of Enterprise that his wife, Margaret, should accompany him to Dubai and Canada.

Fianna Fail TD Mr McGuinness even cited philosophers Nietzsche and Proust to back his argument that his wife should be allowed to travel, and said he was "entitled to some comforts on state business".

Mr McGuinness said it was "always my intention to pay for my wife", but he believed there was a "strong case" to be made for the taxpayer paying for ministerial spouses' travel.

Documents released to the Irish Independent under the Freedom of Information Act show it was requested that flights for Mr McGuinness's wife be booked on the department's account, but he insisted he was always going to pay.

Even after getting into a row with civil servants over a trade mission to Dubai in August 2007, he went back and asked for his wife to accompany him on a trip to Canada later that same year.

The revelations could raise questions over Mr McGuinness's position as leader of the PAC, and come at a time

when the Government is proposing to beef up the powers of the committee as part of a package of Dail reforms.

The documents show civil servants felt his request was "quite inappropriate", and Mr Martin had ethical concerns about wives travelling with ministers.

Mr McGuinness, who eventually did not bring his wife, then wrote a scathing letter to a senior civil servant.

"I am entitled to some comforts while on state business, and an important one, in my case, is having my partner by my side," he said.

"I am perfectly happy to state my case, point to my desire to preserve and nurture my marriage, and my own well-being, and show I have paid the fare myself or defend the State for doing so."

Mr Martin had "very strong ethical views" that wives should not travel, but Mr McGuinness said "strong views do not ethics make".

"He could be mistaken. Nietzsche says the morality is the herd instinct of the individual and Proust says one becomes moral as soon as one becomes unhappy," he added.

CONTROVERSY

The revelations come after controversy surrounding €250,000 spent kitting out a new office for Mr McGuinness when he was a junior minister, and his son claiming more than €30,000 in overtime from the taxpayer in a single year while working in a job given to him by his father.

Mr McGuinness said he had no input in the office costs, and his son was covering someone on maternity leave.

The Carlow-Kilkenny deputy was only two months in the job when he made his request to bring his wife on a trade mission, and it led to a flurry of emails between civil servants.

"I would have to advise that this is quite inappropriate – even more so if it is to be charged to the public purse," one civil servant wrote.

The official then said they had checked with Mr Martin's office, and as well as the ethical views, they said the now-Fianna Fail leader has "never brought his wife on official business trips".

"The minister's office have advised that they will be obliged to mention Minister McGuinness's intentions to Minister Martin, given his likely concern if any adverse publicity arises from it."

On the Dubai trip, an email exchange between civil servants included one that read: "I'm refusing for the moment to sign the ATO which is solely for the minister's wife." The Department of Enterprise said ATO "stands for Air Ticket Order and is an internal form that is used to record the advance authorisation for officers to book flights on . . . account".

Even after the Dubai incident, Mr McGuinness again wanted to bring his wife on another trade mission, this time to Canada in October 2007.

That request was outlined in an email from an assistant secretary in the department to the secretary general, which read: "I've been asked to sign an ATO for the minister for the above."

Another email the next day said: "Had an affable session with the minister (though it took place in the context of my refusing to sign an ATO which included bringing his wife on a trade mission to Canada!)."

When contacted, Mr McGuinness last night said he was only "contemplating" bring his wife and was raising queries because it was his first trade mission.

"I was raising the question but it was forever the position that I was going to pay for my wife," he said. "At no stage did I ask or expect the department to pay for my wife to travel."

In his letter he said he was pointing out the importance of "family and wife" and said "there would be trips that perhaps consideration should be given to his wife and spouse or family and for the minister to pay".

When asked why he raised the possibility of the taxpayer paying, he said he was arguing a "general position".

Irish Independent

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