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Saturday 20 April 2019

State papers - 1980: Lavish lunches for dignitaries as nation 'lived beyond means'

Fergus Black

THOUSANDS of pounds of taxpayers' money -- more than €130,000 in today's terms -- were splurged on wining and dining visiting VIPs at a time when then Taoiseach Charles Haughey was warning the nation about "living away beyond our means".

Two decades before Ireland's Celtic Tiger economy began to roar, some of the more fortunate were enjoying days of wine and roses with vast sums of money splashed out on entertainment for visiting politicians and heads of state.

Based on Central Bank calculations, the equivalent of up to €130,000 was splashed out in one year as the Department of Finance attempted to rein in the lavish spending on public functions.

One such function, in Dublin Castle for the West German president and 300 guests, cost £10,000 -- a massive €43,600 in today's values.

The newly-published state papers for 1980 also reveal how the Taoiseach's own department frequently breached the entertainment spending limits set by the Finance Department to the tune of hundreds of pounds a time.

Finance had set cost limits per person of £19 for dinners hosted by a Minister or minister of state with a limit of £13.50 per head for lunches.

But in one case the entertainment bill for a lunch hosted by the Taoiseach for EU Commissioner Roy Jenkins in February that year came to £323 -- more than twice the sanctioned per person limit set by the department. In two other cases, separate lunches totalling £1,166 hosted by Mr Haughey for the then-Portuguese prime minister, and the French EU Commissioner Francois-Xavier Ortoli in September 1980, breached the spending limits by a combined £652.

By far the biggest spend was on three separate functions held over two days in April and May 1980 in honour of West German president Karl Carstens at Garnish Island, Iveagh House, and Dublin Castle which cost the taxpayer a total of more than £16,500 -- the equivalent of €80,000 with "excess expenditure" amounting to almost £6,000 (€26,000).

Ireland's generosity to visiting dignitaries in 1980 came against a grim economic backdrop of rising unemployment, emigration and the Troubles.

In a televised state of the nation address in January 1980, after only a month in office, Taoiseach Charles Haughey warned the country that the picture he had to paint was not a very cheerful one.

"The figures which are just now becoming available to us show one thing very clearly. As a community we are living away beyond our means," said the Taoiseach.

Within two months of the famous broadcast, Finance Minister Michael O'Kennedy was warning government departments about their entertainment bills.

A memo to the secretary of the Taoiseach's department pointed out that allocation under the state entertainment subhead set for Mr Haughey's department that year was set at £30,000 (€130,800).

But the memo warned that in recent years overall expenditure on state entertainment had shown a "very substantial volume increase".

"It is clear that this growth will need to be curtailed in line with government policy in relation to public expenditure in the current year," Mr Haughey's office was reminded.

"For 1980, departments' proposals have far exceeded the provision made in the subhead and represent an increase of the order of 50pc over 1979 expenditure on functions other than those connected with the Irish Presidency of the EEC."

Entertainment spending examples revealed in the Department of the Taoiseach file include a £6,000 (today's equivalent of €26,000) reception hosted by Mr Haughey in the State apartments at Dublin Castle in June, 1980 for Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, Dr John Ward Armstrong and 1,000 guests.

While Finance later sanctioned the bill, it said it considered that the spend of £1,466 on flowers for the reception was "very high" and that every effort should be made in the future to keep expenditure of this kind "within reasonable limits".

Irish Independent

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