Taoiseach's aide defends €3,500 junket to Rome
State to foot bill for politicians' four-star trip and audience with Pope after Kenny's criticism
Enda Kenny's constituency assistant in Castlebar, Co Mayo, has defended a trip to Rome earlier this week by two town councillors and a town manager, during which they stayed at a four-star hotel and had a personal audience with the Pope. The trip was at the taxpayers' expense and cost over €1,000 per person.
Councillor Ger Deere told the Sunday Independent that while he understood that there might be "legitimate concern" over spending €3,500 to send the Mayor of Castlebar Eugene McCormack (FG), Councillor Michael Kilcoyne (Independent) and the Castlebar Town Manager Seamus Granahan, on what Councillor McCormack termed "a pilgrimage" to Rome, he felt it was justified.
"The meeting with the Pope is only a part of the visit -- there were also meetings planned with German businessmen who are involved in wind farms and that's something we're trying to develop in the west of Ireland. Hopefully something will come of that and if it does it will be worth the cost."
Mr Deere also said that there was no disparity between the Taoiseach's strong criticism of the Catholic Church's hierarchy in the Dail on July 21 and a Fine Gael mayor having a personal meeting with the Pope.
"We were invited on this trip by our twin town in Germany, Hoechstadt, as the parish priest there has a very close relationship with the Pope. It would have been an insult to the people of Hoechstadt if we hadn't accepted their invitation to go to Rome."
In his speech to the Dail last month, the Taoiseach said of the Catholic Church that "the rape and torture of children were downplayed or managed to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation".
He also accused the Catholic Church of attempting to frustrate the Cloyne inquiry into child sex abuse and accused the church's elite of a culture of "dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism".
While Mr McCormack said that he agreed completely with the Taoiseach's comments to the Dail, he said that he did not raise the issue with the Pope. "We didn't discuss the Cloyne report or recent events as it would not have been appropriate. They are two completely separate situations.
"The pilgrimage to meet the Pope had been arranged long before the Taoiseach's speech in the Dail and we could not cancel it at short notice."
Mr McCormack said that both he and the town manager met with a number of prominent businessmen, including the managing director of a medical devices company, but added: "I can't name names. Something may come of it or it may not, but I believe it was worthwhile."
The Fine Gael councillor earlier this week told the Mayo News that the Catholic Church was not alone in sharing blame for the rape and abuse of children in state institutions.
"The state is equally culpable too, which needed to be said. When judges sent young people to places like Letterfrack and gardai brought children back when they ran away, the state was complicit."
He added: "I see meeting a Pope as an honour all the same. Religion is still a key part of life."
The Castlebar Town Clerk Marie Crowley confirmed that during their sojourn in Rome, the two councillors and the town manager stayed at the four-star Grand Hotel Palatino in Rome, which styles itself as a "refined" hotel "only a short walk from the Coliseum and very near to the most fashionable Roman shopping area".
According to the council, the total cost for the trip will be "in the region of €3,500". When contacted by the Sunday Independent, one of the Mayor's Fine Gael party colleagues Councillor Noreen Heston said: "I've made my views known on this in the council chamber. I don't think it's appropriate for taxpayers' money to be used for a trip of that nature. That's my only comment on the matter."