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Tuesday 20 February 2018

What happened to Enda's promise that the country would come first?

Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

PAROCHIALISM is alive and well in government. The news follows allegations from opposition politicians that the current regime is using the health budget as a "political slush fund" after it was revealed that hospitals in eight ministers' constituencies had their funding increased this year.

PAROCHIALISM is alive and well in government. The news follows allegations from opposition politicians that the current regime is using the health budget as a "political slush fund" after it was revealed that hospitals in eight ministers' constituencies had their funding increased this year.

While, last month, it was revealed that hospitals in Environment Minister Phil Hogan and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin's constituencies were "fast-tracked" for funding by Health Minister James Reilly.

With the Government continually facing criticism over alleged bias when awarding State funding, we can also reveal that Junior Minister Alan Kelly boasted on his personal website that his department awarded "the singular largest" sporting grant to an initiative in his home town.

The Tipperary politician announced the Department of Transport, Sport and Tourism's decision to award €400,000 to Nenagh town park on his blog just before Christmas.

He said: "I am delighted to be in a position to deliver on this as there was some doubt that funds would be available, not only have they been made available but it is the singular largest amount given to ANY sporting application in the country under this Government's Sports Capital Grants Programme."

Separately, the department awarded €1.3m to two projects in Minister Hogan's constituency of Kilkenny and Carlow from a €4.5m tourism fund that received 46 applications.

In total, 11 projects received funding from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport's Active Travel Towns programme – including €150,000 to Taoiseach Enda Kenny's home town, Castlebar, Co Mayo and €290,000 to Minister Kelly's base in Nenagh, Co Tipperary.

In June last year, Minister Kelly announced a €4.5m funding bonanza for cycle-lanes, walkways and behavioural change initiatives in schools and workplaces that would encourage people to switch their transport mode.

Much to Mr Hogan's delight €939,850 was given to a plan to implement a walking and cycling strategy for Carlow town and Graiguecullen village, while €400,000 was given for a pedestrian bridge in Kilkenny city.

The Transport Department said: "No representations were received from An Taoiseach, Minister Hogan, Minister Ring or any other minister in connection with any applications submitted by local authorities grant awards under the Active Travel Towns programme."

A Taoiseach's Department spokesman said: "The Taoiseach's office receives an extremely large volume of correspondence from all parts of the country on a broad range of issues, which his office forwards to the relevant department or agency for response."

Minister Hogan's office said

"no" when asked did he make representations.

Elsewhere, previously unreleased Freedom of Information documents show senior cabinet ministers have been lining up to ask Education Minister Ruairi Quinn if their constituents can be included on the in-demand Springboard initiative.

The scheme offers free higher education training courses to skilled workers who lost their jobs during the recession and are now receiving social welfare payments.

Minister Howlin, Jobs Minister Richard Bruton, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton, Transport Minister Leo Varadkar and Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald all made representations to the Education Minister regarding the scheme.

Most of the representations did not garner positive responses, although one of Minister Burton's constituents did become eligible for the scheme when the Education Minister decided to waive a six-month waiting period for applicants.

Months before a Department of Education announcement that 50 schools would share a €370m capital investment fund, Minister Coveney's office wrote to Minister Quinn asking if the Carrigaline Educate Together National School near his constituency office could be included.

"Is there an option for this school to be included in the announcement or will there be an option for them to be included in the next tranche of announcements?" the email asked. Luckily for the school, it met the criteria to receive funding for repairs.

In 2011, Minister Hogan's special adviser wrote to Kilkenny Co Council asking if it could investigate dog fouling near Kilkenny Golf Club.

The letter said "a number of constituents" had "voiced concerns regarding the issue of dog fouling" and he asked whether the council could investigate the matter and possibly erect signage. The council said it did erect signs and now monitors the area for suspected offenders.

Last month, it was alleged that hospitals in Mr Hogan and Minister Howlin's constituencies were fast-tracked for almost €20m of funding by Health Minister James Reilly.

Unbeknownst to HSE top brass, both Mr Howlin and Mr Hogan proudly announced the upgrades to their local hospitals while capital funding plans were still at draft stage.

It was reported that Minister Howlin's department sanctioned an additional €12m for improvements at Wexford General Hospital, while €14.2m was set aside by the HSE for improving St Luke's Hospital, Kilkenny.

All three ministers claimed there was no political interference involved in the decision to push the projects further up the list.

Recently, information compiled by RTE News showed that the recent "tough but fair" budget displayed even less equity in the health service than previously anticipated. Figures showed that hospitals in eight cabinet members' constituencies received increases in their budgets, while other hospitals had funding slashed, incl-uding Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin and Temple Street children's hospital.

Mayo General Hospital in the Taoiseach's constituency received an additional €7m in funding while St James Hospital in Dublin – the proposed site for the new children's hospital – lost €9m from its budget.

Wexford General Hospital received a €2.1m increase and St Luke's Hospital in Kilkenny got an additional €2m.

Minister Hogan made no apologies when he was questioned by RTE's Six One News about the apparent preferential treatment received by a hospital in his constituency during recent health service budget cuts.

"Are we as public representatives in our own local constituencies not to make representations at all about projects in our own constituencies?" he asked.

The minister's pronouncement shows the Government has come a long way since the Taoiseach's pre-election promise to steer away from parish-pump politics and have his cabinet "concentrate completely, to the exclusion of other works, on the national responsibilities of their portfolios".

During a pre-election speech in Kilkenny's Rivercourt Hotel, Mr Kenny told those gathered in Minister Hogan's constituency that in "the last 13 years Irish politics was dominated by the politics of the Galway Tent".

"Government was run by and for a small group of privileged insiders, the so-called 'Friends of Fianna Fail," he added.

Labour's Brendan Howlin also said before the election that: "Labour is determined to end the system whereby appointments to State boards are used as a form of political patronage and for rewarding friends and political insiders."

But almost as soon as the coalition took office it became painfully clear that Fine Gael and the Labour Party intended on continuing the traditions of jobs for the boys and parish-pump politics.

To date at least 20 past or present Fine Gael and Labour members, along with party strategists and donors, have been appointed to State boards by the current Government. The coalition has also been responsible for appointing a number of judges with clear connections to one of the governing parties. There is no suggestion that the individuals are not eminently well qualified for these posts.

The Irish Times reported in January that only one person from 40 candidates who applied to Minister Reilly for a place on the board of the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) was appointed, while the Government divided up the seats on the Irish Blood Transfusion Service between the coalition parties despite receiving 28 applications from members of the public.

Minister Howlin breached the €97,000 salary cap set for political advisers six times to appease members of both his own party and Fine Gael.

Controversially, Enda Kenny personally overruled the Public Expenditure Minister and Finance Minister Michael Noonan so his friend and former adviser, Ciaran Conlon, could earn €127,000 acting as an adviser to Jobs Minister Richard Bruton.

Social Protection Minister Joan Burton's special adviser Ed Brophy is the highest paid of the 40 politically appointed advisers within the coalition, with a €127,796 salary.

Health Minister Reilly, who signed off on the hospital budgets and the extra funding for projects in his colleagues' backyards, was at the centre of arguably the biggest political storm the current Government has faced.

The minister's decision to add two locations for primary care centres based in his own constituency, along with a site in Minister Hogan's constituency, led to Junior Minister Roisin Shortall resigning from her position in the Department of Health in protest.

It was reported earlier this year that Dr Reilly had allocated €423,530 of Department of Health lottery funding to projects in his own constituency since he became minister.

Before he was appointed, in 2010, initiatives in his locality were awarded €10,000 by the previous incumbent.

Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald also hit the headlines recently when it was revealed that her Dublin Mid-West constituency was the largest recipient of Lotto funding from her department last year.

The Irish Independent previously reported that the Taoiseach came under fire when lottery-funded capital sports grants awarded to projects in his constituency surged by 70 per cent to €1.8m since he took office.

Mr Kenny's Mayo running mate, Junior Minister Michael Ring, was responsible for awarding more than €678,000 of the €1.8m through the Department of Transport, Sports and Tourism, including €230,000 for projects in his own home town, Westport.

In early December, Minister Ring announced €777,293 in funding for Mayo under the first round of sports capital funding in four years; it included €200,000 for the local football team Westport United.

And in the week before Christmas, a second tranche of sports grants awarded by Minister Ring included €460,000 for his constituency, including €260,000 for a football pitch in the Taoiseach's home town.

Last year, the Sunday Independent revealed how Mr Kenny wrote to Mr Ring seeking "advice" on behalf of a constituent who was hoping to attend the gymnastics final at the London 2012 Olympics.

Irish Independent

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