John Drennan: Lowry leads the pack gorging on Dail allowance
Tipperary TD was paid €382,000 from leaders' fund and Jackie Healy-Rae received €347,000
PAYMENTS to the independent TD Michael Lowry from the controversial independent leaders' allowance are poised to hit €500,000 over the course of his career, if the current Dail lasts its full term.
Figures released from Brendan Howlin's office last week reveal that to date Mr Lowry, with a total of €382,475, is the top beneficiary of the controversial allowance, which is neither taxed nor audited.
Mr Lowry is closely followed by Jackie Healy-Rae, who, until his departure from political life, had received €347,702.
Both men were closely associated with recent Fianna Fail-led governments and at one stage threatened to withdraw their support from Mr Cowen's struggling administration if the leaders' allowance was withdrawn.
Happily, the Healy-Rae dynasty is still benefiting from the fund. In 2011, Michael Healy-Rae, on top of "unvouched'' expenses of €44,042, pocketed €34,783.
Last year, on top of his leader's allowance, Mr Lowry cost the State €40,867 in expenses, while Finian McGrath's expenses came to €22,821.
Responding to a question from Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty, figures supplied by the Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin also reveal that the third-highest beneficiary of the scheme is the independent TD Finian McGrath, who has trousered €351,215.
Other colourful past and present beneficiaries include Beverley Cooper Flynn, Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, Richard Boyd Barrett, Mattie McGrath and a host of TDs little known to the general public, such as Noel Grealish, the former PD TD, and Tom Fleming.
The present Government is committed to reforming the scheme but for now the leaders' allowances paid to the current colourful selection of independents are as high as the payments being made at the height of the Bertie boom.
Figures supplied to Pearse Doherty reveal that in 2011 the scheme cost the taxpayer €505,091. Prior to that the highest sum was €517,265 in 2006, but the current plethora of independent TDs and senators, who qualify for a smaller allowance, means the cost in a full year is €855,000.
The perk, inaugurated by Mr Ahern in 2001 for Independent Oireachtas members, is on top of a salaries and expenses regime, which, even in its current reformed state, has cost the taxpayer up to €53,000 for the care and maintenance of a backbench TD. The overall cost to the taxpayer to date is €3.582m.
Currently qualifying independent TDs are entitled to an annual rate of €41,152 while a similar provision in the Act provides for an annual payment of €23,383 for independent senators. The allowances are payable monthly in arrears and are not subject to tax.
Unlike other party leaders, those happy recipients of the independent leader's allowance are not required to make "a statement of expenditure for the allowance, to have it audited by an independent auditor" before it is furnished to the Standards in Public Offices Commission.
In theory, the leaders' allowance is supposed to be spent on things such as research and training, policy formulation and the provision of consultants' services, including the engagement of public-relations consultants and entertainment.
But when it comes to the less than stellar parliamentary careers of many of the recipients, the evidence of research or policy documents is quite thin on the ground.