Thursday 17 October 2019

Editorial: 'Dublin Port case shows need for transparency'

Dublin Port HQ and surrounding gardens in Dublin Port. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Dublin Port HQ and surrounding gardens in Dublin Port. Photo: Gerry Mooney


Dublin Port is a giant operation with an annual turnover of €90m. It is in many ways the engine of the Irish economy, which has grown considerably in the past decade.

In a post-Brexit world its role as our primary port, dwarfing our other ports, will have a pivotal role in Ireland's economic activity.

Yesterday, the 'Sunday Independent' published details of very large sums of money being spent by Dublin Port staff. These included €520,000 on staff credit cards for flights, hotels and other work expenditure.

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Credit card spending included €95,000 spent by the company's chief executive. Four senior executives spent a total of €270,000 between them in one year on credit cards issued to them.

Among the eye-catching spending items was €200,000 for the commission and performance of a song. The company spent almost €7m on changing access to the port - including the construction of a maritime garden billed as community outreach.

In fairness to the Dublin Port management, they came back with an explanation and defence of the spending. They argued there is a chain of spending approval, and such spending is contained in their annual accounts, which are audited.

The semi-state company is insistent its operations are in order and above board. We are not suggesting otherwise - but we are definitely saying these revelations require more detailed answers and information.

That is also the view of the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Seán Fleming, who wants to see early scrutiny by the relevant Dáil committee.

The case of Dublin Port also raises important questions about the application of the Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation. Back in 2014, the then public expenditure minister, Brendan Howlin, who was responsible for restoring FoI after it had been filleted by a previous Fianna Fáil government, made an important distinction about state commercial companies.

Mr Howlin stressed the need for commercial companies within the state sector to be able to keep sensitive information out of the public domain. But Irish Water, then the focus of explosive political controversy, was included in FoI.

The justification for Irish Water was that it was in a monopoly situation. Thus, similar treatment was given to ESB, Irish Rail and other entities which do not have private companies competing with them.

The main airports and all the ports - including Dublin Port - were given an FoI exemption. Yet these control valuable assets and make decisions which impinge on many citizens' lives. It is also difficult to see what private commercial competitors they actually have.

In the run-in to the economic downturn in 2008 there were dispiriting revelations about lax spending controls in public entities which suggested a lack of care about taxpayers' hard-earned money. Greater transparency in all these matters is therefore imperative to avoid repeating past mistakes.

Irish Independent

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