Monday 14 October 2019

John Downing: 'Watchdog must be extra-vigilant when it comes to taxpayers' cash'


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

John Downing

The old adage that one must spend money to make money still holds good. The Dublin Port Company has many good stories to tell. But it is also owned by the taxpayer, and it is managing a big resource owned by the Irish people.

It must be accountable for its work - especially when it comes to spending the people's money. The 'Sunday Independent' reports about spending by the company raise questions - enough to lead the usually very measured chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Seán Fleming, to say TDs and senators need to learn more on this.

Mr Fleming and other Oireachtas committee chairpeople will get in contact to decide where jurisdiction lies. The Supreme Court judgment last month in favour of former Rehab boss Angela Kerins has caused a re-think on committee workings.

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The re-think is about how they go about their work and the need to avoid duplication when different committees are summoning the same people to answer the same questions about public money.

But it is not about the principle of the Public Accounts Committee, and other committees, pursuing their obligation to oversee the spending of taxpayers' money.

The reports of spending by the Dublin Port Company (DPC) are of public interest. The State-owned company is exempt from Freedom of Information (FoI) provisions to protect commercially sensitive information.

Yet it is interesting that the DPC argues well that it needs to spend on staff travel to maintain a wide-ranging network of international contacts and information flows within this specialised sector. "There are no other ports in Ireland of a comparative nature in this regard," the company states.

That suggests the DPC really does not have a competitor in Ireland. Interestingly, State companies which have a monopoly in their sector, such as Irish Water, are under the FoI regime. That, of itself, could be of interest to our elected representatives - some of whom are FoI enthusiasts, while others are more sceptical about such openness.

The DPC argues strongly about its dedication to putting all its capital projects out to tender. It also argues comments about spending €7m on "a garden" are a misrepresentation as it encompassed a much-needed bigger project to open up the port to the locality of East Wall.

It is true the port area and its environs had long been one of the harshest and least hospitable parts of Dublin, so the motivation seems well-intentioned. But there are also value-for-money issues around such a large sum. There may not have been any cost overruns here - or, if there were, these could be entirely explicable. But cost overruns are a major area of concern for people.

It is interesting to note there are 22 staff credit cards for a total staff complement of 160 people. That, of itself, warrants more discussion.

A Dáil committee could help clear the air.

Irish Independent

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