State papers from 1983 show drive to rein in spending on government entertaining
Fine Gael-Labour coalition tried to reduce spending in wake of Fianna Fáil largesse
Garret FitzGerald hosted a lunch for Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe in September 1983 at a cost of £1,500.
Efforts to curb spending on government hospitality and entertainment were embarked upon in 1983 by the new Fine Gael-Labour government in the wake of perceived largesse during the previous year when Fianna F
áil was in power.
Less than a week after Dr Garret FitzGerald took office, a Department of Finance official wrote a note to Richard Stokes, then assistant secretary at the taoiseach’s office, saying it was unlikely that there would be “excess expenditure on entertainment” in 1983 to the same extent as in 1982. The note, dated December 20th, 1982, said the previous taoiseach, Charles Haughey, “took considerable personal interest in all the functions where he, or even the President, was host”.
Later, a confidential circular from the Department of Finance in February 1983 said spending on government hospitality was to be kept to the 1982 estimates of £220,000 (almost €280,000).
Occasions of hospitality and the numbers participating “must be kept to a minimum” and “entertainment of Irish public servants must be merely incidental to entertainment of other persons”. Dinner with a minister was not to exceed £24 (€30) a head and should only include a maximum of 12 people. The rate for lunch was set at £17 (€21.50) and receptions at £5.50 (€7) a head.
There were reduced rates for functions hosted by department heads, but no guidance in respect of events hosted by the taoiseach.
Eight bottles returned
However, the government put on a good show for the visit of US vice-president George Bush in July 1983. The taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, hosted a lunch in honour of Mr Bush at the State Apartments in Dublin Castle. The Department of Foreign Affairs organised 23 bottles of champagne at a cost of £273.24 (nearly €350) and subsequently sent the bill to the Department of the Taoiseach. Mitchell and Son, the long-established Dublin wine merchant, supplied 77 bottles of 1980 Puligny Montrachet – white wine from a good area of Burgundy – at £11.13 a bottle (about €14). Eight bottles were returned after the lunch.
Catering for the event cost £5,935.18 (about €7,500) and the floral arrangements from Sheila’s Flower and Gift Shop were £290.40 (nearly €370). The bouquet presented to Mr Bush’s wife, Barbara, on arrival at Dublin airport cost £16.50 (about €20).
Though the outlay was deemed in excess of guidelines, it was approved by the Department of Finance.
Cause for concern
Expenses incurred for the visits of other dignitaries appear to have been a cause for concern. Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, visited in September 1983. A lunch for him hosted by the taoiseach, Dr FitzGerald, in Iveagh House cost £1,500 (just under €1,900). But a dinner for the party cost £6,600 (about €8,300) and flowers came to £323 (€410).
A letter to the taoiseach’s department from the Department of Finance sanctioning the costs expressed concern at the number of meals provided “for those other than guests who were in attendance at the two functions”. It also said expenditure of £33 (€42) on bouquets presented to Mrs Mugabe and the wife of Zimbabwe’s minister for economic development Bernard Chidzero who had travelled with Mr Mugabe, was “not appropriate to State entertainment”.
Drinks for soldiers
The Department of Finance did not appear to quibble, however, when a bill for £126 (€160) was sent in from Collins Barracks for drinks supplied to soldiers. The 5th infantry battalion had formed a guard of honour when Mr Mugabe arrived at Dublin airport, and the Army No 1 Band had performed.
According to an unsigned note in the files, the weather on the day was appalling and “in recognition of the circumstances” Dr FitzGerald had ordered that the soldiers be given a drink.