Best things in life may be free but not when it comes to Ministers and their advisers

 

THE GOVERNMENT parties, when in opposition, railed against the Fianna Fáil/Green administration’s spending of €4.4 million of public money on a bloated coterie of highly paid special advisers.

While there was no specific programme for government pledge to bring the salaries under control, once the Coalition came into power it immediately instructed Department of Finance officials to draw up new guidelines on special advisers’ pay to tackle the “upward salary drift”.

The guidelines could not have been clearer. Special advisers should normally be paid €80,051: the same as the lowest-paid principal officer in the Civil Service. A cap of €96,672 was set, which was equivalent to the salary of the highest-paid principal officer.

The aim of imposing the cap was to move away from the previous practice of determining special advisers’ pay by reference to their previous employment and to ensure the salaries reflected a more appropriate level of pay for the actual role and responsibility of an adviser.

The Government retained the right to breach the wage ceiling in “exceptional circumstances”, however.

As public anger about budgetary cutbacks and service charges intensified toward the end of last year, it emerged that Taoiseach Enda Kenny had sanctioned a salary of €127,000 for Ciarán Conlon, a former Fine Gael communications director who became special adviser to Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton.

The controversy faded as the festive season approached, but documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show further breaches.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin, the Government’s gatekeeper when it comes to accessing public money, has also approved a substantial breach of the cap for his adviser Ronan O’Brien. O’Brien, who was chef de cabinet to Ruairí Quinn when he was Labour leader, and communications and marketing director with Chartered Accountants Ireland, earns €114,000. Howlin wanted to pay him €133,605, until a civil servant pointed out this would be unwise.

Freedom of Information documents also reveal that Howlin approved a salary of €127,796 for Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton’s special adviser Edward Brophy, although he told her Brophy could not have “benefit-in-kind arrangements”. Brophy, formerly a senior associate with Arthur Cox solicitors, is currently the highest paid special adviser outside the office of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste.

Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney stressed the patriotic credentials of his special adviser Fergal Leamy when securing a €130,000 salary for him from Howlin. Leamy, who had earned €430,000 in his former job as a Greencore executive, left after five months to work in England. He said he got an opportunity in London to work with a private equity group “which was too good to turn down”. Leamy’s replacement is Ross Mac Mathúna, who previously worked for Glanbia and McKinsey. Mac Mathúna’s salary is yet to be confirmed.

Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar wanted to pay his special adviser a salary and benefits package worth more than €135,000. Howlin demurred, and a “compromise” wage of €105,837 was agreed for Brian Murphy, former director of commercial affairs with the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association.

One of the first breaches of the special advisers’ pay cap was approved by Howlin for Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte, when a €97,200 salary was agreed for former chief executive of the Irish Travel Agents’ Association Simon Nugent in April 2011.

Other Ministers, such as Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, adopt a modest approach to paying special advisers, although he defended the salaries secured by colleagues for their staff.

“I’m not going to be critical of the different rates of pay that different special advisers are receiving. There are individuals currently working as special advisers who would be paid a great deal more in the private sector than they’re getting in the public sector for working a good deal less hours,” Shatter told The Irish Times.

He said special advisers performed a “hugely important function” in bringing a different perspective to that of the permanent Civil Service to the work of a Minister, “and providing, on occasions, independent advice”.

There is clearly concern among officials that exceptions may be beginning to prove the rule, however.

Howlin has received strongly worded Civil Service advice that “any further slippage” on special advisers’ pay will bring costs up to the previous administration’s controversial level of €4.4 million.

The current spend is close to €3.4 million, but additional Ministers of State are agitating to appoint special advisers despite the guidelines laid down by the Department of Finance indicating this should not happen.

Howlin expressed a desire to “ringfence” the practice of allowing Ministers of State to have special advisers, after Minister of State for primary care Róisín Shortall received special sanction to appoint former journalist Maev-Ann Wren.

Since then, Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton has appointed her former assistant Stephen O’Shea, and pressure has come from other Ministers of State, including Minister of State for Transport Alan Kelly.

But Ministers cannot get enough advice, it seems.

Varadkar and Coveney have also employed a “policy adviser” and a “political adviser” respectively in lieu of the personal assistant to which they are entitled and at no extra cost.

“I need a policy adviser much more than I need a personal assistant!” Varadkar wrote in a letter to Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Howlin has conceded that the cap has been breached in six instances, but Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin contends that the guidelines have now been broken in the majority of Government departments.

He argues that eight departments have special advisers paid above the cap, because his tally includes the advisers working for Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore. The cap does not apply to the office of the Taoiseach, where former chef de cabinet Mark Kennelly and Andrew McDowell, Fine Gael’s former economic adviser, earn €168,000 each.

The guidelines also allow higher rates to apply to the office of the Tánaiste, where Gilmore’s chief adviser Mark Garrett earns €168,000 and Colm O’Reardon, Labour’s former policy director and brother of TD Aodhán Ó Riordáin, earns €155,000. Freedom of Information documents indicate Gilmore’s advisers are on the Department of Foreign Affairs payroll.