The 1980s were a time of severe austerity in Ireland. A ballooning budget deficit and double-digit unemployment threatened the viability of the State in a way which was not seen again until the bailout of 2010.
The austerity extended to government departments and their entertainment budgets. A memo from the Department of Finance in 1987 warned that officials would have to pay hotel and restaurant bills themselves if they went over the strict limits on entertainment without prior authorisation. That authorisation had to be “well in advance” – a phrase which was underlined for emphasis.
This was followed by another memo in 1988 from the same department confirming the previous year’s policy and adding for good measure that the 1987 spending limits for entertainment would have to be adhered to. These spending limits were 21 per cent under the 1986 figures.
The 1988 memo also decreed that there should be a 10 per cent reduction in the number of guests and a 10 per cent reduction in the number of social events per department.
The limit was capped at £31 per head (€39) for a Minister entertaining guests for dinner, down to £6.50 per head (€8.25) for a reception.
Only on occasions that were deemed to be “entirely exceptional” would the department sanction an exception to these limits. Several such exceptions occurred in 1988.
This included a dinner at Dublin Castle for French president François Mitterrand hosted by President Patrick Hillery.
It came in at £70 (€89) a head, more than twice the proposed limit. The dinner for 223 guests cost £17,294.83 (€21,959). This included £300 (€380) for a piano, £515 (€653) for flowers, and entertainment which cost £1,300 (€1,650).
Several other high profile events in 1988 went over the spending limits. A dinner hosted by the minister for foreign affairs Brian Lenihan and his wife for Senator Edward Kennedy with 140 guests cost £5,415 (€6,875), of which £443 (€562) was spent on flowers.
A lunch at Iveagh House for the president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, cost £45 (€57) per head, and a dinner with 144 guests cost £40 (€50.78) per head.
At one stage an official from the Department of the Taoiseach, Mary Preece, wrote to the Department of Finance seeking additional sums of more than £562 (€713) for a lunch Haughey hosted for the Saudi crown prince Abdullah at Malahide Castle in November 1988.
Preece justified the extra expenditure on the basis that “entertainment by the Taoiseach must be of a very high standard” and that Malahide Castle was the only suitable venue on this occasion because of its proximity to Dublin Airport.
“You can be assured that we will take all possible steps to keep within the limits laid down, but unfortunately this was not possible on this occasion,” she wrote.