Combative PAC questions on President’s Office procure insights

The overall cost of the office is more than €8m

The President’s Office occupies a unique position in Irish public life.

The President’s Office occupies a unique position in Irish public life.

 

In the run-up to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) examination of the costs of the President’s Office, there were cries of it being a charade, political opportunism and a cynical intrusion into the Presidential election campaign.

Both Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin berated the committee, both asking rhetorically why it had waited seven years until an election campaign had begun.

Yesterday, the political slagging match played second fiddle to what turned out to be a useful examination of costs and spending in the President’s Office. It was the first time the PAC had ever conducted such an exercise and it begged the question why it had not been done before.

The President’s Office occupies a unique position in Irish public life. Under Article 13.8.1 of the Constitution, the President is not answerable to either House of the Oireachtas or to any court for the exercise and performance of his powers.

MacSharry contended because of that opacity it could give rise to the 'perception of a slush fund'

That has essentially served as a block on any scrutiny of spending.

Annual allowance

Much information on expenditure remains opaque. The best example of that was brought up at the PAC meeting by Fianna Fáil member Marc MacSharry who asked about an annual allowance of €317,000 which was not subject to any audit.

That allowance is not paid in the usual way but comes from the central fund of the Department of Finance and seems to have been paid annually at that level since 1998.

Mr MacSharry contended because of that opacity it could give rise to the “perception of a slush fund”. It was a loaded phrase that was immediately slapped down by Fine Gael’s Kate O’Connell.

The net point, however, is that this allowance is not subject to oversight. Neither Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach Martin Fraser nor Comptroller and Auditor General Séamus McCarthy were in a position to say how the money was spent, although Mr McCarthy noted President Michael D Higgins’s predecessor, Mary McAleese, had returned a sum of €357,000 after her 14-year term in office.

It was left to committee chairman Sean Fleming to point to the President’s website and a reference to entertaining 20,000 visitors at the Áras each year. It seems it is also used to pay for State dinners and other expenses not covered by the official budget.

100th birthdays

The second useful discovery was that the headline figure for spending in the Presidential office represents only part of the picture. The money allotted to the President’s Office is about €3.6 million, of which more than €1 million goes to the 400 or so people who get a bounty of €2,500 upon reaching their 100th birthday.

Perhaps the most serious disclosure was that even though an internal audit committee had been established in 2014, it did not meet for more than three years

However, the overall cost of the office is more than €8 million. That’s because the costs for presidential security, close protection teams, gardens, upkeep of the Áras, foreign travel, and other expenses are the responsibility of other departments and the Office of Public Works.

Indeed, the PAC examination stemmed from a claim made by Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell that the President had stayed at a luxury hotel in Geneva, which charges up to €3,000 a night for suites, during a visit to Switzerland. Information on the Presidential Office’s travel is not disclosed publicly. The Swiss could have insisted on such a hotel and, indeed, paid for it. It might have cost far less than the advertised cost. Nobody knows. But it is not the President’s Office but the Department of Foreign Affairs that picks up the bill.

Serious disclosure

Perhaps the most serious disclosure was that even though an internal audit committee had been established in 2014, it did not meet for more than three years, because its chairman was indisposed. Furthermore, Mr Fraser told the PAC that a new chairman, Joe Hamill, was appointed only in February this year.

Under combative questioning from Independent TD Catherine Connolly, Mr Fraser accepted that the lack of a functioning committee for more than three years was “sub optima” and not ideal. At one stage there was a testy exchange between them when she told him not to cast his eyes to heaven. Mr Fraser, who was wearing a sling, replied he was not doing that, rather wincing at having a broken elbow.

Ms Connolly made a strong argument that it was fully appropriate for the committee to discuss the matter at this juncture. While the questions remain about the timing, the exercise did give a welcome insight into Áras spending.

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