Departure focuses attention on presidential management team

Mary van Lieshout formed part of team of advisers in Áras an Uachtaráin

During his long career as a Labour Party parliamentarian and government minister, Michael D Higgins was sometimes controversial and always colourful. He could be a formidable and energetic opponent.

Before assuming office he had stated his intention to explore Irish identity and to look at the role of ethics in society.

His speeches have been seen as more overtly political in tone and in content than those of his predecessors and have been seen in some quarters as siding with one particular view of the economic and banking crisis.

The disclosure that his special adviser Mary van Lieshout has resigned has brought focus on his management of the presidency and how it has differed from that of Mary McAleese.

Before taking up her role in February 2012, Ms van Lieshout had worked in senior positions in a number of non-governmental agencies, including as a senior executive with the National Disability Authority. Her salary was approved at €103,472, well in excess of the public pay cap for special advisers which was set at €80,051.

Management team
Ms van Lieshout formed part of a management team in Áras an Uachtaráin under secretary general Adrian O'Neill, who is now four years in that position, and a deputy secretary general.

Mr O’Neill is the main adviser to the President on constitutional matters and is also the main link with the Government. Ms van Lieshout and other senior officials provided advice on other issues.

A second special adviser is communications manager Sarah Martin, who was recruited from RTÉ. Her salary of €75,000 also exceeds the recommended pay cap for her grade.

The President’s personal staff is larger than that of his predecessor Mary McAleese, who had a special adviser, Maura Grant, and a public relations manager, Gráinne Mooney. Wally Young, a PR consultant, had a part-time contract with Ms McAleese which he has continued for Mr Higgins.

The President has created two new positions that did not exist previously. The first was his appointment of Kevin McCarthy as executive assistant in November 2011 on a salary of €49,000.

Mr McCarthy was his driver during the presidential campaign but, according to those close to the campaign, he increasingly became an all-round assistant.

Mr McCarthy is quiet, diligent, trustworthy and is said to have formed a strong working relationship with Mr Higgins. He had previously worked as a parliamentary assistant to his cousin, Michael McCarthy, the Labour TD for Cork South West.

The other appointment was that of head of speechwriting, which is a temporary three-year Civil Service job. The job was advertised publicly and the successful applicant was Aziliz Gouez from France, who formerly worked for French president François Hollande. Her salary is €65,000. Previously, civil servants within the office wrote speeches.

Focus of criticism
Ms van Lieshout could not be contacted yesterday. The focus of criticism following her resignation is the contention that Mr McCarthy had more access to the President than his chief adviser.

This has been flatly denied by sources close to the presidency.

The private secretary and Mr McCarthy administer the office and, as such, both have offices close to the President’s. Both handle the voluminous correspondence and deal with groups and individuals.

A spokesman said yesterday the President would appoint a new special adviser and the announcement would be made in due course.