Higgins defends Áras allowances as he launches re-election bid
Nominations closed for election contest, with six candidates in running for presidency
The candidates: Gavin Duffy, Joan Freeman, Liadh Ní Riada, Peter Casey, Sean Gallagher and President Michael D Higgins
Michael D Higgins has defended the unaudited allowance of €317,000 paid to Presidents but said he has no difficulty in finding a mechanism to provide a formal statement providing more details about spending in the Áras.
“I have no difficulty in constructing a formal statement that can live within the Constitution and at the same time accept the independence of the president whoever he or she is,” he said of the allowance which has been available since 1938, and at is present level of €317,000 since 1998.
Nominations for the presidential election officially closed at noon. There are six candidates in the running including Mr Higgins.
Speaking at the official launch of his re-election campaign, Mr Higgins said he had began the process of supplying more information during the summer and would continue to do so. He also said the Comptroller and Auditor General could have a role in that process.
However, he said that he never sees the allowance and that it is used for the many events that take place in the Áras each year, including many garden parties and State dinners. There are 20,000 visitors to his residence each year, he said.
“If you didn’t want to serve a cup of tea to those elderly citizens, if you didn’t want to receive those citizens who were in the Magdalene Laundries or those associated with the Irish language movement and indeed all the different voluntary groups - you could stop it by a vote in the Oireachtas by saying you want the President out there, receiving nobody, doing nothing but occasionally signing a paper that you wanted him or her to sign,” he said later in an interview with RTÉ Radio One’s Drivetime.
Asked at the launch of his campaign about the comments made by fellow candidate Peter Casey, who raised the possibility that the incident involving an intruder in the Áras was a stunt, Mr Higgins said: “I do hope you have an opportunity to ask Mr Casey about his langauge and his use of it.
“The gate was open and (the intruder) drove in and the door was open and came in to a door beside my office.
“We had a conversation. There were a few things we discussed. When that was finished I left the room under my own volition.
“She was then interviewed by a senior garda. She was an unemployed person. I wished her well. That’s how it should be.”
Asking himself about Mr Casey’s charge it was a stunt, he said: “Maybe that candidate is not too long back from America.”
In a long question and answer session with journalists, he also said that among the reasons he had changed his mind was because of the new challenges that have emerged including Brexit, climate change, immigration and sustainability. He said they presented an opportunity for him to present new ideas and a strong voice.
Asked about his age, Mr Higgins (77) said he was fit and healthy.
“My health is excellent, in so far as any of us can say. I am very fit and I am really looking forward to getting into campaign within the constraints of my present position.
“I have much more energy and efficiency than in 2011 because I (underwent an operation on my knee).
“I don’t drink and don’t smoke and I have a yoga teacher.”
Asked about comments by Senator Gerard Craughwell that he stayed in suite at a luxury hotel in Switzerland this year , costing more than €3,000 per night, the President maintained he had never asked to stay in a particular hotel.
“The arrangement for the President and where he stays are made by the Department of Foreign Affairs without consultation.
“I have never asked to stay in a particular hotel. I have stayed in hostels and stayed in tents and with Concern in Somalia.
“It is a question I never ask. I don’t really think… about all of that when I do go abroad.
“The ambassador and the host country are involved and then there are those who have security concerns,” he said.
Earlier, Mr Higgins said he is the person who is the best placed to be Ireland’s voice through the Brexit process and during a potentially volatile period ahead.
At the official launch of his campaign in Dublin, President Higgins also said he would champion equality, widen participation in society, and promote diversity. “Citizens have spoke to me about the uncertainty of Brexit, about the fragility of our international systems and shared planet,” he said.
“They believe that Ireland’s voice can and must matter in a difficult global landscape.”
In the only political comments in his speech, he made veiled criticism of the European Union. “I have long called for a reconnection between Europe’s institutions and and European Street and this will become ever more essential in the coming years,” he said.
He argued for Ireland to be a champion for human rights and for sustainable development, as well as peace. He also said he would continue to deepen connections with the Irish diaspora.
All six candidates have submitted nomination papers at Custom House in Dublin in the last few days.
Sean Gallagher was backed by Roscommon, Leitrim, Mayo and Wexford councils, while Senator Joan Freeman received four nominations from Cork City, Galway County, Fingal and Galway City. Businessman Peter Casey was backed by Kerry, Clare, Limerick and Tipperary councils.
Sinn Féin selected MEP Liadh Ní Riada as its candidate last week.
Mr Higgins nominated himself to run for re-election. In keeping with precedent for the nomination of a sitting president, his nomination papers were submitted by his representative Art O’Leary, secretary general to the president, who was accompanied by the president’s election agent Conor Power.
The election will take place on Friday October 26th, with the winner inaugurated on November 11th.