Micheál Martin queries PAC move to examine Presidential Office costs

Office of President’s spending to be examined despite constitutionality concern

President Michael D Higgins at the  National Ploughing Championship in Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

President Michael D Higgins at the National Ploughing Championship in Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

 

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has clashed with a powerful Dáil committee chaired by a party colleague over its decision to examine the costs of the Presidential Office.

Mr Martin yesterday asked the Public Accounts Committee, chaired by Fianna Fáil’s Sean Fleming, to desist from examining the costs of the office which he said would be perceived as interfering with the presidential election.

Mr Martin, speaking at the Ploughing Championship in Screggan, Co Offaly questioned the timing of the probe, coming so close to the election campaign.

The Committee intends to examine the issue on Tuesday, on the eve of the Presidential campaign officially starting.

“I do think it’s interesting that it’s seven years on from the last presidential election and they begin to look at the accounts now,” Mr Martin said.

“I think now because we are in the middle of an election, the PAC should in my view desist. It should wait until after the election.”

Mr Martin further argued that the Presidential Office was not like any other government department.

“People will read all sorts of agendas into discussing it now. It did not come up last year but is now coming up in the middle of a Presidential election campaign.

“I would be worried as to how PAC is perceived. It may be doing this for genuine reasons but at the same time perception is important.”

Mr Martin was asked about a tweet posted by Fianna Fáil TD James Lawlor which described Independent candidate Seán Gallagher as “commander in chief”. Asked were Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators allowed to canvass for candidates other than Mr Higgins, Mr Martin said no.

“The parliamentary party has made a very clear decision. It has endorsed the candidature of Michael D Higgins. He has done a first class job and I think from my perspective, he has won the trust of the people and performed with distinction.”

Full text of Martin Fraser letter

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan also warned against the PAC influencing the Presidential campaign.

“We are in an election campaign and I would expect the committee will not in any way interfere or adversely impact on what is going to be a very intense election,” said Mr Flanagan, who was also attending the Ploughing Championship.

Meanwhile, PAC chairman Sean Fleming said its members would discuss the issue next Tuesday but that questions would be kept strictly to how money is spent and will not be directed toward President Michael D Higgins personally.

Ahead of Thursday’s meeting of the Committee, its members received correspondence from Martin Fraser, secretary general to the Government, who is also the official accounting officer for the spending related to the Presidency, outlining his concerns.

“I believe your proposal to have a meeting on the issue appears to be unconstitutional and to undermine the principle of the political impartiality of the Civil Service,” Mr Fraser wrote in the letter, a copy of which has been seen by The Irish Times.

He noted in particular Article 13.8.1 of the Constitution which states the president is not answerable to either house of the Oireachtas or to any court “for the exercise and performance of the powers and functions of his office or for any act done or purporting to be done by him in the exercise and performance of these powers and functions”.

Mr Fraser said it would be “impossible not to breach this constitutional provision” were any members of the PAC or public servants “to ask or answer” questions on the issue of expenditure.

Candidates

As regards the impartiality of the civil service, he said its members could not become involved in an election.

“I cannot accept your suggestions that the campaign period has not yet started,” he wrote. “It is absolutely clear that a campaign for the office of the presidency is fully underway.”

The proposed meeting, he continued, could only address questions relating to one of the candidates, the incumbent.

His letter drew some ire from the Committee, with Fianna Fail TD for Sligo Leitrim Marc MacSharry in particular saying he was “annoyed in a major way” by its content which, he said, was an attempt to influence the business of the PAC.

“The tone of the letter did bother me. It goes on to say that if we do this it would in some way undermine the impartiality of the civil service and I resent that suggestion,” he said.

“Thanks Mr Fraser for the advice. I think it’s flawed; I think it’s incorrect.”

The subject of the spending relating to the office of the President has been raised in the run up to the election, particularly in relation to details not being available under the Freedom of Information Act.

Its general expenditure is, however, audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General but this only takes into account how money is spent and not the decision making process around why it is spent.

The Cage Séamus McCarthy told the Committee that the office of the president’s spending had always come in under budget.

Labour deputy Alan Kelly asked that the Committee seek legal advice on whether or not there would be implications around examining the question of spending. He also questioned the hurry to address the issue, noting the potential for “political capital” it might engender, and suggested it be delayed until after the election.

Fianna Fail TD Shane Cashless said he did not agree such a meeting would compromise the democratic process.

Mr Sherlock declined the request to seek a legal opinion and the Committee voted to proceed with the subject on Tuesday, ahead of the forthcoming election campaign.

A senior constitutional lawyer has said the Committee should defer the planned hearing and seek legal advice.

Dr Conor Mahony of University College Cork told RTÉ that in his view the actions of the committee border on unconstitutional.