PAC should be able to examine spending by Office of the President – McDowell

Former Attorney General says expenditure of public monies should be open to scrutiny

  Fianna Fáil TD Seán Fleming, chairman of the PAC, insisted that what the committee intended to do was not unconstitutional. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan

Fianna Fáil TD Seán Fleming, chairman of the PAC, insisted that what the committee intended to do was not unconstitutional. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan

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A former Attorney General has said expenditure by Áras an Uachtaráin should be open to examination by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) like other areas of public spending.

Senator Michael McDowell said that “in principle” the spending by the Office of the President could be open to scrutiny.

Mr McDowell said while there may be a “parliamentary convention that they don’t ask too many hard questions”, from a constitutional standpoint, the spending of public monies by the Office of the President should be permitted.

Article 13.8.1 of the Constitution says the “President shall not be 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 McDowell said that while such functions and powers were exercisable on the advice of the Government, “in principle, all exchequer monies expended by or on behalf of the Office of the President, with the exception of his own salary, are public revenues and are amenable to review, in the same way as any other public monies”.

He was reacting to a decision by the PAC to examine the spending by the office next Tuesday, on the eve of the Presidential campaign officially starting.

Legal advice

Fianna Fáil TD Seán Fleming, chairman of the PAC, insisted that what the committee intended to do was not unconstitutional. Labour TD Alan Kelly said the committee should have taken legal advice before making such a move.

Martin Fraser, secretary general at the Department of the Taoiseach, is the accounting officer for the spend of Áras an Uachtaráin and will be the one answering the questions at the PAC.

Mr Fraser’s frustration at the move by the PAC is evident in his letter to the committee, in which he said he was “very surprised” that it made no reference to article 13.8.1 in its correspondence on the issue to him.

Another opinion on the constitutionality of what the PAC has done was offered by Dr Conor O’Mahony from UCC School of Law. He told RTÉ that he could not give a straight “yes or no” on whether the PAC was allowed examine the spending, and said there was no precise clarity on the constitutional provision about the relationship between the President and the Dáil and Seanad.

“It is something of an unprecedented question and there isn’t a big body of case law. It is a very sparse framework on this particular question in the constitution.”

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