Timing of examination into costs of presidency raises concerns

Micheál Martin and Ministers believe PAC may have undue influence on election

PAC chairman said members would keep questions to how money is spent and would not direct any towards Michael D Higgins personally. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

PAC chairman said members would keep questions to how money is spent and would not direct any towards Michael D Higgins personally. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

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

Others, including the State’s top civil servant, Martin Fraser, as well as senior Government Ministers, have also opposed the examination on the grounds that it may be unconstitutional, and could have an undue influence on the presidential election campaign.

Mr Fleming said PAC members would discuss the issue next Tuesday, the eve of the start date for the official presidential campaign, but that questions would be kept strictly to how money is spent and will not be directed toward President Michael D Higgins personally.

Mr Martin questioned the timing of the probe, coming so close to the election campaign.

“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.

“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 campaign.

Flanagan warning

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan also warned the PAC not to interfere with the election campaign.

At the committee meeting on Tuesday, extracts were read from a three-page letter from Mr Fraser, secretary-general to the Government. Mr Fraser, who is also the accounting officer for the President’s Office, said the proposal appeared to be unconstitutional and to undermine the principle of the political impartiality of the civil service.

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,

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.

“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 under way.”

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

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.

Attempt to influence

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 contents, which, he said, were 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.”

Labour TD Alan Kelly said the Committee should 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”.

Mr Fleming 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.