The Irish Times view on presidential spending: the value of transparency

During the recent election, the cost of running the Áras and the use made of an annual discretionary allowance of €317,000 became a hot topic

 

In today’s world, the health of a democracy can be measured by the extent that administrative transparency operates in public life. Traditional forms of secrecy encourage suspicion that damaging information is being withheld. That is why the release of expenditure details from Áras an Uachtaráin, covering President Michael D Higgins’s first seven-year term, is welcome. So too is his commitment to publish these accounts on an annual basis, following independent audit.

During the recent election, the cost of running the Áras and the use made of an annual discretionary allowance of €317,000 became a hot topic in what was a pedestrian campaign. The incumbent complained of “outrageous untruths” concerning this expenditure. Described as “a slush fund” by a Fianna Fáil politician, the discretionary fund attracted attention from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which focused on a lack of transparency and the absence of a formal audit.

President Higgins acknowledged the need for greater transparency at the time and gave a commitment to publish financial details. The allowance was last increased during the presidency of Mary McAleese and both she and President Higgins remained well within the spending limits. In addition, President Higgins declined to avail of pay, pensions and other emoluments that amounted to €170,000 a year.

Under the Constitution, the position of president is above politics and governments have adopted an approach of minimal interference. In keeping with that tradition, Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin objected when the PAC became involved in the expenditure controversy. Now that the president has taken it upon himself to establish an oversight committee and to publish annual accounts, the situation has been resolved.

A further issue remains, however. The president’s office is not covered by the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. In 2014, it was again excluded on the grounds that the presidency was “independent from the political sphere”. That’s not good enough. It’s time to extend the act.

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