The Irish Times view on the Áras’s finances: transparency is vital

Michael D Higgins’s inaction so far in improving the transparency of the office should prompt the Dáil and Seanad to take the initiative

President Michael D Higgins said during the election campaign that he would explain how the unaudited €317,000 allowance for his office is spent – but would only do so after the election. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

President Michael D Higgins said during the election campaign that he would explain how the unaudited €317,000 allowance for his office is spent – but would only do so after the election. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

The presidential election may, for the most part, be best forgotten, but one theme of the campaign – the lack of transparency at Áras an Uachtaráin – should prompt the presidency and the parliament into action.

Shortly before the election, it emerged that the presidency receives an unaudited allowance of €317,000 and that an audit committee for the Áras had not met for nearly four years. The situation was “suboptimal”, said the secretary general to the Government, Martin Fraser. President Michael D Higgins gave an even more inadequate response, suggesting he would reveal how the allowance had been spent – but only after the election. Now that he has been re-elected, Higgins should quickly publish details about the spending of the allowance and every other cent of public money received by his office.

Throughout the campaign, Higgins said he had no objection to improving the transparency of his office. But he did very little during his first seven years to back up that commitment. His inaction should strengthen the case for the Dáil and Seanad to take the initiative.

Most important is the extension of the Freedom of Information Act to the presidency, which currently – and wrongly – enjoys a total exemption from the legislation. In 2014, the Fine Gael/Labour coalition widened the Act to bring An Garda Síochána, the National Treasury Management Agency, the Central Bank and the refugee agencies under its ambit. Some arms of the State, such as the Garda and the Department of Foreign Affairs, have exemptions for certain types of material whose release could compromise State security or foreign relations. But as far as the Áras is concerned, the Act doesn’t exist.

When Fianna Fáil’s then senator Thomas Byrne sought to include the Áras in the new Act in 2014, then minister for public expenditure Brendan Howlin resisted, saying it had “always been the tradition, and accepted in both Houses, that the President is above politics”. He may be above politics, but he is not above transparency and accountability. The Act should be amended.

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