Áras spending set to become election issue

Áras spending set to become election issue

Any PAC review of Áras spending will have to take place before the presidential election, which ensures the issue will form a key part of any campaign, says Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.

‘It has always been the tradition that the President is above politics. In keeping with this independence, I felt it would not be appropriate to cover the office of the president under Freedom of Information laws.’

These were the words of then public expenditure minister and current Labour leader Brendan Howlin when he confirmed in 2014 that Áras an Uachtaráin would remain outside of the scope of FoI requests.

And, until recently, any grumbling about the position has been few and far between.

However, in part because of the apparent limited opportunities to attack Michael D Higgins over his first term in power, a number of potential presidential rivals have increasingly been playing up the need to provide full transparency on costs.

And, if the latest move this morning is any indication, they may soon get their way and push the issue onto the campaign trail agenda before the likely presidential election date in late October.

As revealed in today’s Irish Examiner, Gavin Duffy, Pádraig Ó Ceidigh and Ger Craughwell’s calls for the office of the presidency to be subjected to greater financial scrutiny are now set to be listened to by the cross-party public accounts committee.

Far from happy over the level of questioning currently being provided, Fianna Fáil TD and PAC chair Sean Fleming has said while the overview audits conducted by State financial watchdog the comptroller and auditor general are valuable, there may be a need to provide further information on where public money goes.

And given the scale of funding involved, it is easy to see why.

According to the limited information available on presidency expenditure, since taking office in 2011 Michael D Higgins’ time in the Phoenix Park has come with a price tag of a bare minimum of €30m.

The figure, which is broadly in line with previous presidential terms, includes €23m in overall running of the Áras including an estimated €18m in salaries for Mr Higgins and his staff, €1.5m in flights, and an alleged €3,000 a night stay in the five star Beau-Rivage Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland last year.

Mr Fleming has said any potential PAC examination of presidential costs is not necessarily about criticism for the sake of criticism, and is in part about providing the right context for rumours over spending in order to ensure the issue does not overtake the presidential election itself.

However, given the fact any PAC review will inevitably have to take place before the presidential election in late October if it is to be in any way relevant, the move also practically guarantees the issue will now form a key part of any election campaign.

The presidency is, as Mr Howlin rightly remarked to widespread agreement in 2014, “above politics” and should not be damaged by any mud-slinging during a campaign.

However, that does not mean its costs should remain removed from a public who pays for it.

Mr Higgins has previously said — after much questioning — that he would have no problem signing a new law allowing Freedom of Information access to the Áras.

Given the PAC move, the genuinely limited information available on Áras spending, and Mr Duffy and others’ continuing focus on the issue, expect those questions to become increasingly prominent in the weeks ahead.

Since 2011, President Michael D Higgins has, like previous heads of state, traveled abroad extensively to represent Ireland on nine State visits and 40 official trips.

They include the historic meeting with Queen Elizabeth II in 2012, Turkey in 2015, Athens this year, Columbia in 2017, a flight to Kerry in February to attend an event honouring poet Danny Sheehy, and the iconic Ireland-Italy group match at the Euro 2016 soccer finals in France.

In the first half of this year alone, those journeys included 16 flights on the Government’s Lear jet, while there were also nine further trips in 2017, nine in 2016, 10 in 2015 and nine in 2014.

Although no exact costs, are available, it is believed the journeys have cost in the region of €1.5m since Mr Higgins was elected president, with recent reports suggesting the price tag has been close to €300,000 for each of the past

three years.

This is because the hourly cost of flying the Government jet is estimated by the Department of Defence to be €3,780.

President Higgins was and continues to be lauded for insisting on voluntarily reducing his salary by 23.5%, or €76,493 when he entered office as a show of solidarity to a country still on its economic knees.

The move — which potential presidential rival Gavin Duffy, who has repeatedly talked up the need for spending transparency, has controversially said he will not do — came on the back of Mr Higgins similarly voluntarily gifting his ministerial (€39,901) and TD (€53,558) pensions back to the State, amounting to a total returned gift of €169,952 a year.

However, despite these notable steps, Mr Higgins’ salary still stands at €249,014, a figure that will reach a total payment of €1.74m by the time his first term as president ends.

In addition, the cost of salaries among Áras officials is also significant, with the limited information available indicating it will break the €15m-mark when the presidential election takes place in October.

The €15m rate is based on figures released in Government spending reports which show €11m was spent on staff salaries between 2011 and 2018, and a further €4.9m spent on household staff salaries from the Office of Public Works.

A total of 26 people work in the office of the presidency, in addition to four full-time gardaí and four defense forces representatives.

While the vast majority of details surrounding the office of the president’s spend is blocked from public view as it is outside of Freedom of Information Act access, limited top-line details are available.

According to State financial watchdog, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s annual appropriation account reports for 2011 to 2016 — the latest available, with the 2017 document available next month — Government departments have given the office of the president more than €23m in seven years.

The figure — which includes salaries — has risen most years during President Higgins’ tenure, and includes €2.96m in 2012, €2.98m in 2013, €3.18m in 2014,€3.19m in 2015 and €3.52m in 2016, with similar expenditure expected to have taken place in 2017 and this year.

The money is used to pay for pensions for previous presidents, overtime for staff, major events including welcoming foreign dignitaries, the “centenarians bounty” an €8m payout to citizens whoturn 100 years old, and other matters.

However, other than the overall figure,practically no clear breakdown of costsis available.

As last week’s public spat over President Higgins allegedly staying at a €3,000 anight, five-star hotel in Geneva,Switzerland, shows, there is always intense interest in where the great and the good stay — and how they get there.

However, crumbs of information are all that is available. On Thursday, Independent senator and former potential presidential candidate Ger Craughwell hit out at Mr Higgins after being informed he stayed at the€3,000 a night Beau-Rivage Hotel in Geneva.

While accepting the Department of Foreign Affairs — which referred queries to the office of the president, which in turn declined to comment in depth — books hotels on behalf of the president, meaning Mr Higgins may not have had a choice in the matter, Mr Craughwell said this proves the full costs of presidential terms need to be released.

A separate mini-row also emerged earlier this year after it was reported two BMWs costing more than €200,000 were purchased for the president, in addition to the defence forces security team stationed at the Phoenix Park.

It should be noted that presidential costs only began when Mr Higgins was elected president in 2011, with salary levels, pensions and running expenditure inevitably remaining high since the creation of the State due to therole involved.

Mr Higgins’ predecessors, Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, both received salaries far in excess of the current president, with Mrs McAleese receiving €325,507 a year during the recession.

Similarly, existing pension payouts by the office of the president stood at€484,000 a year in 2016, the latestrecords available from the Comptroller and Auditor General.

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