Cost of Higgins' presidency to be examined by Oireachtas committee despite 'unconstitutional' warnings

Update 9.30am The cost of Michael D Higgins’ presidential term is set to be examined by an Oireachtas committee next week - despite being warned doing so may be "unconstitutional".

The Public Accounts Committee agreed to the emergency meeting yesterday morning, putting the group on a collision course with the Government and Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin.

Some politicians fear an investigation will damage the integrity of the presidential election.

Labour TD Alan Kelly's questioning whether the move is constitutional.

He said: "The real issue here is once these questions are asked during the middle of an election campaign, you can't put the genie back in the box.

"If people want to play politics with this and ask certain questions next Tuesday, for the public accounts to be in the middle of that, I think is wrong.

"I actually, as vice-chair, do not know if what we are doing is constitutional, and I think it's ridiculously wrong that we have been allowed a few days legal advice."

However, Fianna Fail TD Marc McSharry disagrees: "The constitutional argument is a red herring in my view - the committee made their decision accordingly yesterday.

"Legal advice is not required on this occasion, I think it is a big hullabaloo over nothing - this will proceed quite easily on Tuesday."

Public Accounts Committee insists on Áras costs inquiry, despite Micheál Martin's protest

By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith and Elaine Loughlin

Earlier: The Dáil’s financial watchdog is on a direct collision course with the Government and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin after insisting an emergency presidential costs investigation must be held before the race for the Áras begins.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) ignored Government threats that the move is “unconstitutional” and Mr Martin’s demands to “desist” by agreeing to hold the meeting next Tuesday — just 24 hours before presidential nominations close.

Yesterday morning, the PAC rejected claims it is becoming embroiled in a politically motivated “agenda” driven attack on Mr Higgins by voting by a six to two majority to hold the review immediately.

And while the move has risked causing a full-scale battle between the committee and the Government on the eve of the presidential race, it has also further undermined Mr Martin’s position — with all four Fianna Fáil TDs on the PAC ignoring his calls and backing an investigation.

In response to calls in the Irish Examiner last month from PAC chair and Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming for an investigation, Department of the Taoiseach secretary general Martin Fraser wrote to the PAC this week saying such a move would be “unconstitutional” and politically motivated.

However, at an hour-long debate yesterday morning, PAC members rejected the claim and insisted the examination must take place on Tuesday, with a vote forced by Mr Fleming backed by Fianna Fáil colleagues Marc MacSharry, Bobby Aylward, and Shane Cassells, Independent TD Catherine Connolly, and Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane guaranteeing the meeting will take place.

While the Department of the Taoiseach, which speaks for both Mr Fraser and the attorney general Seamus Woulfe, did not respond to the PAC move last night, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan warned “it’s important any initiative will not impact on the election campaign”.

However, reacting to the move at the National Ploughing Championships, Mr Martin urged the PAC to “desist” and delay any review until after the vote.

Given that we are now in the middle of an election, I think the PAC should desist and should meet in the coolness of day in the aftermath of the election,” he said.

“If people want the presidency to be treated the same as any other Government department, let’s make that decision outside of an election context.”

Mr Martin added that “people will read all sorts of agendas” into a review if it takes place now.

The stand-off means the presidential costs row is set to play a role in the race for the Áras over the coming weeks, regardless of whether the PAC uncovers revelations over the spend or is blocked from asking key questions.

Asked to comment on the development last night, businessman and presidential candidate Sean Gallagher — who has previously called for spending records to be released — said “I believe it would be inappropriate to comment on the work of the PAC”.

However, fellow businessman and presidential candidate Gavin Duffy — who has also called for presidential costs transparency — said he believes all spending details should be made public without delay.

I believe the public is entitled to know the overall costs on an annual basis of running the office of the president,” he said. “I have already stated that, if elected president, I would publish such costs on an annual basis.

“I don’t think it is unreasonable for the PAC to request that the Government’s secretary general should shed some light into such spending.”

The PAC move caused considerable political debate inside and outside Leinster House yesterday, with political scientist at UCC Theresa Reidy labelling the investigation as a “political stunt” and counterpart Noel Whelan saying “the president is answerable to someone”.

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