Public Accounts Committee to examine cost of presidency despite integrity fears

The cost of Michael D Higgins’ presidential term is set to be examined by an Oireachtas committee next week despite fears that the investigation will damage the integrity of the presidential election.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) agreed to the emergency meeting by a three-to-one majority yesterday morning, putting the group on a collision course with the Government and Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin.

In response to calls made last month by PAC chairman and Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming for an investigation into the near €50m total spend in the presidential office since 2011, Department of the Taoiseach secretary general Martin Fraser wrote to the committee to say such a move would be “unconstitutional”.

PAC members, led by four Fianna Fáil TDs, insisted yesterday that an investigation is needed, with the group voting to hold a meeting with Mr Fraser on Tuesday — 24 hours before nominations for the presidential race close.

The PAC doesn’t stop its work when there is an election,” said Mr Fleming. “We will proceed with the examination on Tuesday, the committee does not need legal advice.

His motion was seconded by party colleague and Sligo-Leitrim TD Marc MacSharry.

In an hour-long debate on the issue, Mr Fleming said the subject is “time-sensitive” and that, as such, it must take place next Tuesday, as he does not want it to occur when the official presidential election race begins on Wednesday.

Fine Gael TD Peter Burke and Labour TD Alan Kelly, the vice-chairman of the committee, both warned about the dangers of the move.

Mr Fleming was supported by Mr MacSharry and fellow Fianna Fáil TDs Shane Cassels and Bobby Aylward, as well as Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane, and unaligned Independent TD Catherine Connolly.

Mr Mac Sharry said “I think we should do it [the review] and get it over with” before saying claims that any examination of the office of the presidency would be unconstitutional are “wrong”, “flawed”, and “incorrect”.

However, Mr Kelly warned: “I find it extraordinary we haven’t gotten legal advice [on whether a presidential spending review can be allowed].

“We’ve gotten legal advice for less. You have to wonder regarding why this is being brought forward now, what is the rush to do it now.

“It would be impossible to unsay things that would be said in here about a candidate in office, you [Sean Fleming] need to think about that.

I think this rubbish about doing it before a closing date is insincere and rubbish.

“This campaign is up and running, it’s everywhere, it’s been the most dominant story in the media.

“I won’t be associated with a committee that does this, things will be said in here, no doubt.”

As a result of the PAC decision, Mr Fraser, who is also the accounting officer for the office of the presidency, will be asked to attend the emergency PAC meeting on Tuesday, an invitation he had yet to accept by last night.

During the same meeting, the State’s financial watchdog, comptroller and auditor general Seamus McCarthy, said that, generally, the presidential office stays 10% under budget.

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