WHAT a bun fight it has turned out to be.
The extraordinary row this week over whether the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has a right to or should seek to examine the expenditure of the President’s establishment has been fascinating, writes Daniel McConnell
Far from a political stunt, the PAC is rather belatedly but correctly exercising its powers to examine where public monies are being spent.
Since President Higgins declared his intention earlier in the summer to stand again, the question of how taxpayers’ money has been spent by Áras An Úachtarain has arisen.
Reports in the media, most notably by Philip Ryan in the Sunday Independent, showed how €30m has gone on running the President’s establishment since President Higgins took office in 2011 and €50m over the past decade.
Added to that, the President’s office is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act so routine questions about expenditure at the Áras have been refused.
The minister who introduced that exemption was Brendan Howlin when he refreshed the FoI legislation in 2014.
Speaking at his party’s think-in last weekend, he said he exempted the President because of the Constitutional provision which states the President is beyond accountability from the Oireachtas. However, he said he would not have any issue re-examining that exemption in light of the ongoing controversy.
The only caveat to that provision is if the Oireachtas decides to begin a process of impeachment.
So while the Constitution is clear that the President is beyond the accountability functions of the Oireachtas, what is also clear is that his office and the monies given to that office are not exempt.
Monies from the Department of an Taoiseach budget (Vote as it is technically called) go toward the running of the Áras.
Separate monies from the budget of the Office of Public Works (OPW) also go to the running of the President’s establishment.
Both budgets (Votes) are subject to annual audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Seamus McCarthy, whose reports are the basis of the work of the PAC.
On August 13, the chairman of the PAC, speaking to this newspaper’s political correspondent, Fiachra O’Cionnaith, made it clear he thought it appropriate that the expenditure of the Áras should be examined by the committee.
"It is certainly on our radar, ” said Mr Fleming, adding that any examination will have to take place before October’s presidential election in order to be relevant.
His call to examine the spending came after it was claimed President Higgins stayed at a five-star, €3,000-a-night hotel last year in Geneva, Switzerland.
But others were not so sure.
This week, ahead of the PAC’s first meeting of the new term, a letter was sent by Martin Fraser, secretary general to the Government and therefore the accounting officer for the Áras, warning them to stay clear of the issue.
“I believe your proposal to have a meeting on the issue appears to be unconstitutional and to undermine the principle of the political impartiality of the Civil Service,” Fraser wrote in the letter.
He noted in particular Article 13.8.1 of the Constitution which states the president is not answerable to either house of the Oireachtas or to any court “for the exercise and performance of the powers and functions of his office or for any act done or purporting to be done by him in the exercise and performance of these powers and functions”.
Mr Fraser said it would be “impossible not to breach this constitutional provision” were any members of the PAC or public servants “to ask or answer” questions on the issue of expenditure.
As regards the impartiality of the civil service, he said its members could not become involved in an election.
“I cannot accept your suggestions that the campaign period has not yet started,” he wrote. “It is absolutely clear that a campaign for the office of the presidency is fully underway.” The proposed meeting, he argued, could only address questions relating to one of the candidates, the incumbent.
Published by the Irish Examiner on the morning of the meeting, Fraser’s letter was met with furious anger from some members of the PAC, who branded it as “dangerous”.
At the meeting, Fleming made the proposal that the committee should hear from Fraser next week, but was met with some concerns from Labour’s Alan Kelly and Fine Gael’s Peter Burke.
Kelly’s opposition to the move was understandable, given his former party colleague, President Higgins, is caught in the middle of this.
Burke as a Government TD, no doubt acting on off his own steam, just so happened to be totally in sync with the views emanating out of Government Buildings.
Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane sought clarity from Fleming as to why he brought this issue forward but also from the Comptroller and Auditor General as to what could be asked were the meeting to go ahead.
McCarthy, a good Youghal man who prides himself on being a no-nonsense operator, brought a great deal of clarity and sense to proceedings.
He said the presidential spending is “audited in the same way” as all other votes. “There is no difference,” he said.
But then came the key intervention. “My understanding is that it is more about why the money is being spent, that is probably the question he [Fraser] would baulk at. I don’t think he would have a problem in saying how the money was spent,” he said.
Cullinane and others immediately moved to back the meeting going ahead.
Shane Cassells and Marc MacSharry of Fianna Fáil voiced their support but also vented their anger at Fraser’s letter.
“We are at a stand off here. . . I strongly refute what is said here [in the letter],” he said. “If that is the sphere we are getting into then that is a dangerous assertion in itself,” he added.
MacSharry said he was “annoyed in a major way” by its content which, he said, was an attempt to influence the business of the PAC.
“The tone of the letter did bother me. It goes on to say that if we do this it would in some way undermine the impartiality of the civil service and I resent that suggestion,” he said.
“Thanks Mr Fraser for the advice. I think it’s flawed; I think it’s incorrect.” Outside the committee room, a major question mark was raised about the PAC’s actions by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.
Those who have opposed the move have said this is all a political stunt, opportunistically being used to damage President Higgins. Or that there are plenty of more important issues to deal with ahead of this one. But in truth, if as we are told, the Áras is under budget and no issues have arisen, then there should be no problem.
If the Áras has nothing to hide, then it has nothing to fear from such a probe.
More pointedly, if Michael D has nothing to hide, then he has nothing to fear, particularly if Fleming and the PAC seem intent on respecting the boundaries of the Constitution.
In the end, the committee took the highly rare step of taking a vote on the matter with Kelly and Burke losing six votes to two.
The meeting is scheduled for next week.
Rather than being dismissed, the meeting should be welcomed by anyone who seeks to hold those in power to account. End of story.
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