GERARD HOWLIN: It’s a new era and the scrutiny will inevitably politicise the presidency

Picture: Maxwellphotography.ie

Gerard Howlin believes a major cultural change is coming to Áras an Uachtaráin in September.

WHETHER it’s done roughly or readily there is a major cultural change coming to Áras an Uachtaráin in September.

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report for 2017 will be published at the end of next month. The Dáil Public Accounts Committee will be back in session. It is likely the committee will decide for the first time ever, to forensically examine the figures underlying the first chapter of the report — namely the President’s establishment.

People and papers will be sent for. That is how things may be readily done. It is exactly as they are done with every other department and office of state. If not, a rougher and perhaps not readily fact-based mêlée will ensue in the coming presidential campaign regardless.

There is a pious political tradition that because the president is above politics, the president’s budget should be above the scrummaging of parliamentary scrutiny. It is a sentiment that has its roots in an era when across the water, many were disturbed at the prospect of the coronation being televised because it might be viewed in pubs.

It evokes a time when a pared-back presidency with no effective resources to speak of, was seldom seen except in sepia photographs. In 2018, the estimated cost of the presidency is €4.4m. It seems worth looking at the receipts — just in case.

The bigger picture is that whatever handwringing the Public Accounts Committee does is beside the point. The moment has passed when respect for the office can substitute for scrutiny of the budget. The best service the committee can give the presidency is to robustly examine the accounts and to do so quickly. The window between the publication of the Comptroller’s report and the full flood of the presidential campaign is a very narrow one. This will have to be the committee’s first item of business, and it will have to be done quickly if it is not to be an actual part of the hustings.

Consideration of an alternative is political naivety. The president’s budget is going to be part of this campaign. Best then, that it is examined forensically in the parliamentary forum which has responsibility.

If in some respects the remit of the Public Accounts Committee is a matter of controversy, and important court decisions are awaited, there is crystal clear clarity on this. The expenditure by the president’s establishment is in its ambit. This new departure, if embarked on, is just cultural catch-up.

In recent interviews, the committee chairman, Seán Fleming TD, indicated this is the direction the committee will go. Let’s see.

It is amusing to remember how in the last great wave of transparency when Freedom of Information was expanded and lobbying legislation introduced, the presidency was excused again.

Whether it was the socialist fraternity or not, Labour in government and Brendan Howlin, in particular, didn’t think to trouble Michael D Higgins with too much accountability.

You might cynically smirk, but I don’t know. I have never been fully persuaded that transparency leads culturally to accountability. In some ways, it’s just a maze for time-servers and a charter for action avoidance. That discussion may be interesting, it is also now pointless. The bus has left the station.

It is worth remembering just how impoverished the presidency was. Patrick Hillery had no capacity at Áras an Uachtaráin to support his busy schedule of events. He was, in fact, a busy man, and the fact of being a humble one, helped him do his business without much attention.

It’s a new era and the scrutiny will inevitably politicise the presidency

In 1979, when Charles Haughey became Taoiseach, Hillery asked the government to sanction the appointment of a press officer to the Áras. No such appointment was sanctioned in the following decade. It is partly true but partly myth, that the Robinson presidency was different. A critical difference is that for the first time the office began to be properly resourced. It is resources as much as anything that has changed it into a more potent force.

The lack of a press officer was not a new issue in Patrick Hillery’s time. When Éamon de Valera went on his first state visit, to Washington in 1964 there was no Áras press officer either. Aer Lingus’s press man the redoubtable Bart Cronin was conscripted. The concluding chapter of his subsequent and long career in government stretching from the mid-1960s with George Colley, to the late 1990s with James McDaid and a long tour with Albert Reynolds as Taoiseach and a minister in between, overlapped with the beginning of my much shorter one.

Bart’s retelling of those tales were in part unprintable but highly entertaining. The point is that historically the presidency was a pared back, shoestring operation and money really matters.

On the eve of a papal visit, it is worth remembering too the slow evolution of the office. Until the Republic of Ireland Act in 1948 the British king signed letters of credence for Irish ambassadors.

That purposeful ambiguity meant the office holder was president in-Ireland, rather than of Ireland abroad. Seán T O’Kelly’s state visit to the Vatican in the Holy Year of 1950 was the first abroad of an Irish president and a major step forward for the office.

In a week of comic revisionism about Ireland’s relations with the papacy, it was actually one where far from being subjugated, we jostled up the steps of the papal dais the better to be first up to the footstool, to augment our status by prostrating at the papal feet. That was until the 1950s common usage. Kissing the papal feet was not all it seemed. At the moment your lips puckered, his cuticles were covered with ornamental cloth and you kissed the cross on that. It was what it signified, not the thing itself.

It is that era and usage, however, which is the signifier of the covering over of the presidential budget with parliamentary gauze now. It is of an era that is definitely over.

SCRUTINY will inevitably politicise the presidency to an extent. There are venerable rules in the Oireachtas about not bringing the president into debate, when he cannot answer and is further constitutionally part of the legislative procedure. Some scrutiny, especially on the eve of an election, will be self-serving.

It is, however, a new context for the office, and it’s permanent. Additional resources have enlarged the presidency, and that enlargement if only obliquely, has been political. Accountability is uncomfortable. If you have pioneered an ethics initiative, I assume the receipts are in order.

This weekend the Irish establishment gather in Dublin Castle to meet the Pope, and probably challenge him. The castle guestlist is the exact up-to-date registrar of Ireland’s who’s who. When passing through the throne room, they might look at the footstool beneath the chair. It has a purpose. Some feet were so special they were never meant to touch the ground. Times are changing.

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