RYLE DWYER: Public service expenses rip-off a perversion of true republicanism

IT is amazing how exercised some people are about John O’Donoghue’s expenses when he was Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism. He provided an abject apology during the week to those who were paying the bills — the taxpayer.

“When I read the detail in the past weeks I was embarrassed that such costs were associated with some of the arrangements made on my behalf,” he said. That sounds like the old story — denounce what happened and blame it on a civil servant.

“I sincerely regret that, although on official duty, such considerable cost were incurred,” he continued. Do you believe that?

For what it is worth, I do believe him. He made a serious mistake in not addressing the issue properly before his abject apology in the Dáil this week. He had allowed his position to become almost untenable.

The whole thing reminds one of Stanley Baldwin’s famous aphorism that “power without responsibility is the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” It was only a politician who would say that because most other people would probably say it is the prerogative of politicians.

There seems to be no end to the political abuse that has come to light in recent months, but the Opposition were not calling for O’Donoghue’s head.

Could it be that they recognise he has been a fair man in his job and they realise that if the same kind of light was shone on all the other ministers that the man whom media critics have been calling Junket Johnny would be far from the worst offender.

What was his offence — that he did not check on the cost of the services being provided?

A limousine was provided to drive him from one terminal to another at Heathrow airport at a cost of €472 when he could have taken a free bus shuttle that would have got him there in a few minutes. Of course, he is the one who is ultimately responsible for that extravagance. By highlighting this abuse maybe other such abuses will be discontinued.

“He is not the kind of man who takes an interest in that kind of stuff,” Conor Lenihan said in O’Donoghue’s defence. Indeed, John O’Donoghue never seemed to develop any airs.

Did he ask for the limousine, or was he simply told one would be there? Of course, he should have asked how much it was costing. Maybe now other ministers will ask.

Shortly after Michael Collins was elected chairman of the Provisional Government in January 1922 he had to go to London. He kept a detailed list of his expenses. The return trip — boats, trains, and meals — cost him the princely sum of £5, 17 shillings and six pence.

When John O’Donoghue went to Cannes on official business, his hotel room cost us €900 a night. That was probably the going rate. Those who went there knew that anyone who had to ask the price probably couldn’t afford it. The people in Cannes could charge those outrageous prices because there were so many people there who had someone else picking up the tab.

The same probably applied with the €2,400 for the limousine in Berlin and €1,400 for the one in Cheltenham, or the €250 for a water taxi in Venice. It would be much more interesting to learn the abuses of the people who organised those things.

What would the late Martin Corry, a Fianna Fáil deputy from east Cork, have had to say about all of that?

Back in 1928 Corry complained about the extravagance of paying Irish diplomats £1,500 a year.

“These salaries,” he said, “have to be paid so that they might squat like the n****r when he put on the black silk hat and the swallow-tail coat and went out and said he was an English gentleman.

“I suppose when ministers go to London and meet other ministers there,” Corry continued, “they chat over how easily they are fooling the poor idiots here who have to pay out to the bailiffs and the sheriffs for all these entertainments abroad.”

Taxpayers are paying for these items and this information should be readily available for everyone. If we had a full list we would probably find that politicians are far from the worst offenders.

We already know a little about the outrageous behaviour of Fás officials. There are probably people in every area of the public service who have been shamelessly milking the system.

It is usually civil servants who arrange a minister’s itinerary and some will even travel with the minister, so they are really looking after their own interests, too. That does not excuse the behaviour of the politicians, but it is about time the public insisted on full transparency across the boards.

A member of the Oireachtas who lives more than 15 miles from Leinster House is entitled to overnight expenses of €126, and they get that money whether they incur any costs or not. Much of it amounts to a tax-free supplement to their income.

That might sound unfair to those members who live within 15 miles of Leinster House. They are paid €55 a day to compensate them because they can’t claim overnight expenses. Was this what the others were assumed to be making above their actual overnight costs? A public servant who has to travel more than 30 miles from home or office was entitled to €145.32 per night in unvouched expenses. In other words they got the money whether or not they actually incurred any expenses at all.

There was a time if you had to cycle or go that far by horse, one could understand the necessity of an overnight stay, but not today.

POLITICIANS get paid that mileage from their homes to Leinster House no matter how they travel — even if they travel in a car pool or by train and public transport and happen to be eligible for free travel.

Jackie Healy Rae has been vociferous in his complaining about the behaviour of his constituency colleague, John O’Donoghue, but would Jackie explain how he managed to run up the second highest travelling expenses in the Dáil when he is eligible for free travel?

In many households a husband and wife have to work to help pay off a large mortgage. One or both of them may have to travel 40 or 50 miles to work. They get no overnight allowance and they get no travelling expenses.

Moreover, they cannot even claim the cost of their travel against their income for tax purposes, even though their actual earnings are so much less when their travel costs are taken into consideration.

That whole thing is grossly unfair, especially when so-called public servants are collecting expenses that amount to a multiple of their actual costs, and they get the excess tax-free. This example of one system for the privileged few and another for the exploited many is a perversion of true republicanism.

In the age of computer technology all expenses claimed by politicians and public officials should be posted on the internet on a designated website within 24 hours of the claim being submitted.

It should be part of the filing process. Then we would probably find that extravagant expenses would quickly plummet.


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