In a week when a woman drove without security interruption into the Áras and then walked through the main doors to talk to talk to President Michael D Higgins in his office, it is ironic writes PJ Cunningham, that the door should attempt to be closed on a Dail committee seeking to examine where the Office of the President’s money is spent.
What is it about a presidential race in Ireland that it invariably brings some form of controversy way beyond public expectation?
Just mention of the office and suddenly you have the images rolling – from former Defence Minister Paddy Donegan shouting “thundering disgrace” at Cearbhall Ó Dalaigh in 1976, to a “mature reflection” by Brian Lenihan that was anything but in 1990 and a mysterious “brown envelope” which existed only in fake twitter form but changed the course of the last election for the then-frontrunner, Seán Gallagher.
This allowed the incumbent Michael D Higgins to take advantage of the doubt surrounding Mr Gallagher’s performance under the focus of that RTE programme to slip into the Aras as a clear winner.
Speaking of slipping in, a woman in a car did exactly that the week before last without anyone as much as being aware of her presence until Michael D himself was confronted by her in his office deep in the bowels of the building.
He is said to have spoken to her and then alerted security to take charge of the situation he found himself in.
While word of that unlikely encounter grabbed the attention of the nation in terms of how such a thing could happen in an era of CCTV and electronic barriers, it only piqued the interest compared with a previously taboo subject making its way into the public domain – presidential spending.
The Irish Constitution and in particular Article 13.8.1 of the constitution emphasises that the office should be above politics and not be answerable to either house of the Oireachtas or courts for the exercise and performance of the powers and functions of the president.
The controversy could not have come at a better time for all the weary candidates – other than the incumbent – because they desperately need some mud to stick on Michael D if they are to entertain even a slim chance of preventing him serving a second term in the Phoenix Park.
Up to last week, the only genuine criticism that could be made against the exceptional seven years service by the diminutive Clare native was that he had originally run on the basis that it would be for one term – and one term only: Dignity.
It could be argued that changing his mind was the right thing to do as he took to the job like a duck to water, gaining universal approval for the status and dignity he brought to the office.
With the deadline for candidates entry into the race set for this Wednesday, the ordinary people have tuned in to the row that is brewing over the rights and wrongs of examining spending out of Aras.
And although there have been guarantees that the expenditure is 10 per cent under budget, the Dail’s watchdog on spending – The Public Accounts Committee – wants to see for itself where the spending is centered.
Some of the committee is reluctant to go down that road out of a sense of fair play to Michael D, but others believe that every cent paid out of the public purse should be subjected to the rigours of accountability.
One Independent Dail deputy, Catherine Connolly put the latter’s case by saying “there are practical questions to be asked, not about any president but about the expenses and how they are used.”
She even suggested that it was “a little negligent” not to examine accounts that need to be audited annually by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General – and in that she has a point.
However, in turn, the Secretary-General to the Government and Accounting Officer of the President, Martin Fraser, has warned the committee members that what they are seeking to do is “unconstitutional.”
Probe ‘Freedowm of Information’ means that anything politicians do can be brought into the public domain if a journalist or interested party asks a question on such a subject.
However, the Office of the President is outside this probe which means the public must depend on the Comptroller and Auditor General to know there is nothing going on.
That seemed a bit of an affront to some members of PAC who say they are not seeking to question anything about the office other than how it spends its money.
One member, Fianna Fáil Deputy Marc McSharry said the tone of Mr Fraser’s missive was not what he would have liked while his party colleague and Chairman of the committee, Seán Fleming said he would ensure it was about spending and not the president.
Outside of that hearing both the Taoiseach Leo Veradkar and the FF Leader, Micheál Martin, said they didn’t want such a probe to go ahead, especially as an election was about to get underway from this Wednesday.
However, Mr Fleming made it clear they would only examine the situation before midnight Tuesday so the election could go ahead without restriction from that day.
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