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PAC likely to examine Áras finances every year to avoid 'hullabaloo in next campaign'

There was controversy during the campaign about the €317,000 annual allowance paid to the Office of the President.

Image: Mazwells/PA

THE OIREACHTAS PUBLIC Accounts committee is likely to examine spending at Áras an Úachtaráin in 2019 – and every year from now on – after the office’s finances became one of the hot topics of the recent Presidential campaign.

There was criticism of the decision by the committee in late September to hold a meeting on Áras finances so close to the election. 

The Office of the President is exempt from Freedom of Information legislation and ahead of the meeting the Secretary General of the Department of An Taoiseach had argued that, constitutionally, the President also is not answerable to the Houses of the Oireachtas. 

It emerged during the committee session that the Comptroller and Auditor General has no oversight over a €317,000 annual payment to the Office of the President.

The payment has been made from the central exchequer accounts since 1998. This allowance is not connected to the President’s €249,000-a-year salary. 

The meeting also heard that the presidency had direct expenditure of €3.6 million in 2016 but that this increased to €8.2 million when the cost of related items such as security and the maintenance of Áras an Úachtaráin were included. 

The upkeep of Áras an Uachtaráin for the year was said to cost €2.6 million.

A spokesperson for the President this week said Higgins is committed to establishing an audit committee and is consulting on the best way to achieve effective reporting on all the financial resources of the office.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Fianna Fáil TD and chair of the committee Seán Fleming said he will be proposing that it examines the finances of the Office of the Presidency at least on an annual basis. 

He said the claims made before the recent meeting that it may be unconstitutional were “bogus”. 

“If it had raised constitutional issues clearly the general secretary [of the department] and the C&AG wouldn’t have been there. Yes there was also criticism about why the PAC hadn’t done it before in the previous decade and what I’m saying now is that it won’t happen again,” he said.

Fleming said the committee will not be looking at this before the Christmas break to “let things settle” after the election but he “will be proposing it in 2019 as a rotating item”. 

“That way there won’t be such a hullabaloo in the next campaign,” he said. 

Last month, during the campaign, Higgins said said he will return the balance in the Áras account at the end of his presidency.

He referred to the fact that former President Mary McAleese had returned the balance in the account when she left the presidency after two terms.

Higgins said that he intends to return the balance in the account at the end of his first seven-year term. He estimated that the balance would be in the region of €200,000.

TheJournal.ie asked the Áras whether Higgins still has the intention of returning the €200,000 balance on the day his first term officially ends. His spokesperson did not respond. 

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