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John McGuinness before the Public Accounts Committee Screengrab

McGuinness: 'What was accepted back then is not acceptable now... I accept that'

The chairman of the Public Accounts Committee has been answering questions on the ongoing controversy surrounding his views on whether the State should cover the cost of spouses travelling with ministers.

THE CHAIRMAN OF the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said that in “seriously, exceptional circumstances” a case could be made that the State cover the costs of a minister’s spouse travelling with them.

John McGuinness was responding to questions from his own committee members in Leinster House this morning as the controversy over office, personnel and travel expenditure while he served as a junior trade minister in 2007 and 2008 was discussed for over two hours.

In an unusual move, McGuinness stepped aside as chair of the committee this morning to allow himself to be questioned by members about his views on overseas trade visits and whether he believed that the State should cover the costs of spouses travelling with ministers.

He said that in “serous, exceptional circumstances” there should be an arrangement for a minister to make a case to the Taoiseach for a spouse’s travel costs to be covered. “It could be do with illness, it could be to do with a bereavement,” he explained.

He admitted it was not acceptable in hindsight to argue the point in the way he did with a series of email exchanges with civil servants, saying: “Looking back on it now it was a different country then in 2007. What was accepted back then is not acceptable now and I accept that.”

The Fianna Fáil TD said he accepted the point that even if a minister offers to pay for their spouse, they cannot accompany the minister on a trade mission but that he was responding to a more general “philosophical discussion” and was “challenging old ways” and rules in relation to spouses travelling.

He said: “It was probably written with a little bit of frustration in it, maybe a little bit of anger in it. Maybe I was having a bad day and it wasn’t expressed, maybe, as it should have been.”

‘Poorly presented opinion’

McGuinness later told the committee “it was a poorly presented opinion, but that’s all it was, an opinion,” he said, adding that he was not “the only minister that traveled with his wife abroad at that time.”

McGuinness disclosed that the State paid for his wife to travel with him on three occasions when he was a junior minister  including to Seattle and Edinburgh on St Patrick’s Day – when it is tradition for spouses’ travel to be covered – and on another occasion to London.

McGuinness said he did not know the details of the trip to London, describing it as a “promotional” event, saying: “I can’t recall the trip to London”. Committee vice-chairman Kieran O’Donnell said it was “reasonable to expect this would come up” with McGuinness insisting he would get the information and provide it to the committee.

McGuinness said he had no “hand, act, or part” in the creation of his office in the Department of Enterprise at a cost of €250,000 when he became a Minister of State in 2007. He acknowledged that the cost of that office was excessive.

He said that overtime – amounting to over €30,000 – paid to his son working as his assistant was not signed off by him but said he was covering for maternity leave. He said the post vacated by a staff member going on maternity leave was not filled by an additional staff member.

McGuinness said it was “impossible” to know if  more potentially damaging information would come out about him but said: “I can’t imagine that there’s much left”.

He insisted that the coverage of him in recent days has not “in any way negatively on the committee itself” and rejected a claim by Independent TD Shane Ross who told the deputy: “The McGuinness family seem to have done pretty well out of the State, out of the taxpayer.”

Read: Martin suggests Fine Gael has ‘a hand’ in ‘consistent targeting’ of PAC chair

PAC chair: State should pay for wives to join ministers on some foreign trips

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