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'Journalists should expect the truth - the Dept of Public Expenditure has crossed a line'

Journalists are used to government departments stone-walling them but it’s rare for a department to lie, writes Ken Foxe.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Employment and Social Protection Regina Doherty.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Employment and Social Protection Regina Doherty.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

MOST JOURNALISTS ARE well used to government departments stone-walling them.

Questions – unless backed up by solid proof in the form of documents or other evidence – are routinely swatted away or answered with often lengthy responses that strive to give away as little as is humanly possible.

What rarely happens however, is for a government department to blatantly lie.

Regina Doherty’s allowance

Back in March, I wrote a story about the very dubious process whereby the government created a new allowance for Regina Doherty after she was appointed as government chief whip and as a “super” Junior Minister.

At the time, the law only allowed for two ministers to be paid this €15,829 allowance but because of the way the new government was formed, three people were now effectively entitled to it. The simple thing would have been to change the law but the government knew that would have been a public relations disaster.

Fast forward three months and Labour’s Brendan Howlin raised in the Dáil the fact that this allowance may not have been legal either. He said the law was “crystal clear” and that no extra allowance could be paid to Doherty for her additional duties as government chief whip.

The story faded

The government said they would investigate but within a few weeks, the matter faded – like many other political stories in summertime – into the background.

Because of my original story, the outcome of this still fascinated me and I submitted an FOI request to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to see what was happening behind closed doors. The FOI request was answered properly and from the response, what was clear was that the government had gone to the Attorney General for advice on what to do next.

I sent a follow-up press query to the Department on 14 August asking what the outcome  had been and asked specifically “whether Doherty was or was not entitled to the double allowance”.

A day later, they responded to say they had received advice from the Attorney General and that the matter was under consideration.

“That advice was recently received by the Department and is now being considered,” they said. “The matter will be dealt with in due course.”

That simply wasn’t true.

Allowance had been illegal

In fact, at least two weeks earlier the Department had already conceded that the allowance had been illegal. They had already written a letter to Regina Doherty’s Department to ask them how they were going to recoup the money from the Minister.

That letter to the Department of Social Protection, dated 26 July, said: “It is understood that Minister Doherty is aware of the situation and is agreeable to the repayment.”

Yet instead of admitting the matter had been resolved, the Department of Public Expenditure decided they were going to withhold the information.

An email from Minister Paschal Donohoe’s special adviser on 14 August to the Departmental press office said: “Sit tight on this for now.”

The response they sent to me insisted no decision had been made and another internal email said that if I were to come back looking for further information, I was to be told that they were not “going to comment further”.

Government more interested in public image

Fortunately, these documents came into the public domain this weekend in a story written by Hugh O’Connell of the Sunday Business Post. They illustrate yet again a government who seem more concerned with managing their public image than they are with almost anything else.

Journalists do not have high expectations when they deal with government departments in Ireland; they expect little and they often get less. However, at the very minimum they should expect the truth and the Department of Public Expenditure has crossed a line here.

Ministers and politicians look for accuracy from the media, and are quick to point out our mistakes. They have an obligation to the people who elected them, and to every taxpayer, to be open and transparent about how they spend public money.

From the documents, it appears that Minister Paschal Donohoe was at the very least aware of how the Department planned to approach this. He was one of the recipients of the email saying the Department should say nothing further if asked more questions about repayment of the allowance.

Labour TD Alan Kelly has already called for a statement from Minister Donohoe explaining the dishonesty in their reply. That is the least the public and media deserve.

Ken Foxe is a journalism lecturer in Dublin Institute of Technology and a freelance reporter.

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