Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Limousine hire for Noel Dempsey and his party during a trip to the US : €19,500. Two nights' accommodation at the Hassler Hotel in Rome for Seamus Brennan: €3,300. The schadenfreude of knowing the media is going into paroxysms of rage at the extravagance of it all: Priceless.

As you read this piece, you can rest assured that Irish ministers are busy all over the world at this moment doing their bit for something called 'Ireland inc', the global tourist industry (especially the five star hotel sector); and for hard-pressed limousine drivers everywhere.

In recent years, the annual exodus abroad by Irish ministers to far-flung corners of the world (some 33 are outside Ireland this year) has become, a bit like the economy, a bubble that is in grave danger of bursting;

It is inarguable that Ireland's national holiday has a status throughout the world that compares to Independence Day in the US or Bastille Day in France. And this is particularly true for Ireland's large diaspora (including millions who claim Irish heritage) who mark St Patrick's Day with more fervour and enthusiasm than the Irish who live in Ireland.

The practice that has grown up of practically every Irish minister travelling abroad to attend St Patrick's Day festivities is an offshoot of the Washington experience. Since the peace process began in earnest in the mid-1990s, Ireland has enjoyed a status in the US capital that is massively disproportionate to its size. The most powerful illustration of this is the annualisation of the 'shamrock ceremony', championed by Bill Clinton and continued by George W Bush. It has meant that for one day each year, Ireland gets unfettered access to the heart of the most powerful democracy in the world and unrivalled coverage on that day.

Only the most blinkered jeremiah would have any difficulty with the value of the White House vist. But the difficulties start with some of the other 30-odd trips. Here, too, the concept itself is sound. There are Irish communities everywhere and the presence of an Irish minister on a reviewing stand in Buenos Aires or Houston or Cape Town gives them validation.

But as always the problem isn't with the idea but how it is being executed. For one, a practice has grown up where ministers are accompanied by their husband or wife or partners, as well as the most senior officials in their office. Furthermore, many of the trips have an elastic quality about them – extended in some cases to a week or ten days. When you read the accompanying press release they are described as trade missions or tourism initiatives or opportunities to attract inward investment. But for many ordinary people, that translates into English as 'jollies' or 'junkets' or another of the perks that Irish politicians lavish on themselves.

President Bush's chief strategist Karl Rove was wont to say that if you are explaining you are losing. And the press release that accompanied the list of which minister was jetting where (only released late on Wednesday night) was certainly one of the longest in recent history, running to several thousand words.

"St Patrick's Day provides a truly unique framework to showcase modern Ireland on the world stage," it begins promisingly enough. "It offers an excellent opportunity to highlight to a global audience the advantages of doing business in Ireland and to promote Ireland as a world class tourist destination."

But as the figures obtained by Morning Ireland last week show, it is an extraordinarily expensive marketing exercise, costing taxpayers well in excess of €500,000 (out of a total marketing budget of €27 million to promote Ireland). And for each country that is listed, the Government Information Service has po-facedly listed the total value of trade with Ireland. There is sleight of hand here as it implies that, for example, a relatively unknown junior minister like Jimmy Devins is single-handedly responsible for the €175 million of trade between Ireland and New Zealand merely by standing on a review stand in Auckland for its St Patrick's Day parade.

The Government knows that the media have a field day each year, as they identify the lucky ministers going to the most exotic climes (the annual media thrasing perhaps explains the lateness of the announcement this year).

It's a reworking of Juvenal's famous question 'Quis custodiat ipsos custodes'? (who watches the watchman?). In spite of a growing public perception that these trips are as much junket as work, the Cabinet has refused to modify or concede or limit the number of trips. Or to accept that there are any or dubious excesses involved, despite the incontrovertible evidence. For sure, the figures obtained by RTE made for eyebrow-arching reading –grotesquely expensive hotels, limousine hire for a few days that cost more than the price of a family car; flights taken by ministerial parties on a single trip that cost more than the average industrial wage.

Fine Gael's Fergus O'Dowd says he's not against the idea in principle but argues that ministers have lost the plot and all contact with reality. "They have taken on the extravagant spending habits of Saudi princes," said O'Dowd last week.

And the self-serving statements about promoting trade and tourism is all very well. But where's the proof? There are no audits, no value-for-money reports that prove that all those limos and first class flights were justified. Sadly, the logic of ministers seems to be captured by the catchphrase of another popular television advert: "Because I'm worth it."


Damien said...

O'Dowd is not against it in principle. Course not. Same way nearly every single TD is mute when they get a pay hike or their expenses for the year are released.

Stephen said...

Just as a matter of interest, when journalists travel with ministers to Washington or elsewhere, who pays for their flights, meals and hotel rooms?

Harry McGee said...

The media organisation does. Flights are always economy fares; hotels are always modest; everything has to be vouched. And some don't send on the basis that it's not giving enough bang for the buck. I'm not against the concept of travel and I think it should be encouraged. But there is this expectation among politicians that they are some class of homegrown de Medici princes.