Ireland’s €4 million annual rent bill for ambassadorial residences including €46,000-a-month for a property in Tokyo

THE Department of Foreign Affairs is paying a staggering €46,000-a-month for a residence for the Irish Ambassador to Japan.

The colossal rental fee, which comes to more than €550,000 each year, is paid for a property in the upmarket Tokyo suburb of Moto-Azabu.

It is located in the embassy belt in Minato City where rental costs are at a premium and is by far the most expensive ambassadorial residence leased by the Irish government.

Although property prices in Tokyo are high, the rental figure for the property is still astronomical.

On one of the city’s best known luxury rental websites Century 21, the single most expensive property listed costs €33,000 per month … 30% less than the Irish Ambassador’s residence.

The revelation was made in an article I did yesterday for the Irish Mail on Sunday yesterday for which I took a certain amount of criticism on Twitter.

One described it as “sensationalist nonsense”, another asked if I wanted ambassadors to live in a shed at a roundabout, because apparently to question such extraordinary payments displays no understanding of what is required from our diplomatic network.

One pointed to criticism of St Patrick’s Day as being in a similar tabloid vein.

When I explained how St Patrick’s Day trips in 2007 had cost €500,000 and by 2010 were down to €200,000 – because of media scrutiny – and with no discernible impact on our diplomatic relations … there was no response.

Following the story, the Department of Foreign Affairs has now confirmed it is actively seeking to buy a residence in Tokyo because the rental payments are so extraordinarily high.

In all, more than €4 million was spent last year on a network of homes for ambassadors and consul generals around the world in cities where the state does not actually own a building.

Details of the individual rents of each of the properties were released following an FOI request.

However, the Department of Foreign Affairs refused to release the rental agreements for the properties saying that they were commercially sensitive.

That means it’s not possible to discover how long the leases are for, who the landlord is, and whether penalties would apply if the state tried to extricate itself from the costliest ones.

The ambassadorial residence in Tokyo was more than twice as expensive as any of the other properties, according to the records.

The next highest rent was paid for a home for the Consul General in New York.

That property is located on UN Plaza directly beside the headquarters of the United Nations in midtown Manhattan.

A residence for the Ambassador to Singapore is costing the Irish taxpayer €20,050 every month. It is situated on Peirce Hill, one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the city.

Renting a house in the Swiss city of Geneva is costing €15,925 in rent each month. The house is on upmarket Rue de Moillebeau and overlooks the city’s famous Parc de Trembley.

Just over €10,000 a month is also paid in rent for the official residence in Helsinki while another €10,000 gets paid out each month for a home for the Ambassador in the Polish capital Warsaw.

In at least half a dozen other cities – including two in Brussels, Bucharest, Rome, Vienna, Paris, and Vienna – the state is paying between €5,000 and €9,000 per month.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said that to “fulfil [their] objectives” they needed to be based in the main capitals and economic hubs.

They said: “Because of the economic and strategic nature of these cities the cost of operating in them is high, in particular rental rates.

“The Department always seeks to ensure value for money in all its operations and in particular rental agreements.

“The Department has commenced an exercise to look at how it can convert rental payments into long term assets in these locations which are strategic partners for Ireland.”

They said the heads of each embassy or consulate were required to negotiate savings with landlords and agents before signing any rental agreements.

In the Estonian capital Tallinn, the embassy and ambassadorial residence moved into the same building and that cut costs from €17,235 a month to €11,295.

Similarly, in New York, the Consul General moved to a new residence which brought rent there down from €29,022 a month in 2015 to €21,319 this year.

Over the past four years, the Department has paid out €16.7 million in rent for diplomatic residences with the bill highest in 2013.

The Department said they had a long list of requirements for suitable homes for their ambassadors around the globe.

The houses are subject to inspection and vetting “with regard to … suitability, adequacy, value for money from a representational perspective and its capacity to host promotional and official events”.

They also said they needed to be situated in secure areas and in general close to the city centre.

“The complex international security environment in which we operate also requires that we ensure the protection of our staff, their families and visitors to the residences and is fundamental to the duty of care of this Department,” they said.

A version of this article with additional details on the Tokyo property originally appeared in the Irish Mail on Sunday. The full FOI release is below

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Clare Daly & Leo Varadkar opposed housing developments because of impact it would have on neighbouring property values

TWO TDs opposed the development of housing in their constituencies on the basis that it would have an adverse effect on the property values of neighbours.

It probably would not be that surprising to hear one was made by Leo Varadkar … much more surprising the fact that the other was Clare Daly.

The story in full is down below with each of the objection letters.

There’s an interesting point to be made about FOI on how this story was researched where I submitted the exact same request to each of the four Dublin local authorities for all objections to housing received from Oireachtas members.

Fingal County Council did a search of their planning database using “oireachtas.ie” email addresses as a starting point and were happy to release the letters.

The other three – Dublin City, Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown, South Dublin – all refused on the basis that the documents are already in the public domain.

And technically they are, buried as they are among thousands of planning documents, objections, drawings etc in public files.

The new FOI Act does ask public bodies to do their best to assist requesters and while Fingal have certainly met that standard, the others did not even try to help or offer guidance.

I asked two of them (Dublin City/DLR) to reconsider their decisions and passed on the methodology Fingal had used for pulling the letters together in a simple way, but they would not.

I will revisit this myself at a later date and try to run the searches.

And here’s the story in full:

Six TDs opposed the development of hundreds of new houses and apartments in letters to a local authority.

The letters, seventeen in total, looked for developments across North Dublin – including housing estates and apartment complexes – to be blocked in the midst of a deep housing crisis.

Nine of the letters were submitted to Fingal County Council by the TD Clare Daly, who opposed plans for more than 300 homes at a variety of sites across the county.

Among the developments she objected to were 173 new homes for Swords in North Dublin, 47 houses in Malahide, and 41 homes in Lusk.

In at least one of the plans, the developers had promised the development of affordable homes saying they had already delivered 97 units in the area in previous phases.

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar also opposed a housing development in Castleknock, which is in the heart of his Dublin West constituency.

In a letter, he said the apartment block would impact on the “residential amenity” and “property values” of neighbouring homes.

varadkar-letter

The records, which were released following an FOI request, show that Clare Daly was by far the most frequent objector.

In four of the nine cases, Ms Daly opposed the plans because the developer involved had previously been involved in estates that were left unfinished or where pyrite had been used.

She opposed five other developments on a variety of other grounds including traffic congestion, their effect on property values, and right of way issues.

Ms Daly objected to fourteen new houses on a site in Malahide on four separate grounds in April 2014.

She said the site was elevated and the new houses would overlook neighbouring properties, also saying there were unresolved boundary issues, congestion on the access road, and low water pressure in the area.

Forty-seven new homes on the same road in Malahide were also opposed by Clare Daly.

She said the provision of a new walkway would be unfair on residents of a neighbouring cul-de-sac, that a right of way would be extinguished, and mature trees would be chopped down. And she again cited heavy traffic in the area and problems with the water pressure.

Ms Daly also asked for permission to be refused for the development of 173 dwellings at Ridgewood in Swords, the Dublin suburb in which she lives.

In October 2014, she said she had raised concerns about the development with the Minister of the Environment and that the objection was mainly based on the traffic impact in an area already suffering regular rush hour gridlock.

The TD said there were serious safety issues at the roundabout at the entrance in the site, which would be made “worse by the addition of almost 200 more homes”.

A development in Malahide was also opposed by her in March 2015 where planning permission was being sought to change from building houses to an apartment block.

In another letter opposing development of new houses – Ms Daly said the estate involved was unfinished and remediation work for pyrite had not taken place.

She also objected to the developer building on three other sites around North Dublin on the same basis.

Six more houses in Swords were also opposed by the Dublin North TD in March 2015 when she said the development was “entirely out of keeping” with existing homes and would require a new access road.

“There is no doubt that this would result in a serious devaluation of property for homeowners in Boroimhe Aspen [adjoining road] who purchased their homes in an established cul-de-sac,” she said.

planning-objection

Two developments were also opposed by Independent TD Tommy Broughan, who has also been a vocal critic of the government on housing.

In December 2014, he opposed four detached houses in Howth, and in July 2015 the development of 71 apartments and 10 semi-detached houses in Sutton.

Mr Broughan said there was already permission for thousands of homes and apartments in Dublin “that could be built tomorrow”.

He said he opposed developments where he felt they were “unsustainable or an inappropriate density for the area”.

Former Labour minister of state Aodhan O’Riordain opposed the development of 200 houses at a site in Howth, which he said this week was on the basis that the site was being over-developed.

He said: “We can’t go back to days where developers put in planning permission and nobody raises an eyebrow. These letters simply mean you want the development to be done right. Any planning has to take account of where it is, who is around it, and that things are done well.”

Fianna Fáil’s Darragh O’Brien objected to three schemes. Two of the cases were because the developer involved had left unfinished elements at a previous estate and the houses there had problems with pyrite.

He opposed a third scheme for 54 houses at Balrothery in North County Dublin because there was no open space available for the residents who would live there.

Leo Varadkar’s objection – sent in June of this year – was to the development of a former pub in Dublin 15, where plans were submitted for 41 apartments.

In a letter to Fingal County Council, he said: “I am certain it will impact on the residential amenity and property values of neighbouring homes.”

In a statement issued through his Department, he said: “The site is currently a pub and car park. I think it is an appropriate site for much-needed housing that’s similar in height and scale to the neighbouring houses, not a big apartment block.

“The urgent need for housing should not be a reason to set aside good planning. We’ve made that mistake too many times in the past.”

That development was also opposed by Labour’s Joan Burton in June who said that while there was demand for houses in Dublin, these needed to be “good developments”.

She said: “Dublin West has been the site of bad planning decisions over the years and I am determined that such mistakes are not repeated again.”

And here’s the objection letters:

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Why would government ministers be allowed to claim higher rate of mileage twice in a single year?

HEALTH Minister Simon Harris will be able to claim an extra €2,000 in tax-free mileage because of a bizarre loophole in expenses rules for ministers.

Mr Harris is being allowed to claim twice at a higher rate of mileage in a single calendar year because of a government circular from almost 25 years ago.

The “fresh start” loophole lets politicians who switch from being a Junior Minister to a Senior Minister during an election year be treated effectively as if they are new to the job.

Apparently, Simon Harris is the only one in the current government who falls into this unusual category.

The financial benefit is quite significant and means that Mr Harris will twice be able to claim for more than 6,000 kilometres at a rate of 59 cents per kilometre.

While serving at the Office of Public Works, Minister Harris claimed for 8,196 kilometres which was worth €4,302.94 in total to him.

Of that claim, 6,437 kilometres was paid at the higher rate of 59c/km and the remainder was paid at a much lower rate of 28c/km. You can see the rates on the Revenue website here.

When Mr Harris moved to the Department of Health, it would normally be expected that his mileage claims from then on would continue to be paid at the lower rate.

This is what would happen to civil servants who transfer between state bodies or departments.

However, because of a circular issued in 1992, Mr Harris was given a “fresh start” for the purposes of his mileage and the clock was effectively reset to zero.

The issue probably did not crop up in recent years because until 2011, senior Ministers were provided with a state car and did not have to make mileage claims.

However, the Fine Gael and Labour coalition abolished that system for all but the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and instead asked senior ministers to use their own cars and claim back for its use.

The 1992 letter now means that since June, Minister Harris has been paid at the higher rate of mileage for a second time this year.

In June, Mr Harris was paid €1,611.20 for 2,727 kilometres by the Department of Health, all at 59c/km, and almost €850 more than would have applied had he been paid at the lower rate.

Should the claims continue at the higher rate, the total amount paid in extra mileage will come to €1,970.

The Department of Health said the Minister had continued to be paid at the higher rate during July as well although details of his claim for that month are not yet available.

They said in a statement that this was consistent with the Department of Public Expenditure circular, a copy of which they released to back up the unusual payment perk.

The confidential document was issued in November 1992 (also an election year and of course long before the nuisance of FOI law!) to personnel officers of each government department.

It referred specifically to junior ministers and said that when calculating mileage allowances in a year in which a general election takes place “a new mileage year” would begin after polling.

It went on to say that one “fresh start” could be allowed in a single calendar year.

The Department of Health said: “[We] can confirm that the Minister’s mileage claims as submitted are fully in order. The questions which has arisen relates to the processing of the recent claims by the Department. When processing these claims the Department made an interpretation of [the] circular … however, in light of your query the Department will examine the interpretation of this circular and in reviewing the matter the Department will ensure the treatment applied to these claims is fully accurate and make any amendments deemed necessary.”

In a statement, the Department of Public Expenditure said that their Minister Paschal Donohoe had claimed mileage at the lower rate since his appointment there after serving earlier in the year at Transport.

I’ve tried to find other examples of the double claim at the higher rate but have not found one yet. Will update this post if I do.

The Department of Public Expenditure said: “The Revenue Commissioners have long regarded the public service rates as being adequate to reimburse the costs of cars and motoring where an individual uses their own car for business reasons.”

This is not the first time the Department of Health has been at the centre of mileage controversy.

Last year, then minister Leo Varadkar had to pay back almost €2,000 after it was discovered that he had been paid at the higher rate twice after switching department.

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The “Double Irish”, tax avoidance, on-shoring of assets and Ireland’s miraculous 26% growth rate

THE closure of the controversial “double Irish” and efforts to shut down other international tax avoidance schemes had a significant impact on the extraordinary 26% growth figure recorded in the Irish economy this year.

Documents obtained from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) and the EU suggest that “on-shoring” of assets by enormous multinationals are one of the key reasons behind the increase.

The growth rate – announced in July – has been dubbed “leprechaun economics” by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman.

Details of the companies responsible for the colossal GDP increases are being closely guarded with plans to “suppress” some economic statistics that are routinely published.

Figures that would normally be included in CSO estimates will not now be made available because it might identify some of the multinationals involved.

The disclosures were made at a high-level meeting between officials from the Central Statistics Office, the Department of Finance and the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council in July.

A report of that meeting – which has been obtained under FOI – reveals the CSO believe some of the increase is being fuelled by firms juggling their assets because of a clampdown on tax avoidance schemes.

The documents make specific reference to the notorious “double Irish” scheme under which global companies avoided billions in taxes by channelling money through Irish companies.

They also refer to other tax avoidance strategies – commonly referred to as BEPS [Base Erosion and Profit Shifting] – which are being tackled as part of international efforts to shut them down.

The admission that Ireland’s tax avoidance schemes are one of driving forces behind the inflated GDP figures are likely to cause further difficulty for the government.

Ireland’s controversial tax strategies are already under the microscope after the EU Commission ordered tech giant Apple to pay back around €13 billion in unpaid taxes.

At the meeting in July, the Central Statistics Office attempted to answer a long list of questions that had been posed about the 26% figure.

They explained that the impact of the changes had come about in the first quarter of this year.

They said: “Other circumstances arise over the course of the year to affect company decisions e.g. the ongoing issue of BEPS and the pending closure of the ‘double Irish’ scheme.”

Couched in accountancy terminology, they go onto explain: “The ‘on-shoring’ of intangibles [assets like licensing agreements, trademarks, patented technology] is likely to continue, reflecting the influence of BEPS.”

At the time of the revelations, there was significant discussion of producing a separate more realistic set of GDP figures that would exclude the inflated increase.

However, the CSO said they could not suggest how this might be done “without breaching confidentiality”.

They said: “The CSO can confirm that the increase is mainly driven by MNEs [multi-national enterprises].”

In answer to another question, they said the main drivers of the increases were “company relocations” and that aircraft leasing – considered a significant factor back in July – was actually of “lesser significance”.

They explained that forthcoming statistical publications would have to be less detailed to protect the companies involved.

“Some of the sector detail in the CSO’s Estimate … scheduled for publication by end-year, will need to be suppressed,” they said.

“There are primary and secondary confidentiality issues to consider in what level of sector detail to provide, to prevent other companies in a given sector from being able to identify the data of competitors.”

This emphasis on protecting the multi-nationals was repeated in correspondence with Eurostat, the official EU statistics body, in documents released following a separate information request.

An official from the CSO described it as a “primary concern and challenge … in managing this difficult set of revisions”.

An internal Eurostat briefing note also again described the “on-shoring” of assets by multinational companies as the driver of the growth.

Assistant Director General of the CSO Jennifer Banim said in a statement: “The revisions published were based on hard data and attributable to the globalisation activities of a very small number of companies.

“However, the CSO is bound by strict confidentiality rules which means that we were limited in our ability to fully explain the revisions and obliged to suppress certain details such as the number of entities involved.”

They said they could not perform their job unless individuals and companies trusted them with “sensitive information” and were legally prohibited from disclosing data obtained in confidence.

Some of the CSO documents:

And the Eurostat note, both internal and external:

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The special adviser salaries and how Freedom of Information has helped significantly cut the annual wage bill

The Department of Public Expenditure has published a full list of all special adviser salaries on their website.

There are a handful of cases where people have jumped up the salary scale beyond the point that they should normally start as reported here previously.

There are also a couple of instances where individuals are above the scale altogether, mostly because of pre-existing deals.

However, it is worth pointing out that the costs here are well down from 2011.

And I would like to think that had something to do with the long series of FOI-based stories about salary cap breaches in those early days of the Fine Gael & Labour coalition, including this story I did on the negotiations for one adviser Ciaran Conlon and his €127,000 salary.

Again, I think we are seeing here one of the subtle but clear benefits of Freedom of Information where there is an obvious reluctance now by Ministers to get involved in making “business cases” to break salary caps.

The agreement that special advisers could be placed anywhere on the salary scale seems to me to be a halfway measure designed to give some wriggle room and at the same time not have emails and letters floating around demanding six-figure salaries.

So we now have a much lower annual pay bill and those savings will continue for however long the current government lasts … mostly thanks to our Freedom of Information Act.

You can read the full list of appointments with salaries below:

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Minister John Halligan used “erroneous” figures to overstate level of cardiac services at Waterford Hospital

THE head of the HSE’s national programme for coronary care said Minister John Halligan had misrepresented patient numbers to overstate the level of cardiac care services being provided at Waterford Hospital.

Prof Kieran Daly – clinical lead for the National Programme for Acute Coronary Syndrome – said that Halligan had used “erroneous” figures in an RTÉ radio interview.

In an email sent to HSE colleagues, Prof Daly said Mr Halligan had tried to compare the level of cardiac care being provided at the Mater Hospital and St James’ Hospital in Dublin with his own local hospital in Waterford.

In the message, Daly wrote: “This is erroneous and a misinterpretation of the ACS [Acute Coronary Syndrome] 2014 report where it was clearly pointed out figures for [the Mater] … were an underestimate because of incomplete data collection.”

The email was one of dozens of records released under FOI by the Department of Health about extending cardiac services at Waterford Hospital.

An upgrade of services has been a key demand of Minister of State John Halligan in return for supporting the government, and is currently the subject of an official review.

Professor Daly – in his email – explained that there was no comparison between service provision in Waterford and Dublin hospitals as Mr Halligan had suggested on radio in April of this year.

He said: “Currently [the Mater] and [St James’ Hospital] provide 24/7 cover for the larger Dublin area and broader catchment and deserve huge credit for the volume of cases dealt with.

“Both units average approx. 300 STEMI [heart attack] cases per year which is at least twice the activity of Waterford. Similar comparisons apply to other cardiology activity.”

Professor Daly asked that his concerns be raised with Health Minister Simon and his Department as part of a national review of coronary care which was originally given just a six-week deadline for completion.

The documents also reveal that Mr Halligan was coming under “immense pressure” to guarantee that a service was delivered for Waterford.

Just two weeks after the review began, his parliamentary assistant wrote to the Department of Health saying that Minister Halligan was “very anxious” to see how it was progressing.

“He is coming under immense pressure to ensure it is delivered. I urgently await hearing from you,” an email explained.

Within another week, Minister Halligan’s office was back on seeking an update saying “this is really quite urgent – we are now coming up on three weeks – half way into the six-week time frame”.

Although the documents are heavily redacted in parts, the Department of Health were aware that the short timeline originally set for the review was going to prove difficult.

An email sent to Professor Daly said: “Obviously we do not want to look at Waterford in isolation and at the same time fully appreciate the difficulties in completing the national review in the 6-week window we have been given.”

In a later letter sent from Minister Simon Harris to John Halligan, the timeline for the national review was later extended to three months.

Mr Harris said it “would not be possible” to complete it within the window originally provided and the review has only now been concluded.

The documents also reveal that concerns were being raised over whether the population of Waterford could justify enhanced cardiac care services. Ireland’s National Cardiovascular Policy set out criteria for 24-hour services with one centre intended for every 500,000 to 1 million population.

A briefing note explained: “Information from the 2011 census indicates that the population of Waterford is 113,795, well below the minimum threshold.

“While of course the [hospital] catchment goes beyond the county boundary and serves part of Wexford, South Kilkenny and South Tipperary, the 2011 census data … shows that the entire population of the South East would not have a sufficient population to sustain a 24 hour … service.”

Neither the HSE or Department of Health would comment in detail on the concerns raised about Mr Halligan’s figures pending the review.

The HSE said: “The Department of Health commissioned an independent report regarding cardiology services at Waterford University Hospital. The HSE awaits the outcome of this report.”

An edited version of this post appeared originally in last week’s Irish Mail on Sunday.

A selection of the documents are below

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Central Bank governor’s pay 40% higher than US counterpart while deputy governor pay negotiations see €13k cut in salary

IRELAND’S Central Bank chief is being paid significantly more than the head of the equivalent body in the United States, the Federal Reserve.

Internal documents deciding upon the salary level for a new Deputy Governor in the bank have revealed that the governor of the Central Bank Philip Lane gets over 40% more than his counterpart in the US.

In an email sent to staff, Mr Lane disclosed that his salary was paid at the rate of €254,048 per year – as compared to just US$199,700 (or €177,040) for the chairman of the Federal Reserve.

He suggested that the new appointee as Deputy Governor Sharon Donnery should have her salary worked out by direct comparison to his.

In an email sent in January of this year, he said: “I propose a rule that the salary of the deputy governor be set as a fixed ratio to the salary of the governor. A clean benchmark is that the governor salary is a 15 per cent premium above the deputy governor salary.”

He said a similar system was in use at other central banks and listed the salaries paid for the heads of each of them.

In the UK, the salary for the head of the Bank of England was set at GB£305,764 according to the email while the head of the European Central Bank received €378,240.

Mr Lane’s suggestion meant a salary of €220,911 for his new second-in-command Sharon Donnery, which turned out to be €13,000 lower than the amount the Central Bank had earlier planned to pay her.

Internal documents reveal there was confusion over what level the deputy governor would be paid after her appointment in January.

Previous incumbents had been paid a variety of wages with Tony Grimes on €242,540, Matthew Elderfield on €311,351, Stefan Gerlach on €230,350, and Cyril Roux on €310,000.

The Central Bank had originally planned to pay Ms Donnery €223,636-a-year and confirmed this in writing to both Finance Minister Michael Noonan and then Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin.

However, it was subsequently discovered that figure was incorrect and was almost €12,000 short of what it was supposed to have been.

An internal email from the resourcing section apologised for the error saying they “appreciate[d] the difficult position this now creates”.

When the correct salary was recalculated, the revised figure was discovered to be €235,125 and the contract for Ms Donnery was amended.

Another internal email on January 26 explained that they would now have to “send clarification letters to the relevant Ministers [Noonan and Howlin]”.

In response, Central Bank governor wrote: “Ok, it can be sorted tomorrow.”

The following day, internal discussions took place and it was decided that they would now be “taking another look” at the higher salary level.

By then, the Central Bank had made contact with a senior official in the Department of Finance to alert the government that the previously advised salary was incorrect, the email chain shows.

By the evening of January 27, a compromise arrangement had been decided upon and the salary of the new Deputy Governor was tied to that of the Governor and calculated as €220,911 per annum.

Central Bank Secret

In a statement, the Central Bank said the Deputy Governor position has been filled “following an open competition, and salary was determined by the [Central Bank] Commission in accordance with legislation”.

They said: “In line with international practice and comparator central banks, the Deputy Governor’s salary was set as a fixed percentage of the Governor’s salary.

“The set salary is lower than that of her predecessors, and the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act applies to all employees of the Bank.”

The full set of salary negotiation documents below with a few redactions to clear individual email addresses:

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Government changed rules on special adviser pay to allow them go direct to the top of salary scale

The government changed the rules to allow Departments set their own rate of pay for special advisers and help avoid embarrassing negotiations over salary caps.

Ministers were told that when hiring special advisers, it was up to them where they would be placed on a salary scale, as long as they stayed between an annual pay rate of between €79,000 and €91,000.

Prior to that, individual Departments had to seek sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure and make a business case for bringing anybody on staff at anything except the bottom rung of the salary scale.

That system had led to considerable embarrassment after the formation of the 2011 coalition when Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s personal intervention to secure a €127,000 salary for adviser Ciaran Conlon caused major controversy.

Needless to say, there are no such special arrangements in place elsewhere in the public service for nurses, gardai, teachers and others who all join at the lowest rate.

A number of senior special advisers have been given special pay deals by their own Departments but without requiring sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure.

In the case of former TV3 news anchor Alan Cantwell, he has been awarded a bumper salary of €91,624 – the fifth point on the adviser pay scale.

Cantwell Contract

This is despite the fact that all entrants to the public service normally start on the first point of the scale, which in this case would have been €79,401.

Mr Cantwell was hired by Enterprise Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor, one of two special advisers she has taken on.

A statement from that Department said: “A decision was taken by the Secretary General, in consultation with the Minister, to place Mr Cantwell on point five of the principal standard scale in light of the role Mr Cantwell has taken on.”

Similarly, at the Department of Health, one of Minister Simon Harris’ appointments has been given a pay rate well above the first point on the salary scale.

According to documents obtained under FOI, adviser Majella Fitzpatrick has been hired on a salary of €91,624. She had previously been Director of Communications for Fine Gael and previously for IBEC.

Health Pay

At the Department of Housing, one of Simon Coveney’s appointments has also been brought in at a much higher rate than would normally apply to new public service entrants.

Bob Jordan – the former chief executive of housing organisation Threshold – has been given a salary of €88,936, according to internal Departmental documents.

Housing Pay

A statement from his Department said: “Both his qualifications and experience are specifically relevant to the key issues covered by this Department. Mr Jordan was put on a point on the appropriate pay scale which reflects his experience and expertise.”

The only salaries for special advisers that appear to have actually required sanction from Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe relate to two appointments made by Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar and also Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.

For the Varadkar appointment, a letter was sent seeking permission to continue paying Brian Murphy €99,370-per-year, which was the rate already agreed during the previous government.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald also looked for a higher rate of pay for her adviser Marion Mannion, with a bump in pay from €87,258 to €93,297 to reflect her “higher duties and responsibilities” as the Tánaiste’s adviser.

The change to the rules allowing the salary scale variations is buried in a 56-page guide to ministerial appointments.

It says: “While appointments should normally be on the first point of the scale, Secretaries General have delegated sanction to approve any increment on the … scale where they are satisfied that this is justified.”

The Department of Public Expenditure said Budget 2015 had delegated sanction for appointments to individual Departments as long as they stayed within their “pay allocation”.

They said the subsequent decision to allow them choose any point on the standard scale for advisers followed “the same rationale”.

You can read the full set of guidelines for ministerial appointments here.

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Department believed “private papers” law should never have been applied to political expenses

The plot thickens in the saga of the “private papers” and how a law meant to protect sensitive communications has been cynically misused to keep political expenses secret.

In February of this year, the Department of Public Expenditure answered some questions from me after I asked about the decision by the Information Commissioner to refuse public access to the expenses of TDs and Senators using the “private papers” excuse.

The Department said they had no comment to make on the ruling by the Information Commissioner.

But they did say that any paper in possession of a TD or Senator in relation to their political (or party-political) role falls within the definition of a “private paper”.

DPER Response

But now it turns out they didn’t believe that at all but perhaps felt they could not interfere in the Information Commissioner’s decision.

In a series of internal emails released to me following a subsequent FOI request, a number of senior civil servants and advisers were expressing serious disquiet about the “private papers” defence.

The most damning is from Assistant Secretary William Beausang to Ronan O’Brien, the special adviser to then Minister Brendan Howlin:

Beausang Email

The second was the query Ronan O’Brien had sent to William Beausang in the first place:

O'Brien Email

And lastly, an email between two civil servants in the Department, both of whom have considerable expertise in the area of Freedom of Information:

O'Connor Email

Between this and the video of Minister Brendan Howlin explicitly saying that expenses were “procedural” and would not qualify as private papers, it is hard to see how this shameful decision can be allowed to stand.

One or other of the Information Commissioner, Oireachtas, or Department of Public Expenditure needs to reexamine this in the public interest.

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How could political expenses be classified as “private papers” when the Minister responsible said it should not apply to them?

The most frustrating aspect of the entire saga of how political expenses came to be classified as “private papers” has been the fact that this simply should not have happened.

The designation of “private papers” had a very specific function, and it was designed to allow TDs and Senators do their job without fear that their communications could be accessed afterwards.

The legislation was introduced by Minister Brendan Howlin and he had a very specific, personal, and justified reason for wanting it.

Many years previously when he had been contacted by whistle-blowers in relation to garda corruption in Co Donegal, extreme pressure was later put on to try and get access to their identity.

And Mr Howlin was completely right that this type of protection was needed for such sensitive types of communication.

However, and this is a big however, he made very clear that this designation of “private papers” was not intended to be a catch-all for all sorts of records.

When myself and Fred Logue made our appeal to the Information Commissioner, we knew that, not least because then Minister Howlin had been clear that “procedural” documents should not be included when the matter came up for debate at committee stage back in 2013.

Procedural Papers

So we thought that this was at the very least grounds for a reconsideration of the matter by the Information Commissioner. Unfortunately, he did not agree (as you can read about here).

Now, it has emerged that the exchange upon which we relied from the Oireachtas website did not even given the full picture. In fact, the conversation had been much more explicit in its conclusion.

The transcript is missing one critical word … the word expenses, as you can see at the following link.

So when the Minister responsible for the legislation was very clearly asked if things like expenses, mileage and attendance records would constitute “private papers”.

His response was crystal clear: “They’re not private papers.”

Yet here we are three years later – and political expenses are being hidden from public view by classifying them as “private papers”?

And you would really have to ask the question how that has been allowed to happen?

In a further extraordinary intervention, the Minister for Public Reform Paschal Donohoe has waded into the debate with a bit of a nothing to see here approach.

He said: “The ruling that they [the Information Commissioner] have made is that they are seen as private papers.”

But no, that is not the ruling the Information Commissioner made.

That was the ruling the Houses of the Oireachtas made, and the Information Commissioner felt he could not disagree with it.

It is only the politicians who want to keep these papers private.

The Information Commissioner has already made clear he believes that political expenses should be made public.

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