Why are people from some Irish counties six times more likely to end up imprisoned than in others?

THE odds of people from some Irish counties being sent to prison is almost six times higher than the chances for other counties.

People with a Limerick address have by far the highest chance of ending up in jail, an analysis of Irish Prison Service data has revealed.

Only two counties exceeded an average of 500 prison committals per 100,000 of population in the two years examined: Limerick (561) and Co Longford (528).

By contrast, the chances of someone with a Donegal address winding up in jail were a fraction of that of Limerick.

In Donegal, the prison committal rate per 100,000 of population was just 97, making it – by this measure at least – the most law-abiding county in Ireland.

Other counties with very low rates of imprisonment for residents included Meath, Mayo, and Leitrim.

Dublin with by far the largest population was almost identical to the national average with a rate of 285 incarcerations per 100,000 people.

All told, more than 12,700 people were sent to jail in 2014 with that figure rising to almost 13,500 during 2015.

The numbers are remarkably low in some counties with just 83 people from Leitrim imprisoned over the two years. By contrast, Longford, with only a slightly bigger population, had 412 of its residents sent to jail.

The national average was 285 committals per 100,000 of population, with several counties including Laois, Wexford, Kilkenny, Galway, and Dublin all in and around that figure.

Cork, the other big population centre in Ireland, had a far higher rate of imprisonment. For every 100,000 people there, 391 are sent to prison each year, with almost the same figure applying to Co Waterford.

There are also stark provincial differences with Munster having the highest rate of incarceration, mainly because of the levels in Limerick and Cork.

Leinster was next coming in just below the national average, with Connacht third of the four.

The three counties of Ulster had by far the lowest rates of imprisonment with just 135 committals per 100,000 of population there.

For those that do end up in prison, the chances of them serving a lengthy sentence appears to have dropped considerably in the last five years.

In 2010, there were 344 prisoners given a jail term of five years or more. However, by the end of 2015, that had dropped to 240.

The number of people sentenced to life – all convicted murderers – has remained fairly constant however, over the years.

In 2015, there were nineteen prisoners given life, compared to 25 the year before. Numbers have generally been in the low twenties for the past decade.

Most of the people sent to jail however, get much shorter sentences of less than three months.

In 2015, the last year for which full figures are available, nearly three in four people imprisoned got a term of less than ninety days.

There has also been a massive rise in the number of women going to prison, according to official figures.

In 2001, fewer than 1,000 women were sent to jail but fifteen years later, that figure had risen to almost 3,000.

Two of those women were imprisoned for homicide offences, either murder or manslaughter, compared to 42 men.

There were 153 sex offenders sent to jail in 2015, none of whom were women. However, the previous year – two women had been jailed for sexual offences.

More than 550 people were imprisoned for murder attempts, threats to kill, and serious assaults – 41 of them female.

Just over 350 people got jailed for fraud, deception and other similar offences, with 59 of them women and 298 men.

Overall, the vast majority of those sent to jail were from either Ireland, the UK, or the European Union, making up 95% of the total.

Also imprisoned were 268 African people, 194 Asians, 49 from South or Central America, 14 from North America, and three from Australia or Oceania.

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Ireland’s Lord of the parking fines runs up an unpaid bill of more than €40,000

A SINGLE driver has run up unpaid parking fines of more than €40,000 in the leafy suburbs of Dublin.

Details released by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council reveal how nine separate drivers have amassed bills of at least €7,000 each, sometimes for hundreds of individual offences.

An anonymised list of the worst offenders show that the top nine have ran up a combined unpaid bill of €147,400 in unpaid fines.

The person with the worst record has refused to pay no less than 668 fines, which together come to €40,080.

Fines are charged at the rate of €60 in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown with a higher punishment of €120 applying to those who park in a disabled bay.

The serial offender – with the €40,000 bill – has at least only run up ordinary fines, and has not yet been caught using a disabled space.

The local authority said their parking nemesis had 22 convictions relating to unpaid parking fines and eight separate bench warrants.

They said: “A court has the power to either issue a warrant for arrest or to disqualify the accused from driving. The Council has no authority to enforce such court orders.”

Another individual owes €28,800 for 473 offences, which works out at an average of just over €60.

That means he, or she, has at least once been discovered to have parked in a space designated for people with disabilities.

The next worst serial offender has ran up unpaid fines of €21,540 (359 offences) more than double that of the person in fourth, who owes €10,440 (174).

Another owes €14,320 after being caught 127 times, and in the overwhelming majority of cases it was for use of a disabled parking bay.

The council said they actively pursued pursue non-payers through the courts and during the past three years have secured more than 2,700 convictions.

Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown’s compliance levels have been rising in recent years and in 2016, they reached their highest rate with 78% of those fined paying up.

That was up from a low of 68% in 2013 when a total of 22,065 parking fines were issued.

The council said: “It should be noted that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has a policy of pursuing non-payment of fixed charge offence notices through legal proceedings [or] legal action in the District Court.

“In action taken against the above offenders, two vehicles were removed and disposed of in accordance with the appropriate legislation. Two registered owners of vehicles were disqualified from driving through District Court proceedings and multiple convictions have been secured against offenders.”

They also said their compliance rate was in reality higher when unregistered vehicles – usually from abroad – were excluded.

Over the course of the past five years, the local authority has issued just over 120,000 parking fees, which would at a conservative estimate have yielded €7.2 million in revenue had every one of them been paid.

In South Dublin County Council, the problem of repeat offenders does not seem to have been quite so pronounced.

However, enforcement rates are lower there and have hovered between 60 and 70 per cent over the past six years, according to records.

In the South Dublin local authority area, fines are also cheaper at €40, which increases to €60 if not paid after 28 days. Parking in a disabled space incurs an €80 fine. It also jumps after the four week limit to €120.

According to the county council, their worst offender owes €4,640 in fines, with the next highest person at €3,280.

In total, their ten worst cases owe a combined €24,600, significantly lower than the top individual offender in neighbouring Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown.

Enforcement rates in the South Dublin area were just 61% in 2011 and reached their peak the following year when they hit 70%.

Last year, 68% of people in the area who were given a fine paid up either immediately or for the higher amount that kicks in after four weeks.

Dublin City Council do not issue parking fines and instead rely on the infinitely more persuasive use of clamping to keep drivers in line.

Despite its success, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown have said they will not be using clamps and will continue their efforts to pursue non-payers through the courts.

Details of parking fines issued in the fourth Dublin local authority, Fingal County Council, have not yet been made available.

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Ireland’s most senior diplomat in New York told to find new residence because of sky high €29,995-a-month rent

IRELAND’S most senior diplomat in New York was told to find a new residence in the city because the $29,995-a-month rent the taxpayer was paying was far too high.

The Consul General had been living in a duplex apartment in the Big Apple with 4,000 square feet of space and a wraparound balcony with 360 degree unobstructed views of New York’s skyline.

The eight-room property was “much-admired” but because of its size, unique balcony, prized views, and the “exclusive nature of the building” … it also came with a hefty price tag.

In 2013, the Department of Foreign Affairs asked that the residence be moved to a “more cost-effective alternative”.

However, that move ended up taking more than two years – as they struggled to find a suitable property to accommodate the Consul General.

The Department had to agree to two separate roll-overs of the $29,995-a-month lease on exceptional grounds.

The saga began in December 2013 when the lease on the residence came up for renewal and the property owners signalled that they would be upping the rent and were seeking $35,000 a month.

An internal email from one of the diplomatic staff in New York said: “I explained that it would be very difficult to get the agreement of my authorities to such a large increase, particularly given the challenging economic circumstances in Ireland at this time.”

In response, the landlord said that the rental market in New York was booming with the stock market scaling new heights.

The Department of Foreign Affairs made some tentative efforts to find a new property. However, they were told many landlords would not actually accept diplomats as tenants.

An email explained: “This, apparently, has resulted from many cases where New York based diplomats have damaged properties or left them in a very poor condition and have invoked diplomatic immunity to avoid civil law suits for damages.”

The diplomatic staff did look at three properties: one was only half the size of the current residence with small elevators, another had no decent space for entertaining, while another appeared to be two smaller apartments converted into a larger one.

Instead, they went back to their landlord who after some negotiations agreed they could keep the existing apartment for $29,995 per month, with monthly service charges of nearly $2,000.

Back in Dublin, Department bosses agreed to an extension of a single year on condition the Consulate continued to look for a new cheaper property.

By the end of 2014, little progress appears to have been made and the Department again had to “exceptionally” extend the lease for another year.

Efforts to find a new property were proving difficult because the market in New York was “on fire”, according to the newly arrived Irish Consul General Barbara Jones.

An internal email from Fergal Mythen, the Director General of Corporate Services, to Ms Jones said: “We cannot overemphasise the fact that the high cost of the rent remains a matter of concern to the Department.”

The email explained how the annual rent bill needed to be cut from $360,000 per year to a cost of less than $250,000.

A report on the residence explained how the actual rent bill was actually even higher at $388,800 annually when service charges and parking were taken into account.

It extolled the virtues of the current property saying the balcony space in particular was an “oft-cited point of admiration by … guests”. It was also used for a wide variety of events.

The report explained that getting a property for $250,000-a-year would be tricky with “limited” suitable stock in the city even after more than 130 properties were looked at.

One apartment in a new building called UN Plaza was eventually found, which fit the bill with a monthly rental cost of $23,000, which with parking and service charges worked out at $279,600 per year.

However, that was not the end of it and when diplomatic staff went to meet the landlord, they were told there would be a 120 day “termination clause”.

“Our collective assessment is not positive towards the landlord based on these surprise developments,” said an email from Vice Consul Shane Cahill.

Fortunately, a separate apartment in the same building was also available with just a $500-a-month increase on the rent.

“The mission believes the apartment would make a suitable residence,” said an email. A lease on the property was signed off and the Consul General moved into the new apartment early last year.

A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said: “The Department asked the Consulate in New York to go back to the market to see if a better value for money option was available.

“After an exhaustive search in what is one of the most challenging and expensive real estate environments in the world where identifying suitable space is not easy and can take some time, an alternative premises was identified which did offer better value for money to the Department.

“A three-year lease was signed for the premises … I would take this opportunity to highlight once more the $309,000 savings which will be made over the course of the three year lease.”

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Revenue report shows €140 million in property handed over tax free by wealthy parents to children using loophole

MORE than €140 million worth of property was handed over entirely tax free by parents to their children in just five years using a tax loophole, a Revenue investigation found.

And the scale of abuse of what is known as the dwelling house exemption may actually have been much worse, according to internal documents.

An investigation into the widespread abuse of the exemption by high-wealth individuals explained how it was very difficult for Revenue to even determine if people were taking advantage or not.

A copy of the report obtained under FOI explained: “Cases are coming to attention where wealthy parents are using this exemption to buy and gift houses to their children.

“There is nothing in this exemption as currently drafted to prevent a parent with (say) four children from purchasing a dwelling house for each of them and gifting or bequeathing them … in practice, it can be difficult for Revenue to determine whether or not conditions are satisfied.”

The investigation found multiple instances where people had tried to claim the exemption but had got caught out.

Under the rules, the person inheriting the property had to be resident there for at least three years before it could be gifted to them.

They were also not allowed to own any property because the system was expressly designed to protect people in certain circumstances, if say they were caring for an elderly parent.

In one case, a woman living in France tried to claim that she had been resident in a property she part inherited from her uncle.

In other cases, people tried to claim the exemption on properties they inherited from their parents despite already owning their own house.

The most blatant case involved a man who had just inherited a property tax free from his mother.

A Revenue investigation discovered that he had just transferred three properties into his wife’s name and “therefore, he has qualified for the exemption”.

Some families had used the exemption multiple times to buy properties for several of their grown-up children.

In one case, three children in a family had a house purchased for them and in another case, four were gifted a property tax-free.

The report said that 14 of the properties involved were worth more than €1 million and passed from parent to child without a single cent being paid in inheritance tax.

In the single worst case, a parent transferred €4.2 million worth of properties to their four children: with each of the four houses worth €1.7 million, €1 million, €800,000, and €700,000 respectively.

Overall, the evidence found by the Revenue Commissioners suggested it had happened 440 times between 2011 and 2015, with over 100 of the cases involving properties worth more than €400,000.

“The total market value of the 440 properties gifted by parents to children and claiming the [exemption] comes to €141.89 million,” the report said.

It suggested that the tax lost was at a minimum €18.7 million but that the true cost was probably far higher than that.

The report said many people assumed they did not have to make a tax return if they believed that did not owe anything.

It explained: “It is highly likely that the public perception with many is that if no [inheritance tax] is owed then they don’t need to engage with Revenue at all.”

The report also said that routine investigations would not have uncovered much evidence of the loophole because the transfers were effectively legal at the time and would not be looked at from “a compliance perspective”.

The Revenue examined tax planning material from major accountancy firms, some of whom were encouraging “careful planning” to use the exemption to pass on wealth.

The inquiry also revealed that use of the dwelling house exemption was growing rapidly, with a 19% increase in cases between 2014 and 2015.

A separate set of FOI documents show how when the loophole was originally introduced in 2000, the Revenue Commissioners even then expressed concerns.

They suggested that a cap should be put in place on the value of the property but this was not heeded and the loophole remained in place until it was removed late last year.

In a statement, Revenue said they were currently investigating the scale of abuse for 2016 and hoped to have a report ready for the Department of Finance by Easter.

Asked if anything could be done retrospectively to deal with cases of flagrant abuse, they said they could not comment on individual cases.

“In general terms, the conditions that have to be met to qualify for an exemption and to avoid any subsequent withdrawal of the exemption, are those that are in force at the date of the gift or the inheritance,” they said.

“The changes to the dwelling house exemption in Finance Act 2016 apply to gifts or inheritances taken on or after 25 December 2016. These changes have no retrospective implications for gifts or inheritances received before [then].”

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Department of Finance anger over “wholly inaccurate” Oxfam report painting Ireland as a tax haven

THE Department of Finance were angered over a report by Oxfam which highlighted Ireland as a tax haven saying it painted an “wholly inaccurate picture”.

The report Tax Battles had claimed that Ireland was the sixth worst country in the world for facilitating tax avoidance, behind only Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Singapore.

Internal correspondence between the Department of Finance and Oxfam reveals how the Irish government bitterly disputed the report.

And when Oxfam looked for a meeting with the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan to discuss the issues raised, they were told he was not available due to “diary commitments”.

A letter sent to Oxfam’s chief executive Paul Clarken picked apart the Tax Battles report saying Ireland met none of the international criteria for being a tax haven.

It said inclusion of the 12.5% corporation tax rate was “totally inappropriate and inaccurate”.

“Ireland’s corporate tax policies are designed to attract real and substantive operations to Ireland,” it said. “Ireland has not been and never will be a brass-plate location.”

The Oxfam report also criticised Ireland’s tax incentives including the latest government initiative, the so-called ‘Knowledge Development Box’.

The Department insisted: “While a number of countries not included on the Oxfam list have Boxes which failed [international] rules and were considered harmful, Ireland’s Box was fully approved.”

Minister Noonan’s officials also objected to Oxfam criticism of profit shifting activities, where multinationals aggressively avoid tax by moving profits from high tax countries to low tax jurisdictions.

They wrote: “These misunderstandings of the Irish regime and Ireland’s positions on international tax issues contribute to the fundamentally inaccurate portrayal of Ireland as a tax haven.”

The Minister’s Private Secretary then said officials would be made available to discuss their “serious concerns” over the report.

In response, Oxfam’s Jim Clarken said that they welcomed Department of Finance efforts to pursue international tax reform.

However, they said that developing countries were still losing US$100 billion in tax revenue because of the policies of countries like Ireland.

Mr Clarken again sought a personal meeting with Minister Noonan ahead of his appearance at an Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform.

The Department declined the request citing “on-going diary commitments” but said officials were still available.

In a statement, the Department said: “It was determined that as most of the issues were around the technical analysis carried out in the reports and as wanted to discuss the detailed technicalities with Oxfam, it made greater sense for discussions to take place between officials and Oxfam rather than between Oxfam and the minister. A meeting was subsequently held between Department officials and Oxfam.”

The charity said they had met with the Department in February to discuss their concerns but that they “stand over the findings” of their report.

They said they would be meeting again with officials to discuss two follow-up reports on corporate tax and tax havens in Europe.

In a statement, they said: “The Irish government relies on the OECD definition to assert it isn’t a tax haven. We contend that such standards are insufficient in relation to corporate tax avoidance.”

They also said that a study by the EU Commission in 2016 on aggressive tax planning structures showed that Ireland had no less than ten of the structures identified in place.

“We [also] pointed out that Ireland has not been very supportive of attempts by the EU to introduce more effective measures to end corporate tax avoidance such as public country by country reporting,” they said.

“We also questioned Ireland’s commitment to transparency as it has not agreed to the public element of country by country reporting rules, public listing of beneficial ownership and making tax rulings public.”

Internal memos also reveal that coverage of the report internationally was being closely monitored by the Department of Finance.

The fiscal attaché of Ireland’s Permanent Representation in the EU wrote to the Department saying: “Most papers are rather sceptical towards the report.

“The FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) speculates that European countries are heavily represented in the Oxfam study primarily because of our higher tax transparency, and a high awareness level of tax practices in European countries, which is not the case for ‘some really infamous tax havens’ elsewhere in the world.”

A tax briefing prepared for Ireland’s Ambassador in the United States also included speaking points on how best to handle questions about the report.

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Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty paid her mother €2,150 from secretarial allowance available to ministers

FINE Gael Minister Regina Doherty paid her own mother more than €2,000 for “secretarial assistance” out of a little-known allowance available to politicians.

The payment was made to her mum Maria Dalton last October through a single invoice that was issued for a total of €2,150.

The bill was part of more than €570,000 paid out by the Oireachtas through what is known as the special secretarial allowance.

It allows government ministers to pay for secretarial assistance, public relations advice, IT services, and for training.

TDs and Senators also sometimes use it to hire temporary vouched employees on short-term contracts instead of hiring full-time assistants.

Details of the payments released following an FOI request show that Regina Doherty spent €2,912.50 under the scheme, €2,150 of which went to her mother.

Repeated attempts to contact Ms Doherty for comment were met with no response.

The Fine Gael press office did not respond to queries from March 16 saying Ms Doherty was in the United Arab Emirates for St Patrick’s Day.

Requests for comment this week to the party press office, to her special adviser, and to Minister Doherty herself all met with no response either.

Two Fine Gael ministers hired a former party election candidate for secretarial assistance, paying him, and later his firm, a total of €18,200.

Both Damien English and Helen McEntee used the services of Sean McKiernan and then his company Consilium Communications for secretarial services last year.

Mr McKiernan is a former Fine Gael councillor in Cavan and ran for the Seanad in last year’s election, failing to win a seat.

Minister English said in a statement: “As part of the annual vouched allowance for Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas, payments were made to Sean McKiernan, and subsequently to his business Consilium Communications, for the provision of secretarial assistance.”

Mr English also twice paid for public relations advice from Kevin Kinahan, a professional therapist and consultant hypnotherapist, from the Gold Clinic in Dublin.

Mr Kinahan was paid just over €1,100 across two invoices for PR services.

Minister Dara Murphy ran up a bill of €28,532 last year for public relations advice. He used the services of a Dublin-based businessman Declan O’Leary and his firm T/A Media Mentor.

One of the front-runners for leadership of the Fine Gael party, Simon Coveney, also ran up a small PR bill in the early part of last year.

Mr Coveney paid out just over €5,500 to the Cork-based firm Cameo Communications.

Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald also used the special secretarial allowance for public relations advice.

She paid just over €11,000 out to the Communications Clinic, the firm that belongs to Terry Prone and her husband Tom Savage.

Ms Fitzgerald also paid out €2,400 to another firm called Latitude for what was described on the form she filled in for payment as “training”.

More than €9,000 was paid out on behalf of Junior Minister Patrick O’Donovan for public relations advice as well last year. He used PSG Communications, one of the country’s most successful PR firms.

Another minister to pay for PR advice was Fine Gael’s Pat Breen. He paid Claire Gallagher around €4,500 for public relations services in the final months of last year.

Katherine Zappone at the Department of Children also hired external PR help. She used the services of Dr Michael O’Loghlen who was paid €3,916 across four separate invoices from November and December of 2016.

In an explanatory note, the Oireachtas said the secretarial allowance could be used in two ways, for contracts for service or for temporary vouched employees.

A significant chunk of the €570,000 spent went on this type of employment, a cost that arises whether the staff or temporary or full time.

The Oireachtas said: “The purpose of the allowance is to assist towards expenses arising from the purchase of certain secretarial assistance, public relations, information technology (but not web related) and training services.

“The allowance may also be used for remuneration of persons providing secretarial services (i.e. temporary vouched employees). Purchase of equipment are not allowable under the special secretarial scheme. Ministers can opt for an annual fully vouched allowance of €41,092.”

*Some of the amounts referenced above are not reflected in the FOI documents I posted below.

Some of the records relating to the earlier part of last year were released on paper. And the invoices and receipts relating to the document below were issued as separate individual PDF files.

If anybody wants to see a specific one, feel free to contact me.

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Government had to create new €15,000 allowance after discovering they could only pay two junior ministers to attend Cabinet

THE government created a special allowance for Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty because rules prohibited them from paying more than two Junior Ministers who sat at the Cabinet table.

After the election, three ‘super’ Juniors were appointed – all of whom should have been entitled to an extra €15,829-a-year for attending Cabinet meetings.

However, the government discovered that legislation allowed for only two of them to be paid to the additional money.

The allowance was allocated to Minister Paul Kehoe and Minister Finian McGrath, which would have left Regina Doherty without the extra payment.

But instead of cutting her out of the loop, the government came up with a brand new allowance for the Chief Whip – which is valued at the exact same amount.

The allowance did not exist during the last government when Paul Kehoe filled the position of Chief Whip, and he was instead paid the bonus for “ministers of state attending Cabinet”.

Documents obtained under FOI reveal that plans to pay the normal allowance to three different ministers were underway but had to be halted suddenly.

An email from the Department of the Taoiseach last summer explained: “[We can] confirm that the number of Ministers of State who attend Cabinet Meetings – under the current Government – has increased to three.”

However, days later the plan ran into difficulties when it was discovered only two could get the extra payment.

Sent from the Department of Public Expenditure, an email said: “The sanction [to pay all three] … is withdrawn with immediate effect as we’ve run into a problem – there are now three Super Juniors in this government.

“But the relevant legislation only provides for payment of the allowance to no more than two. So this will need to be addressed. In the meantime, please do not pay it, or cancel it if you have already started and recoup any amounts already paid please.”

A month later, the allowances were still not being paid to any of the three super-junior ministers as attempts were made to resolve the problem.

By September, it had been confirmed that Minister Finian McGrath at the Department of Health would definitely get the extra allowance.

A briefing note said: “We are awaiting clarification from the Department of the Taoiseach on the second Minister of State to be paid the allowance.”

In November, it was finally confirmed that the second minister to get the allowance would be Paul Kehoe. And to get around the problem of excluding one of them, a brand new position had been added to the list of allowances.

It was ‘Government Whip’, and the allowance payable for the role was €15,829 … exactly what would have been payable to the others.

A submission explained: “Following discussions with the Department of the Taoiseach, it is proposed that the position of ‘Government Whip’ be included under the ‘specified positions’ in Dáil Éireann at the same rate payable to Ministers of State attending Cabinet.

“This reflects the fact that under the legislation, only two Ministers of State may be paid the allowance for attending Cabinet meetings.”

That meant all three were paid the €15,829 annual payment, along with their standard TD salary of €87,258 and a ministerial allowance of €34,381 – it makes their annual packages worth €137,468 each.

A few other small changes were made to allowances with increases for both the whip and assistant whip of Sinn Féin.

The Sinn Féin whip position rose from €5,520 to €9,200 with an increase to €4,600 from €2,760 for the assistant position, to reflect the party’s larger size. Similarly, Labour’s assistant whip position was cut in half to €2,760.

Payment of almost all the allowances ended up being delayed until Christmas with documents suggesting some politicians were querying why it was taking so long.

One email said: “I believe some Members have been wondering when payment can be expected.”

Minister Paschal Donohoe even ended up involved asking if the allowances could “be paid by Christmas”, according to records.

Mr Donohoe signed off on a final submission with only one change ensuring that assistant whips for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would be paid at the same level of €8,740.

He explained in a note: “I want to develop the principle that parties of equivalent size are paid the same amount. That’s my only change – please make this amendment and I will bring to government.”

Thankfully, all payments except one did end up going through in the December payroll. “Thank you all for doing this – much appreciated,” wrote Minister Donohoe.

FOI documents below – there is a lot of material so if you want to have a dig around, you’ll need some spare time.

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Millions of euro in tax avoided by high wealth individuals through two gaping loopholes on personal retirement plans

MILLIONS of euro in tax was being avoided by high wealth individuals as part of a tax loophole on personal retirement plans.

The Personal Retirement Savings Accounts (PRSAs) scheme and a separate scheme known as Retirement Annuity Contracts (RACs) both had to be shut in the last budget amid warnings from the Revenue Commissioners.

Internal documents have revealed how the schemes were being abused by “high net-worth individuals” to pass on their assets tax-free after death.

A Departmental submission to Minister Michael Noonan explained how the PRSA pension plan was being used for “tax-planning purposes” because of a loophole in the legislation.

Effectively, the wealthy individuals involved were never actually cashing in the scheme after they retired from their jobs.

The loophole meant that people were benefitting from tax reliefs on their pension contributions while employed and then later avoiding paying inheritance tax.

The submission, obtained following an FOI request, explained: “Minister, this proposal is to amend the Finance Act to counter a tax planning activity by high net worth individuals whereby individuals don’t draw down their PRSA by the time they are 75 so as to facilitate a tax-free transfer to their spouse upon their death.

“This activity would seem to fly in the face of the original intention of PRSAs.”

The new change meant the pension plan would automatically crystallise when the person reached the age of 75, and would have to be drawn down.

The PRSA scheme had been introduced in 2002 as a low-cost private pension savings plan, particularly for the self-employed.

However, in the ensuing years, it had become particularly popular among high wealth individuals.

This was explained by a loophole in the original wording, which had been seized on by tax advisers as a mechanism for avoiding tax.

The submission said: “The wording is open to the interpretation that, whilst a PRSA owner who wishes to take benefits from his or her PRSA must do so by their 75th birthday at the latest, there is no compulsion to take benefits at that age (or indeed any age).

“While this may seem to fly in the face of the whole raison d’etre for pension savings – i.e. to provide an income in retirement – for those with substantial pension assets it can provide significant tax planning opportunities.”

The submission explained how it was then possible to pass the fund tax-free to a surviving spouse or estate without any further consequences.

In one example, they describe how through careful planning, a person with a pension pot worth €2.5 million could avoid €200,000 in tax.

The submission explained that tax relief was allowed on pension contributions because people would eventually end up paying tax on the money in retirement.

“This principle is being frustrated by the tax planning opportunities,” it said.

Speaking points on shutting the loophole were prepared for Minister Michael Noonan for inclusion in his budget speech.

In one memo, it was explained how a draft was rewritten because officials wanted a “’softening’ [of] the avoidance aspect”.

Another shorter version was then prepared, which was described as having a “better chance of going into the speech ‘undisturbed’”.

Ultimately, the changes were not mentioned during the Budget 2017 speech but did feature in the Finance Bill.

Subsequently, a loophole in a second scheme known as Retirement Annuity Contracts (RACs) also had to be shut after it was discovered they were also being used for “tax planning purposes”.

The internal correspondence explained: “RACs are a type of insurance contract approved by Revenue to provide retirement benefits, mainly for the self-employed.

“Where retirement benefits are not taken from an RAC, there is no Benefit Crystallisation Event and, in addition, on death, the proceeds go tax free to the individual’s estate.”

In a statement, the Revenue Commissioners said: “Revenue has a broad range of programs in place that are aimed at identifying and tackling tax avoidance in all its forms, including aggressive tax planning and unintended use of legislation.

“Revenue continues to identify such arrangements and challenge them, and where appropriate, recommends strengthening legislation to the Department of Finance. Tax policy and tax legislation are matters for the Minister for Finance and the government.”

They said the changes introduced in the Finance Act meant that the two pension schemes would now automatically vest at age 75.

They said: “The estimation of a cost of tax foregone from the owners of such RACs or PRSAs would require, for example, application of (unknown) earlier retirement dates, valuations of assets etc, and is not a matter for Revenue.”

Documents are large so are in two parts:

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Furniture like something from a 1970s Dublin student flat, a mysterious locked room, pervasive damp … why Ireland abandoned its €7,200-a-month Vienna residence

FURNITURE like something from a 1970s Dublin student flat, a mysterious locked room that had not been opened in at least 14 years, stained carpets and a pervasive smell of damp … just some of the many colourful reasons given for why an Irish diplomat desperately needed to move house.

The move from a property in Vienna, which had been leased for €7,200-a-month, to a new more expensive residence costing €9,000 has now been explained in a submission written by the former Irish Ambassador Mary Whelan.

A copy of a letter released under FOI and sent to the Department of Foreign Affairs headquarters has revealed a litany of problems in the official residence.

The €87,257 annual rent was described as “low by the standards of the local property market”.

However, that appears to have been its only advantage as the submission from Ms Whelan outlined a succession of issues with a building that was rapidly deteriorating.

The property had been rented in 1977 from a local businessman but in recent years, it had been proving impossible to have any improvements carried out.

It had a double basement, parts of which were now unusable due to leaks and damp.

The ground floor had an ornate “marble room” which should have been available for receptions but could no longer be used due to a “strong smell of damp”.

Above that level, there were two bedrooms, one of which was now being used as a changing room for catering staff.

On a previous occasion, while still in use as a bedroom, the landlord’s agent had, when damp spots appeared, suggested the bed could be moved away from the wall.

The main floor of the building was described as the best area of the house.

“The library is a pleasant space, albeit sparsely furnished,” said Ambassador Whelan’s submission. “The very large, ornate and dark reception room could be described as cavernous or having the ‘whoa factor’ depending on your point of view.”

Paintings borrowed from the National Gallery were described as “very dark” and in need of rehanging, and in some cases had chipped cases.

The Ambassador’s submission continued: “This very large room also houses the landlord’s piano which is not in good condition. A wonderfully elaborate clock over the fireplace is broken but was undoubtedly state of the art a hundred plus years ago.”

The letter reserved the harshest words of all for the master bedroom and one of the upper floors.

“The master bedroom is frankly in a bad state and the condition of the furniture recalls student accommodation in 1970s Dublin,” explained the submission.

“While there is some new furniture on this floor, some of it could not be given away because of its decrepit condition.”

Carpets in the corridors were “permanently stained” and “fairly worn” while rugs weren’t big enough to cover anything except the centre of the rooms.

The top floor was described as a dilemma, with carpets that appear to be “as old as our [Ireland’s] tenancy” – that is, almost forty years.

There was also a mysterious room, which had a sign affixed to it with the name of the landlord.

A cleaner, who had been working at the Irish residence for fourteen years, was asked if anyone had ever set foot inside. The answer was no.

Plumbing and wiring were also a problem with radiators breaking down and “too old to repair”.

There were not enough electrical outlets either with extension cords in use throughout the building. “It takes some dexterity to avoid tripping over all of this,” Ambassador Whelan’s submission explained.

There was at least one bright note in the letter saying that with considerable expenditure, the premises could be outstanding and among the best that Ireland had.

It explained that a meeting was to take place with the agent responsible for the property with a view to seeking improvements.

Notes of that meeting said health and safety concerns were raised over the “pervasive smell of damp” and the proximity of leaks to electric cabling.

The note said: “The issues raised were not disputed by the Agent (they were often acknowledged by vigorous nodding) although it remains to be seen how far any follow-up will go to address the underlying issues.”

The problem however, remained intractable and the Irish Ambassador began looking for a more suitable home to live in.

She was given a generous rent ceiling of €150,000-a-year and the chosen property on Theresianumgasse ended up costing €8,964-a-month.

As part of the move, more than €146,000 in costs were run up, including €25,504 to move the “very dark” National Gallery paintings between the properties.

Other costs included €26,900 for a security deposit, more than €20,000 for curtains, and €12,738 for a security system.

Flag poles and a flag cost €615, carpets cost just over €5,000, and just over €7,000 for restoration and reupholstering of old furniture.

In a statement, the Department said: “The Department had rented this property for a number of years, however it was deteriorating with little input from the landlord.

“It had substantial issues in terms of wiring and general health and safety; it also contained asbestos, was in a poor condition of maintenance, had considerable damp, was poorly insulated and would not be in line with current building regulations.

“The replacement property … was in the same rental range as the existing building, [it] is located in a suitable area with adequate representational areas, with considerable savings of over 50% forecast in relation to utilities (gas and electricity bills).”

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Minister Leo Varadkar runs up €907 toll bill in seven months but the toll roads he travelled on are redacted for “security reasons”

A few months back, I requested copies of the statements for all road tolls incurred by Minister Leo Varadkar since his appointment in May.

The Department released the overall cost, saying it had come to just over €900 from May of last year to the end of November.

They said that Mr Varadkar had also repaid an element of it, €150, as a personal contribution of some description.

Why he does that, they did not explain.

Nor did they give the full statements. Instead, they released them month by month with all the details of what tolls were actually incurred blanked out.

And they have explained this by citing an exemption in FOI law that its release could “prejudice the security of a vehicle”.

In a follow-up press query, I asked them for a percentage of how much of the overall toll charges related to the use of the Dublin Port Tunnel.

I did not ask them for days of the week, times of the day or anything like that, just how much of it related to one road.

(Just as a by the way, Minister Varadkar actually signed into law a rule change that allowed him and other ministers to use bus lanes. This was because when they abolished the state car system, they accidentally abolished that right by extension. Also, important to point out that Mr Varadkar actually opposed the change.)

Anyway, this is how the Department responded when asked how much was spent on the Port Tunnel:

“The Minister makes an annual contribution towards the cost of tolls, as he has done in previous Departments. The contribution covers the cost of any tolls incurred for personal use. The Department does not disclose details of individual journeys for security reasons.”

Remember that ministerial diaries are routinely released, TDs must give their home address on their notice of poll.

Another small example of the level of transparency that Irish journalists deal with every day.

The FOI documents below:

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