He might be facing a barrage of criticism over the lack of transparency over how he spends a €317,000 Áras allowance, but Michael D Higgins is anything but contrite in defence of his presidency.
The presidential incumbent campaigned on home turf this week amid claims by fellow candidate Peter Casey that the only memorable encounter during his seven-year term was with the British Queen and he was guilty of a 42% fall-off in engagements since his first year in office.
Dressed impeccably in a black three-piece suit and paisley tie, Michael D dismisses the Dragons’ Den businessman with a wry smile and a perfectly controlled lashing of the tongue when asked his reaction to such a harsh assessment.
“It isn’t only harsh, but I don’t really get involved in that kind of stuff . . . I’ve made an appeal for respect and for a positive campaign,” he starts off, before launching into a counter attack.
In the first two years of his term, Ireland was a very broken country, he recalls. He was out and about meeting with communities where all the young people were emigrating.
“Each year of the seven years was a different . . . context. For the return visit to the United Kingdom, I spent a lot of time preparing, not just the speech that I gave in reply to Her Majesty, but also the ones I gave in several different parts. One of the most moving was the one I gave in Coventry.
“That figure he’s using is one that is in the printed diary to which the Press are invited, but I wasn’t inviting the Press to come and see me going to Richmond Park and St Pats or to go to Dalymont Park to see Bohs, but even more importantly, then there were people producing important books and then they would come and visit with seven or eight people.
“There were special groups that would come, people with achievement in the voluntary sector, and we wouldn’t have put that in. It was really we became more informal in relation to the more we were doing.”
In relation to what he calls “the famous €317,000 fund”, he has promised to release details of the spending in November when his term is officially up – and when the October 26 election has passed.
He insists that he has spent it in the same way as his predecessors.
“If I was to make any change to suit the electoral purposes in my view it would not be proper. I have said I’m going to put the presidency above everything else. That’s why I don’t change the president’s commitments in the diary to facilitate me to do more campaigning,” he argues, referring to his non-attendance at some of the campaign debates.
When asked whether he has followed the debate about Galway 2020 and the schism that has developed between organisers and the arts community, Ireland’s first Minister for the Arts recalls how in the European Parliament, he used to sit beside the Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri, who first conceived the European Capital of Culture programme.
“In running something like the city of culture in Europe . . . you have to try and achieve an integration with what is local in the city and you have to be conscious that people will be looking for legacy when it’s over.
“It’s a wire that’s very high in the air in relation to choosing between satisfying those issues and also having an event that would be of international standing. If you in fact would fall on the event side to a greater extent, you might lose capacity in relation to some of the others. I want to wish Galway well. It is possible to solve it – these high-wire balancing acts. I appreciate it’s a very particular kind of management skill. And people should realise that every euro spent will come back tenfold when it’s cultural spend, that’s how it is.”
International investment and employment is something his three Dragons’ Den opponents constantly talk about wooing if they took up office.
But the 77-year-old – who has spent a lifetime in politics and academia – is adamant his lack of business experience does nothing to detract from the role of president.
He cites examples of leading delegations to Vietnam, Australia and China, where hundreds of contracts were signed.
“The reason I did a trip to China at the request of the Irish Government was they had been waiting three years for an appointment. President Xi Jinping had visited the Áras as Vice President from China and he said he wanted to meet this President, we changed it around and I took off to China and there Bord Bia made 200 food companies get projects.”
He believes that over the next seven years, when the president will be dealing with the consequences of Brexit, personal contacts will prove crucial.
He recalls a private lunch he had with the presidents of Italy, Portugal and Greece following an academic conference.
“These folk – we were all about the same age – we were there, we discussed what was happening in Europe, both in terms of racism and migration and social Europe and was there a disconnect between the institutions and the people and how could it be repaired. How did we see Brexit? These contacts are invaluable and contacts abroad in relation to Asia are very, very valuable.
“You don’t turn yourself into the IDA or Enterprise Ireland. You help them in opening doors and you help them by making the contacts that are valuable. And you help them by putting on a good performance.
“It means you stay attuned to what is happening economically both in Ireland and in Europe so you can talk with authenticity and what the people want in this election frankly is authenticity.”
There’s no doubt that Michael D can put on a formidable performance. And with the aid of regular yoga teaching and a right knee much improved from the last time he was on the campaign trail, it’s hard to see anything stopping him.
“Truthfully, I’m in much better shape than in 2011,” he says, flashing a very authentic smile at the mention of yoga.
Ethics Officer finds FF councillors did nothing wrong with €180,000 pot
Four Fianna Fáil councillors in the Tuam area accused by colleagues of ‘hijacking’ a €180,000 fund, have been told they did nothing wrong.
The fund was allocated to Tuam Municipal Council as part of a €1 million allocation by the Government to the county’s five municipal councils in order to “strengthen municipal districts”.
While the other area councils agreed amongst themselves on where the money should be spent, agreement could not be reached.
Instead, the four Fianna Fáil councillors, who have control of the seven-member Tuam Municipal Council, decided where the money should be allocated, which infuriated the other three members.
The matter was referred to the Ethics Officer of Galway County Council who was asked to investigate if this contravened the Minister’s direction as to how the money should be spent.
Now, Fianna Fáil Chairman of Tuam Council, Cllr Donagh Killilea, has been informed that they did not contravene the ethical framework for local government and it was a democratic decision.
He said that it was a needless and expensive route to ask the Council’s Ethics Officer to investigate how they conduct their business as local representatives “given that there was never any clear evidence of wrong-doing.”
When the dispersal of the €180,000 was being discussed by the Tuam area councillors, it was the four Fianna Fáil members who used their majority vote to dictate where the money would be spent – the other three councillors were ‘left out in the cold’.
This infuriated Cllr Andrew Reddington (FG), Cllr Pete Roche (FG) and Cllr Karey McHugh (Ind) who accused the Fianna Fáil councillors of pulling ‘a political stunt’.
They also took issue with the fact that the other municipal districts arrived at a general consensus as to how the money should be spent.
A ‘behind closed doors’ meeting between the seven councillors to discuss the dispersal of the fund that was agreed, but it never took place.
In prompted Cllr Reddington to table a motion at a full Galway County Council meeting that the Ethics Officer investigate the manner in which the distribution of the €180,000 was being handled.
A report from Council Chief Executive Jim Cullen states that the Ethics Officer investigated the claims that the €180,000 was unfairly distributed between the four FF councillors.
But the official concluded that the matter was discussed at length and that the decision on the allocation of the funds was determined by a majority vote of the members.
The officer stated that the decision was based on a motion that was voted upon and duly carried and complied with the Minister’s requirements.
The Chief Executive along with the Cathaoirleach of Galway County Council, Cllr Peter Keaveney, having considered the Ethics Officer’s report, have concluded that no further action is required.
“If every time we call for an investigation when a vote is won or lost, it is my opinion that we will never get any business done as a Municipal.
“It’s time to bury the sour grapes and get on with representing the people who elected us; the distractions of the past six months have to end,” Cllr Killilea added.
(Photo: Cllr Donagh Killilea)
Coffins have to brought by tractor over flooded North Galway road
Annual flooding on a stretch of road in North Galway requires the necessity for a tractor and trailer to bring the remains of a deceased person from the area to the local cemetery.
This was the claim at a local area meeting when it was demanded that Galway County Council carry out flood relief works on the road near Glenamaddy which is left under several feet of water every winter.
It resulted in Cllr Peter Keaveney tabling a motion at the Ballinasloe Municipal Council meeting that essential drainage works take place along the Roscommon road out of the town now that water levels are low. He wants this carried out within the next two weeks.
During one of the worst winters in recent years, the road was closed for three months and the Fine Gael councillor and agricultural contractor said that he pulled around 20 cars out of the flooded stretch when motorists decided to take the chance of driving through it.
Even in drought conditions, the levels remain incredibly high and this is mainly down to a local turlough that retains water throughout the year.
While he said that Galway County Council officials were extremely helpful, the problem lay with the Office of Public Works who would not allow drainage works as the road is situated in a Special Area of Conservation.
Senior Executive Engineer Damien Mitchell informed the meeting that Galway County Council are in a position to carry out some works but there are certain areas that only the Office of Public Works can drain.
Mr Mitchell said that the best way forward was a co-ordinated approach involving the County Council and the OPW while accepting that there was a major problem with flooding along this road.
In response, Cllr Keaveney said that this was a very acceptable move and added that a joint approach to the flooding in Glenamaddy was required at this stage and particularly with the winter approaching.
Williamstown’s Cllr Declan Geraghty said that residents were living in hell as some of them saw their houses destroyed by rising flood waters near Glenamaddy.
“There are even deceased people being brought by tractor and trailer to be buried which is an absolute disgrace. There is an opportunity to do this now or otherwise we are looking at flooding for the next 10 years.
“People have put everything into their homes only to see them destroyed when it comes to prolonged heavy rainfall.
“There is a solution to this problem and environmental issues should not take precedence,” he added.
The Independent councillor said that raising the level of the road, which leads to Creggs and onto Roscommon, was not the answer to the problem because the levels were so high.
Galway County Council have carried out several surveys of the area around the flooded road and officials told previous meetings that, subject to approval from the OPW, there was an engineering solution possible.
(Photo Cllr Declan Geraghty (Ind) and Cllr Peter Keaveney (FG) at the Creggs road out of Glenamaddy where flooding occurs on an annual basis.)
Teen arrested over €45,000 cocaine seizure
Gardaí have seized €45,000 of what they believe to be cocaine in Ballinasloe.
Gardaí attached to Ballinasloe Garda Station conducted an intelligence-led operation in the Dunlo Harbour area of the town yesterday.
During the course of this operation a quantity of suspected cocaine, estimated to be worth €45,000, concealed on derelict grounds was seized.
A male in his mid-teens was arrested at the scene and detained at Ballinasloe Garda Station on Sunday.
He has since been released with a file being prepared for the Garda Youth Diversion Office.
The focus of Operation Tara is to disrupt, dismantle and prosecute drug trafficking networks, at all levels.