The presidential election of 2018 has drilled home one point repeatedly: President Higgins has lived very well for the last seven years. The next seven years are not going to change him in the slightest.
Given the futility of the opposing candidates’ campaigns, and the near certainty that Higgins will be handsomely re-elected (and this time without the intervention of RTÉ), some have questioned the utility of this election.
It has, however, been useful to properly examine our first citizen’s conduct.
In recent months, we have witnessed more discussion about presidential spending than we have at any stage since 2011.
At the heart of the matter has been the issue of transparency. The president has long been shielded by the fact that his office falls outside of the scope of Freedom of Information.
Unlike any other Irish politician, Higgins has not had to worry about the details of how he spends taxpayer money, and during this campaign we have been finding out what the consequences of this laissez-faire approach have been.
We now know that Higgins has used the Government’s Learjet to travel not just to foreign countries, but within Ireland as well. He has travelled by Learjet to Belfast, for instance, even though he could have gotten there by car in less than two hours, and at a fraction of the cost.
In August, Senator Gerard Craughwell drew the public’s attention to how President Higgins had stayed in a luxury five-star hotel at a cost of €3,000 a night while visiting Switzerland in June.
Higgins did not take kindly to being questioned on this point, and denied having asked to stay in any particular hotel or any particular suite. He went on to add that in previous decades he had been accommodated in far less salubrious environments. “I’ve stayed in tents. I’ve stayed in difficult circumstances all over the world,” he declared.
The important point here, of course, is that he was likely paying his own bills back then.
For the last seven years, he has had his hotel accommodation paid for by us, and within a system where nobody knows for sure how much the president is spending, or what he is spending it on.
The Public Accounts Committee’s hearings in relation to presidential spending in September taught the watching public a great deal about political largesse.
The most important revelation was that Higgins is in receipt of an annual payment of €317,000 that the Comptroller and Auditor has no control over. It says much about the opaque nature of the presidential office’s finances that even the Accounting Officer to the Office of the President was unable to tell committee members what this money was for, exactly.
It also says much about the attitudes of the political class towards Higgins and government waste more generally that the Taoiseach and his ministers were critical of the decision to examine recent presidential spending before the nation decides whether to reward the incumbent with another lengthy spell in office.
Higgins claims that this fund – which amounts to over €2 million of unaudited funding during the course of his term – is used to pay for garden parties and to host foreign dignitaries.
And he is happy to provide a detailed breakdown of how it has been spent up until this point, but in November, after the election takes place.
One possible explanation for the President’s reticence about opening up the books for inspection fully can be deciphered within a recent report for The Sunday Business Post, which found that he spent “an extra €96,000 on presidential photos and videos in the run-up to his campaign for a second term in office.”
A crucial advantage which incumbency confers on politicians seeking re-election is the familiarity with which voters view them.
Having more photos and videos available which highlight his official engagements would be very advantageous to Higgins, and it is unsurprising that spending in this area would have shot up as he prepared for a re-election campaign. His opponents, of course, do not have the luxury of using public funding for personal exposure in this manner.
One wonders about other areas where Higgins may have adopted similar tactics over the course of his presidency, being fully aware that he would never have to account for how he spends the voters’ hard-earned money.
The pension issue has also been highlighted. In spite of his enormous salary, special allowances and the fact that he has virtually no living costs, Higgins has felt the need to draw additional funds from the state.
Upon being elected as president, Higgins promised to waive his Oireachtas pensions, but he repeatedly refused to answer questions from a journalist about whether he would be receiving his academic pension from NUIG while in office. Eventually the story went away.
Fast forward seven years and we got our answer: Higgins has received this pension throughout his presidency, and shows no signs of ceasing to do so now.
The initial refusal to engage with the journalist in question was not an isolated incident, as throughout the Higgins presidency, there has been a pattern of him taking strong exception to any difficult questions, particularly to do with money.
Michael D. appears to live like a king, and at times he also exhibits an attitude of an absolute monarch.
While on a trip to the US in the spring, he reacted very badly to an Irish journalist’s question about his use of the government jet.
“I do feel in a way isn’t it rather sad that you’d have to come to New York to ask me these questions,” he replied, before channeling his inner Bourbon. “I think the people who represent the Irish American media deserve better.”
On other occasions, he simply refuses to respond to questions.
In October, a Sunday Business Post journalist asked the President why his foreign travel expenses could not be published on a monthly basis like the Taoiseach’s are.
“I have absolutely nothing to hide at all,” he replied.
Best of all was his response to rival contender Peter Casey’s verbal onslaught about his spending during the RTE Radio 1 debate on October 13th. Casey questioned what Higgins had spent his salary on, given how so much of what he needs is paid for separately by the state.
“I don’t think that we should go back to landlordism and the notion that only the wealthy who will say they will draw no salary for the presidency should be able to offer themselves for election,” Higgins piously intoned.
The landlords and aristocrats of old may well have dominated the political systems of yesteryear, but they were no more removed the realities of life at the bottom wrung of society then than Higgins is now. Moreover, they cost far less to maintain than our socialist president does.
Barring calamity, Higgins will soon be re-elected, but this presidential election has served a purpose.
More citizens are aware of this problem (60% now want Higgins to give up all his pensions while in office), and the Oireachtas is likely to pay more attention to how the President spends public money during his second jaunt in the park.
But it is not up to them to change the profligate behaviour and regal attitude of Michael D. Higgins.
A man who preaches solidarity should practice it too. He cannot condemn avarice in our society while acting as the main exemplar of it.
The solution to this problem is not to be found in parliamentary oversight or journalistic diligence.
Instead, the answer lies within.
Philosopher, heal thyself.