Mick Mulholland’s Poltical Notebook - Presidential Worth?

There are times when this Government fails to get it.

There are times when this Government fails to get it.

And it is quite inexplicable.

Is its detachment from the reality of people’s lives so acute, that it cannot see you do not make one rule of thumb for the average Irish citizen and another for your own elite?

The Government was hardly a day in office when it found it quite acceptable to break the pay guidelines for some of its special advisers. And given some ministerial gaffes recently, one would wonder where those higly paid spin doctors are when they are required to be around.

The latest breaking of pay guidelines for special advisers has occurred in the case of President Michael D Higgins. It was revealed at the weekend that Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin had allowed the higher salaries for two of the Presidential staff.

It includes a special adviser on an annual salary of 103,472 euro. This represents 20,000 euro more than the recommended scale.

The other staff member to benefit from Government largesse is a communications director, receiving 10,000 euro above the recommended rate.

There was the usual communication between the Aras and the Department. In the end, President Higgins got his way.

It might well be asked why the President needs an adviser at all?

And, certainly, at a time of austerity, when the office of President is already costing more than enough, it is legitimate to ask why this largely ceremonial post needs the kind of staff levels more appropriate to an office with real clout.

For, lest we forget, the Presidency is now no more than an indulgence on the part of a country battling for fiscal survival.

That is not to take from the contribution made by President Higgins since he took over the job. He is doing fine within the very narrow confines of the ceremonial role.

But if we did not have a President, would the Irish people even notice? Right now, no.

At a time of economic buoyancy – an era we are not likely to encounter, if ever, again – we could afford to have a President to take tea with visitors at the Aras.

The same President would impress us, no doubt, by speeches of symbolism at home and abroad. The President would be around to present the Tidy Towns’ awards. The President would be in Croke Park for All Ireland day.

Even the Presidential Rolls Royce would look the part when it was brought out for big State occasions and whatever. But we are not living in those kind of times.

We did one time. It was all unreal. The Government of the day ignored the warnings from some economists and journalists that it would end in grief.

One lonely civil servant in the Department of Finance expressed her concern about the bubble at the height of the property market. She was effectively advised to keep her opinions to herself.

And so we now battle the economic war, with all its financial and human trauma.

And this Government still thinks it is acceptable to break pay guidelines for staff in an office that could be dispensed with and few people even noticing.

This Government is about to consider a report on allowances for public servants, many of them on very modest pay rates.

Public servants are feeling the economic heat like the rest of Irish society, although they do have job security.

How can Mr Howlin say to public servants to wear a further hairshirt when he is prepared to break, yet again, the pay guidelines set by his Government for special advisers? Where is his credibility?

And where, by the way, is the social conscience that was part and parcel of the political persona of President Higgins during his many years in the Oireachtas?

Mr Higgins enjoys a grand house on several acres of land in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

He is paid a handsome salary. He has a State car and a driver at his disposal. Civil servants book his flights. There is no weary trek through customs and long waits at airports.

Fair enough. Those are the perks which come with the job. Former holders of the office had, so to speak, similar packages.

Indeed, up to last summer, Presidents also had a family car and driver on top of their State car to make life at the Aras more palatable.

Even at the height of the Celtic Tiger, that was an outrageously extravagant provision for a ceremonial office.

Did President Higgins not consider the fallout for his office, when he sought higher than the recommended salaries for his staff?

Has he, too, become so disconnnected from Irish life that he found himself making such a serious public relations gaffe? It will be argued, no doubt, that the amount of money is, relatively speaking, not huge in terms of overall public expenditure.

That is not the point. In fact, in relative terms, the amount involved is hugely significant for the average citizen. And the symbolic damage is immense. It is time to put the value of the Presidency for the Irish people back on the agenda for debate.