Taoiseach's diary April 1998 to December 1999

I had reason to FOI the Taoiseach’s diary for the period between the FOI Act coming into effect (April 19th 1998) and December 1998 recently. It’s now up in case someone else has use for it too. It has been OCR’d – to search press ctrl+F and enter your term, then hit return.

Redactions marked ‘A’ are so because the department believes them to be “personal information” as defined in Section 28 of the FOI act. Entries marked ‘B’ relate to the Taoiseach’s private papers as a member of the Oireachtas. Regards ‘B’ redactions – the cover letter from the FOI officer states “Section 46 of the Act states, inter alia, that the Act does not apply to records relating to any of the private papers of a member of the Oireachtas and as such I consider that the Act does not apply to these entries.”


News stories from around that period include:

The OECD warning our economy may be overheating

“Overheating is the chief risk facing the Irish economy in the run-up to Economic and Monetary Union, the OECD warned in its latest economic outlook. It said signs of overheating were already evident, such as labour shortages in a number of skilled trades and a boom in housing and other asset prices.”

The Garda Commissioner appointing a team to investigate the tapping of the phones of George Lee and Charlie Bird

A decision being made on whether on not members of the public should charged for making an FOI request

The Government debating the merits of recommendations made in The Bacon Report

Local authorities in the greater Dublin area will be required by statute to ensure that their development plans comply with strategic guidelines for the region, according to the Minister for the Environment

John O’Donoghue, then minister for justice, denying he was attempting to shield holders of Ansbacher accounts

An angry Minister for Justice, Mr O’Donoghue, said he gravely resented any suggestion that the Government was in some way trying to shield any Ansbacher account holder. This was false and malicious.

The Minister was reacting to a claim by Mr John Connor (FG) that he intended to “hold in check at all costs” the powers of the Moriarty Tribunal in relation to the accounts.

Cabinet postponing setting up the Standards in Public Office Commission

Mary Banotti appearing before the Old Bailey

and lastly, Pee Flynn.

…though there may be nothing relevant in the document to any of the above.

Footnote: I’m sure someone will note that Bertie met the head of “The Ancient Order of Hibernians” on March 5th 1999. If ever there was a reason to polish up those tin-foil hats, lads… that is surely a secret society.

Seriously though, Bertie sure could open stuff.

Documents and OCR

Part of what we believe is our job here at thestory.ie is not just to dig out new information via FOI requests. Another important part of the work we are doing will be to make existing information more accessible. We have already started this work through importing TD donations and expenses into Google spreadsheets, centralising the data and opening it up to Google bots. It also allows anyone else to come in and retool or visualise the data we share.

But another important effort is this: publish existing documents in a more accessible format. We have already found hundreds of Government documents online that are scanned without OCR, meaning the contents of the documents are not searchabe, nor (for the moment anyway) are they indexed by Google in a consistent way. Many of these documents are legacy, some from as far back as the mid 1990s.

We have begun a process of downloading these documents, OCRing them, and reuploading them. We will publish all documents to the new thestory.ie Scribd account, as well as to Google Documents. This will mean two things. First the documents will be indexed by Google, second the documents will become instantly more usable to the general public, thus in a small way, creating a more transparent government, and one slightly more accountable to the people. We are under no illusions that this effort will have any instant or major effect, but it will have a gradual one. And this furthers our aims for helping create a more transparent Ireland.

The Dual Abode Allowance

The Examiner scooped me on Monday morning with their lede about the dual abode allowance, a story billed as a “revelation“.

I’d be working on-off on a piece on the DAA since August having heard it was racket for non-Dublin ministers.

To briefly explain: The Dual Abode Allowance is open to ministers and ministers of state from constituencies outside Dublin. It’s an income tax deduction which they can claim in a number of ways, depending on where they say they stay whilst attending the Dáil. There are no details on who avails of it, Revenue Commissioners cite “personal taxpayer confidentiality”, and several FOIs have been bounced in the last decade for the same reasons. So we know little of which ministers benefit from it, or to what extent. It’s rarely reported on due to this derth of information, though journalists and politicians know it’s there, and due to its quiet nature, it could be abused. It’s not a secret, if you ask someone relevant – even a politician –  about it and they’ll admit it exists – it’s not the Delta Force of allowances, as some may have you believe*.

It works like this; if a minister or minister of state has a second home in the capital they can claim an allowance on the mortgage for that property and on the costs of maintaining it. The maintenance costs must be vouched, unless they wish to opt for a flat-rate allowance of €6,500 (nice option, huh?). Furthermore, if the property is purchased while they’re in office they can claim for the full costs of the solicitors and auctioneers fees involved.

Ministers who rent accommodation can claim allowance for the full rent that plus maintenance costs, or a flat-rate of €4,500 per annum.

Lastly, if they’re using a hotel or guesthouse while in Dublin they can claim for the full cost of staying there, plus “additional costs associated with maintaining a second residence in a hotel” (whatever they may be, in a hotel – considering they can claim subsistence expenses generally also). A relative or friend’s house may constitute a guesthouse.

18 office holders availed of the allowance in 2005, 15 in 2006 and 16 in 2007, according to documents volunteered in August to me by the Revenue Commissioners after a brief phone call. A follow up email resulted in them supplying totals from 2002, 2003 and 2004 also. I’ve put all that documentation into one file, it can be viewed here and includes breakdowns for 2005, 2006 and 2007, which may interest some. That is the same information Shaun Connolly used for his story on the front of Monday’s Examiner, which was followed up on Tuesday and Wednesday. As he correctly points out, the cost over five years to the exchequer was just more than €550,000.

While that may seem a large figure in its own right, I didn’t think much of it upon receipt of the information. At least 18 different ministers, over three years, an average of circa €5,000, it’s not going to bring down the house – sure, the Leinster House lads spend that in a weekend at the races. I thought there may have been more to it than simply the €550,000 number, so I went looking.

I took the names of cabinet ministers who could avail of allowance and their wives names to the Land Registry to see if any of them owned property in Dublin. After checking out the results, I had drawn a bit of a blank (such is journalism; shadows, cul de sacs etc) so I tried cross referencing a few bits and pieces.

I gathered the names of every person who had occupied a minister or minister of state’s position in since 2004 and began some serious Microsoft Excelling. When I had the list of names I added their constituencies to see how many would have been able to claim the allowance each year. This wasn’t as simple as it may sound, reshuffles meant 2 ministers occupied one post in the same year. The results of the cross referencing can be seen on sheet two of this document:

  • 24 could have claimed DAA in 2004 – 13 did.
  • 23 in 2005 – 18
  • 24 in 2006 – 15
  • 28 in 2007 – 18

The numbers of claimants were not supplied for the other years, so it could not be calculated.

2005 had the smallest differential between claimants and possible claimants, so I worked on that to try and discover who exactly was claiming the allowance that year. I found this article by Harry McGee from last year in The Irish Times archive which gave me some more info. McGee reported that Noel Dempsey and Dermot Ahern travel home each night after the Dáil, making it logical to assume they don’t claim the allowance.

That reduces the differential to 3… two of the possible claimants, Barry Andrews and Mary Hanafin, are from Dun Laoghaire, which is easily within driving distance of the Dáil (particularly when you’ve a ministerial car and driver), so it may be fair to assume they don’t sleep in the city when the Dáil is in session. Assuming they don’t claim leaves one non-claimant from 2005 that we don’t know about. Taking it that a minister claiming the allowance in 2005 has continued to do so, we can logically conclude that all bar one of the following is claiming DAA:

Mary Coughlan, Brendan Smith, Martin Cullen, Eamon O’Cuiv, Willie O’Dea, Batt O’Keeffe, Micheal Martin, Dick Roche, Tony Killeen and Michael Finneran.

However, that relies on the taking Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey assertions that they travel home as a statement that they don’t claim the allowance and the assumption the two Dun Laoghaire representatives don’t claim.

In the end I got nothing unexpected, sometimes you chase stories and get nothing, no regrets.

Of course, the real story would be if Brian Cowen was still claiming it for his apartment behind the Four Courts, while having use of Farmleigh as Taoiseach. That was what I ultimately wanted to discover, unfortunately I didn’t have the resources to do so. Someone should consider asking An Taoiseach that question…

Note: A TD is claiming whilst not using the property personally – e.g. allowing a son or daughter to use the property while attending college in Dublin – is what is referred to in the UK as ‘house flipping’. And we know what happened when MPs admitted to that

Footnote A: I am aware there is an FOI being appealed on further details of the DAA at present.

Footnote B: It was still worth going after the bigger story to get scooped on the smaller one.

Footnote C: Enda Kenny has said he will abolish this allowance if he becomes Taoiseach; populist rhetoric of which I believe not a word. But I’ve taken note.

* now that you know about the uber-secret allowance, I will have to kill you.

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2008/0421/1208468931904.html

Housekeeping

Just some housekeeping items to keep readers informed.

From now on, and soon to be applied retrospectively, all FOI documents will be subject to an OCR process prior to upload to the internet. This means that the documents can be ‘read’ by Google bots, and added to the Google index. It also means large scale documents can be searched for keywords. We believe this will add greater transparency to the documents we put into the public domain. The software we will be using will be Abbyy Finereader.

This should also serve as a warning. All too often Departments and public bodies are choosing to release information in hard copy, despite the information in question being held digitally, and our requests including a preference for digital versions. Where we receive information in hard copy, it will be scanned, OCRd and uploaded to the internet. There will be no escaping the Google spiders that are coming.

Additionally, some of our recent requests have been rejected, citing numerous exemptions. Where we believe these rejections are without merit we will appeal. This is a costly and time consuming process, but we believe that in the long run such a policy will pay dividends. Up until now it has been traditional for the main drafters of FOI requests, journalists, to almost always accept and never appeal rejections (either through lack of time, lack of funds, unfamiliarity with the Act or a combination of any of the three). This will not be our policy.

Where we believe the Act is in our side, we will vigorously pursue appeals all the way to the Information Commissioner and/or the High Court. We believe this policy is to the benefit of everyone who submits FOI requests, to the media, and to the public at large.

Lastly, we want to thank everyone who has donated money to assist us with our requests and appeals. We hope that the relatively constant stream of results being put online (and the subsequent stories in the newspapers based on our FOIs) are reward enough for such donations. We believe greater transparency using the internet is change we can believe in.

TD/Senate expenses 2003/2004

Back in August we started the process of seeking all expenses records for all TDs and Senators from 1998 to 2008. We are seeking a complete representation, as oppose to previously FOId data, much of which does not cover complete calendar years. To that end we have submitted FOIs seeking this information, and now we have a complete record of 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008. It is planned to share any data we receive with KildareStreet.com, for inclusion in individual TD and Senator profiles.

Unfortunately, our request for data from 2002 and 2001 was rejected by the Oireachtas, citing Section 10 (1) (c) of the Act. This refusal has been appealed and we should hear back this month on the results of that appeal.

For now, I will attach all data we received as is relating to the calendar years 2003 and 2004. 2003 is being made available in full for the first time, as the last few months of that year had not previously been FOId. For now I will post the documents as I received them from the Oireachtas. We will be gradually adapting all years into online spreadsheets.

Senator Expenses January to December 2003
Senator Misc Expenses Allowance January to December 2003

TD Expenses January to December 2003
TD Constituency Travel & Misc. Expenses January to December 2003

Senator Misc. Expenses January to December 2004

TD/Senator Payments January to December 2004
TD Exs & Constituency Travel January to December 2004

SIPOC and donations to Fianna Fail

Some background:

Earlier this year the Irish Examiner led with a story concerning corporate donations to Fianna Fail. Figures which were previously undisclosed were revealed. This was done through Company Registration Office files, whereby companies are obliged under the Companies Acts to declare donations on their annual accounts.

Following this story, Anthony over at PublicInquiry.eu made a complaint to SIPOC (they are not a pro-active body and will only act where a complain is made). The complaint took months to process and about four weeks ago SIPOC found that no breach had taken place, but gave no further detail. He was advised to FOI the results of the investigation.

These were released late last week and I have uploaded them.

The FOI contains the exchange of letters between Fianna Fail and SIPOC concerning the donations in question and the process through which SIPOC decided that there was no case to answer. However, there are a number of odd elements to the story, particularly the anonymised list of donations from Durkan to party members.

The exchange of letters is worth a look.



[Disclosure: I am a personal friend of the author of the Irish Examiner story]

Martin Cullen's ministerial expenses

I finally got around to scanning and uploading the rest of Martin Cullen’s ministerial expenses for 2008 and 2009, more for the record than for pushing a story.

Our thinking behind posting these is to allow Google to pick up the content of the PDFs through OCR – so when someone searchs “Cullen Beijing trip expenses 2008” they’ll get what they’re after. We’re trying to force transparency, I guess, in our own way.

I’m crazy-busy so haven’t had a chance to look through them properly, all I spotted to raise an eyebrow was a few Cartel Limos receipts. Have a look yourself.

Beijing August 2008

Kentucky (Ryder Cup) September 2008

London (re: Olympics 2012) October 2008

Brussels in November 2008

Other details of Martin Cullen’s ministerial expense can be found in our prior posts elsewhere on this website.

Martin Cullen goes to New York (June 2009)

Martin Cullen’s Paddy’s Day spending

Martin Cullen goes to London (November 2008)

Thanks to Ken Foxe for the documents. If you have any documents you want to put in the public domain give us a shout.

NAMA – A Reality?

OPINION: Last night Leviathan discussed NAMA. The panel consisted of journalist Margaret E. Ward, banker Peter Matthews, Green Party Chairman, Dan Boyle, and Frank Fahy, the Fianna Fáil TD. The latter two spoke in favour of NAMA, and the other two, virulently against. David McWilliams chaired, though he himself is strongly against the implementation of the legislation.

I left feeling angry, upset and disappointed. Not at Leviathan itself, which is something I back fully, but the attitude of parts of the audience – who I reckon represent a large element of Irish society in this instance – and the two political panelists.
Continue reading “NAMA – A Reality?”

A step in the right direction – PoliticalReform.ie

I’m delighted to draw attention to the new blog from a number of Irish political scientists – politicalreform.ie. The contributors list is short for now but rumour is it may expand soon. I’d heard there were plans afoot for such a blog but only happened across it yesterday, turns out it has been operating below the radar for a few weeks.

Here’s hoping it can match IrishEconomy.ie, which has been influential in recent months, in its respective field. To do so will require thoughtful comment from readers to match thoughtful articles. The comments often maketh reform blogs. The debate between informed readers maketh IrishEconomy.

Go check out the site, subscribe to it and consider entering the debate.

To the writers – thanks, and that doesn’t come from me alone. I hope you stick with it.

Documents relating to The Tank Field, Cork, now online

Elaine Byrne has posted a number of links relating to a decision by Cork City Council to acquire one of the few open spaces remaining in North East Cork City. You can view the information on her blog under a series of posted tagged “The Tank Field”.

Local journalists in Cork, lookin’ at you ‘ere…

The series is written in reply to a letter from the Board of Management of the school sent to the Irish Times following an opinion piece written by Dr Byrne on the matter. Links to correspondence and FOI documents are contained through-out.

There are ten points listed in the letter and Ms Byrne replies to each under a separete heading…

Continue reading “Documents relating to The Tank Field, Cork, now online”