Sandwiches and potted plants: what the Irish are paying tax for.


A great story from Sunday's Irish newspapers which managed to marry politics with a completely unintentional and typically Irish brand of humour was a story by Nick Webb and Roisin Burke of the Independent on Sunday.

The two journalists managed, through a Freedom of Information request, to find out the 2009-2010 spend figures from the Department of Communications Energy and Natural Resources. The results were almost as comical as they were shocking.

Potted plants, life coaching, and landscaping services were just some of the uses which the bureaucrats had seen fit to dispose of taxpayers' dollars on, and in fairly hefty proportions.

Prominent among the article's findings, was that The Department had managed to spend an impressive €67,000 ($93,190) on potted plants and landscaping services alone, which if intended to lift moods at their Dublin headquarters must have been a total flop, as a further €600 ($834) was dished out to the Irish Lifecoach Institute for 'life coaching' services.

When the Department wasn't busy billing us for manicuring its hedges and planting fuchsias, though, it took the somewhat more conventional 'let's blow the budget' route of billing us for wining-and-dining interested clients.

In Ireland, apparently, the phenomenon of trying to allure clients with food and wine isn't limited to corporations and banks; seemingly even the government gets involved in the racquet given a nice budget! One conference at the swanky Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin cost the Department-cum-taxpayer a tidy €1,793 ($2,493), while other 'send-offs' of dubious legitimacy ensured that nobody was left without a smile on their face after the meal, especially not after the €50,000 ($69,545) had been doled out on the 'catering' expenses.

The whole thing would be just midly surprising if it didn't follow so closely so on the heels of a few classic expenses scandals. Seeing as it does, though, perhaps 'unbelievable' would be a shade closer to the truth.

Most recently and prominently among the many expense scandals, we had the recent Ivor Callely expenses story, when an Irish Senator intentionally misstated his place of residence in order to reap a windfall from travelling expenses.

Shortly before during the summer, Minister Noel Dempsey saw fit to blow €13,000 on taking the government jet from Dublin to attend a 'summer school' in County Donegal. It was 'the most viable option' available, defended the government in response.

It's great and we should be happy that Ireland has investigative journalists of the calibre who wrote this story, and a Freedom of Information regime and freedom of the press that provides the framework for such journalists to operate in. But it's a real pity that the people who are the target of such articles don't lend their ear to their criticism.

The Irish Government is currently faced with the rather 'taxing' dilemma of finding a way to clear its almost €20bn budget deficit, created largely through banking and fiduciary mismanagement. It's main solutions will inevitably involve hitting the weakest elements of Irish society the hardest.

Before it tightens the noose further on the taxpayer, perhaps it might seize on the opportunity to look at its own spending, and consider whether the life coaching or gardening really got the Government anywhere in the first place.

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