One hundred and sixty grand. That’s what Michael Healy Rae was in line to receive, last year, from the Irish Government in return for providing accommodation to Ukrainian refugees in one of his properties in Tralee. Credit to Jack Horgan Jones in the Irish Times for uncovering the story:
Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae’s contract to provide accommodation to Ukrainian refugees in a guest house in Tralee, Co Kerry was estimated to be worth more than €160,000 last year, according to Department of Integration records.
The Kerry TD previously refused to disclose the value of his contract with the department, after including it in his annual declaration of interests submitted to the Oireachtas.
Procurement records from the department show the value of the contract last year was estimated to be potentially worth €166,800, excluding VAT, depending on the occupancy rates in the building he owns in Tralee.
There is, to be clear, absolutely no suggestion of impropriety on behalf of Deputy Healy Rae in either Jack’s article, or this one.
There are, however, a few questions which I think we, as a society, should be asking.
First, the obvious one: Can the people of Kerry trust that Deputy Healy Rae can be objective and vote in their interests in relation to the issue of immigration and Ukrainian refugees in general when he personally has such a significant financial stake in the debate? The answer to that one is obviously subjective, and your opinions on it may vary depending on your political attitude to the Deputy. I am something of a Michael Healy-Rae fan, so I would be inclined to give him the benefit of any doubt. But would I extend the same benefit of the doubt if he was, say, a representative of the Government? I’m not so sure.
One colleague suggested, yesterday, when this story emerged, that perhaps we should have a law banning politicians or the companies in which they have a significant stake from bidding for or receiving Government contracts. There are good arguments for that, but also good arguments against it: In this case, it seems a bit silly to suggest that some Ukrainians should go homeless simply because an available building happens to be owned by a politician. And such a law would be yet another barrier to entry into politics – I’d argue that Michael Healy Rae’s relative success in business is a reason to have him in politics, because he brings experience that isn’t common. We don’t necessarily want an Oireachtas filled with people who have no business interests that might ever bring them into contact with the state.
On the other hand, voters obviously have to weigh up in their mind whether a politician with a financial stake in a particular debate is as likely to vote according to their interests as his or her own. Having financial interests – once they are disclosed – is not corruption. But it is also not irrelevant.
The second question is this: why are all of these contracts – or at least the value of them – not automatically made public? In this case, the Irish Times had to go digging to find the figures, and a large part of the reason why they did go digging was, one assumes, because the supplier of services was in this case a politician, or one of his companies.
But if you travel the country, talking to communities with objections to refugee accommodation, a common objection you will hear is that particular businesspeople are in the business of purchasing dilapidated or derelict buildings, giving them a quick shine, and subsequently making big bucks from supplying refugee accommodation. The resentment this causes is a part of the story that tends to get missed by a national media more focused on the “far right” than the other parts of the story.
Indeed, one suspects that those involved in the provision of accommodation to the state are very keen to keep the figures involved under wraps for that reason. Were they to become public, then connections between those involved and politicians or political parties might become the focus of public attention, and questions might be asked.
And here’s the thing: Such questions should be asked. The Washington Post, in the Trump Years, adopted the relatively self-regarding motto “Democracy dies in Darkness”. The basic idea is that shedding light on the workings of Government is always, and everywhere, a net positive for democracy. But in Ireland, many of these deals are made under the effective cover of darkness and confidentiality, and it is, in parts of the country, causing an erosion in public confidence.
It’s in everybody’s interest that we know who is getting public money, and for what. That applies to Michael Healy Rae, but it should apply to many others, as well.