An honest president

Ireland has a new president. As the job is ceremonial, with no direct political power, people can hardly be expected to notice a new occupant of the post, unless, as happened this year, either the outgoing president or the new one is female.

This year there is another reason to notice the changeover in office. The outgoing president, Mary McAleese, has set a challenging example to politicians everywhere. She gave some money back to the national exchequer – and nobody had demanded it.

As President, she was given a fixed annual amount to cover all the incidental expenses of doing her job: entertaining foreign guests, travelling abroad on business, etc. I am not sure whether she would have been allowed to use it to pay for a visit to her doctor in Singapore, if she had a doctor there but, as long as she wasn’t doing anything extravagant, she wasn’t required to give a detailed account of how that money was spent. And she was not required to give back the change.

She kept that money in a special account and, at the end of the second of the two seven-year terms as president she was allowed by the constitution, she announced that there was still just over $600,000 in that presidential “housekeeping” account and she was returning it to the government.

That is not the whole story. When she became president in 1998, the president’s salary had been raised from 100,000 Irish pounds in 1996 to 120,000 in 1997 and 250,000 in 1998. The Prime Minister at the time had proposed these increases and parliament had approved them. But Mary McAleese asked for a cut in salary in 2008 of 10%, another 10% cut in 2009 and a 20% cut in 2010, leaving her with a salary of €195,740/year. This meant that she repaid excess salary as well, and the total she repaid to the Ministry of Finance was about$800,000. On top of that, she gave to the government gifts to a total value of about $150,000 that she had received as President in the course of her duties.

That sounds like a rare example to all heads of state, or anybody in a position of public service, right down from the president to your local district councillors. They are there to serve the people, not to make themselves or their relatives rich. Of course not many of our elected representatives can be expected to do as US president John F.Kennedy did. He did not draw his government salary because he was rich enough already and did not need it. Most politicians are not that rich – at least not when they come into office.

It is only reasonable that we make sure those we elect to serve us are reasonably paid. It would not do if our president was not able to dress smartly when he meets foreign heads of state, or if his wife had to take a second job because they couldn’t afford household groceries. On the other hand, some of the things that many politicians, not only in our country, think necessary are not necessary at all.

Do you remember the group, including Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Fidel Castro and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Fasso, who clubbed together to charter one plane to bring them to the Non-Aligned Movement’s heads of states meeting in Harare in 1987? Did you cheer them? Or would you prefer our leaders to be as extravagant as the now not-so-young king of Swaziland or as flamboyant as the late Muammar Gaddafi? For myself, I’d rather have good health services, like Cuba, or the increase in literacy that Sankara achieved before the CIA had him assassinated.

There are powerful people in this world who prefer our leaders to be corrupt and bribable, so it’s not enough to elect un-corrupt leaders. We need to encourage them when they do well and warn them when they show any sign of deviating. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Good leaders recognise that and accept what their voters tell them – even if they are being criticised.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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