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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Ministers to get garda drivers again amid security fears

Senior Government ministers are to be given extra police protection amid growing fears for their safety.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath, and Health Minister Stephen Donnelly are to have full-time protection, including the use of two garda drivers each, it has been confirmed.

It is the first time in 11 years that ministers in these portfolios will have had Garda drivers. The entitlement had been withdrawn as an austerity measure.

The news comes amid controversy over the use of army personnel to drive HSE boss Paul Reid from his Leitrim home to Dublin, despite his €429,000 a year salary.

At present, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Justice Minister Helen McEntee and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney are the only Cabinet members to have retained Garda protection drivers.

There was controversy in 2020 when it emerged that Mr Varadkar intervened to ensure Mr Coveney kept his Garda driver despite his demotion from the role of Tánaiste.

The President, Chief Justice and Director of Public Prosecutions are the only other people who retain a State car with a full-time garda at the wheel.

The cost of the ministerial pool of drivers is about €2.5m a year, which includes wages, expenses, allowances and maintenance. It was running closer to €6m a year when all senior ministers had a garda driver. The ministerial pool at that stage amounted to 77 full-time drivers plus a number of standby personnel.

The move comes following a spate of sometimes hostile protests outside the homes of leading politicians, including members of the Cabinet.

On foot of those protests, a joint review of security was initiated by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris and the Department of Justice.

Mr Harris recommended to Justice Minister Helen McEntee that the three ministers should cease to use civilian drivers and their own cars and instead have Garda protection. That recommendation has been approved.

It is understood the move was not subject to a Cabinet decision but done on the strength of the recommendation by the Garda Commissioner.

Government sources have indicated the “door remains open” for the return to Garda protection to be extended to other members of the Cabinet.

Each minister will be entitled to two garda protection officers working a week on-week off schedule, as well as a Garda car.

Comments in response to Irish Examiner queries on this matter were sought from the departments of Justice, Health, Finance and Public Expenditure but none were forthcoming.

Austerity measure

The use of Garda drivers for most Cabinet ministers was removed as an austerity measure in 2011 by the new Fine Gael/Labour government on its first day in office.

The then cabinet, led by Enda Kenny, decided that only the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality would still be given a State-supplied car with a full-time Garda driver – with all other members of the government having to stump up for their own vehicles.

Other ministers would still be given civilian drivers, but the car had to be supplied by the minister themselves – in line with the arrangements already in effect for junior ministers.

Former taoisigh – including John Bruton, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen – and former presidents all lost their automatic right to an official State-supplied car and a Garda driver, except when they are required in line with important State occasions.

It has emerged in recent days that Mr Reid claimed a €20,000 car allowance last year while also having an army driver.

Mr Reid enjoyed the chauffeur services of the army driver in a sponsored BMW during travel lockdowns last year.

A spokeswoman for the HSE said a driver was provided for Mr Reid so he wouldn’t get tired on long commutes from his home in Leitrim to HSE bases in Dublin.

The costs of the service were covered by the Defence Forces and sponsors, BMW Ireland.

James Mackreides
'Mac' is a short tempered former helicopter pilot , now a writer based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Loves dogs, the outdoors and staying far away from the ocean.

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