Five TDs and Senators travelled on a week long ‘bi-lateral’ to Japan with business class flights alone costing in excess of €16,000.
With the shadow of recession hanging over Ireland came a dawning realisation that the days of frequent overseas travel for politicians were coming to an end.
Trips abroad by politicians had proved controversial in the past and disquiet over costs incurred on overseas trips led directly to the resignation of Ceann Comhairle John O'Donoghue in 2009.
While the wanderlust of TDs and Senators may have been somewhat curtailed, it has not ended entirely ... and a select group of politicians still get to partake in trips abroad.
Most of them now take place under an attractive arrangement with other parliaments, whereby costs for the trips are shared as part of what are termed ‘bi-laterals’.
That means the hotel accommodation and meals are paid for by the hosts, and the Irish taxpayer only shells out for the cost of the flights.
Like anything that sounds too good to be true, there is of course a cost – and the red carpet has to be rolled out on the inevitable return visit.
There have been six such bilateral trips since the general election of March 2011 and the latest trip in February of last year, which has gone unreported so far, was one of the best of all.
Five politicians, comprising four Senators and a single TD, made the long journey to Japan, on business class flights that each cost €3,333, with a total bill of €16,665.
The delegation was led by leader of the Seanad, Fine Gael’s Paddy Burke, who has in recent years undertaken three such trips abroad.
He was joined by Senators Terry Brennan (FG), Pat O’Neill (FG), Ned O’Sullivan (FF), and the Kildare Labour Party TD Jack Wall.
On arrival in Osaka, the delegation was whisked from Kansai Airport to their accommodation, the Rihga Royal, a four-star hotel that is one of the largest in Japan.
They were served lunch at the hotel before being taken on a cultural visit to ancient Osaka Castle and to the Floating Garden of the Umeda Sky high-rise building.
The day’s business concluded with a reception at an Irish pub with ‘members of [the] local Irish community’ before they returned to their hotel.
On February 10, they were taken to the Suntory Museum before an informal lunch. In the afternoon, they met with local politicians and visited an incineration facility.
The next day, they took a train to Hiroshima where they were given a tour of the atomic bomb museum and the Peace Park, where they laid a wreath.
After another ‘informal lunch’, they visited Miyajima Island and the Itsukushima Shrine, with its famous floating gate.
An ‘oyster dinner’ was served in Hiroshima that evening before they returned to their hotel in Osaka.
On February 12, they travelled east by bullet train to the capital Tokyo where there was a briefing lunch at the Irish Embassy with the Japan Ireland Parliamentary Friendship League.
After lunch, they checked in at the New Otani, one of the most famous hotels in Tokyo, and a filming location for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice.
That afternoon, there were political meetings before a formal reception hosted by the Irish Ambassador John Neary.
The following morning, the delegation spent an hour at a Sumo wrestling training stable before a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
They visited a recycling centre after lunch before making a trip to the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology before a formal welcome dinner from their Japanese hosts that evening.
On their last full day in Japan, they visited the parliament buildings, took in the sights at the National Stadium, Meiji Shrine and Oriental Bazaar, before a reception to launch St Patrick’s Day festivities that evening.
On Saturday, February 15, they flew back to Ireland where four of them (Senator Paddy Burke did not claim) were able to make further expense claims for the trip.
Amongst their entitlements were daily subsistence payments of around €25 per day despite all of their meals having been provided.
A further €25 for use of their phone while abroad can also be claimed each day on an entirely unvouched basis.
These bi-lateral trips do come at a price of course, and the Oireachtas spends around €30,000 per annum entertaining foreign delegations.
Large bills have been run up by Leinster House on VIP airport lounges, exclusive hotels, chauffeurs, fine dining, and trips to well-known tourist sites.
Visiting politicians are generally put up at the five-star Merrion Hotel; on previous trips, the delegation leader has been hosted in a €500 suite, while the rest are accommodated in €200-a-night bedrooms.
VIP lounges at Dublin Airport are also par for the course with one visit by a Chinese delegation in May 2013 costing €4,500 for such services.
Among the visiting delegations to Ireland in recent years are groups from Sweden, Croatia, Israel, Germany, Australia, Canada and China.
Groups of Irish politicians have, in return, already made visits to Canada, Australia, Israel, China, Morocco, and most recently the Japanese voyage.
The Oireachtas said the trip to Japan was made at the invitation of the President of their Senate and served to enhance the existing ‘excellent bilateral relations’ between the two countries.
‘The continuation of high-level political visits is an integral part of maintaining Ireland’s relationship with Japan and supporting the development of our economic interests in Japan,’ they said in an information note supplied to RTÉ.
They said a series of high-level meetings had taken place with Japanese officials, including their Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
A spokesman for the Oireachtas said ‘parliamentary diplomacy’ was a feature of most other countries and that Ireland needed to proactively connect with partners on trade, culture and human rights.
He said: ‘The flipside to such “soft” diplomacy is where there is no cultural or political understanding between political leaders and where there is a lack of trust and cooperation between nations.’