Tom Kelleher: 'very worthwhile'

Cash-strapped Fingal County Council is to send a delegation of its councillors on an all-expenses-paid trip to Hungary in March, where they will attend a three-day conference examining "economic crisis and culture".

A meeting of the council last December sanctioned attendance at the event, which is to look at the possibility of fostering "a collective discussion" and "the creation of a new societal paradigm" in light of the current financial downturn. The conference, organised by Paris-based group Les Rencontres, is also intended to "initiate a reflexion [sic] on the role of culture in times of economic crisis".

"The slowing down of the economy has enhanced the... fragility of the system. It has led us to think about new ways of living together. In this society of a new type, culture is bound to play a central role in the respect of a sustainable and fair development," its website states.

Despite the ongoing pressure on local authority budgets nationally, a meeting of Fingal County Council in December resolved that it would be represented at the conference, which takes place from 3 to 6 March in Pecs, Hungary.

Groups of up to four members of the council have attended three other conferences organised by Les Rencontres over the past two years, in locations such as Linz in Austria, Stavanger in Norway, and Rome in Italy.

Typical travel, subsistence, accommodation and conference participation expenses for each participant ranged from €1,000 to €1,700, according to figures released by the council.

However, while the names of members who wish to attend the conference in Hungary are expected to be notified to the council's corporate services division, a spokeswoman confirmed that to date no names had been provided to the council.

Local Labour councillor Tom Kelleher is Fingal's representative on Les Rencontres, and has attended all three previous meetings.

He told the Sunday Tribune that he had yet to decide whether he would attend next March's conference, but defended his participation in previous trips which he had always found to be "very, very worthwhile".

He noted that a reciprocal conference organised here had previously generated significant revenue for the council. "All of these trips are sanctioned. I have learned a huge amount from them," he said. "If people want to call it a junket, that's fine... any time you go on a trip anywhere, it's called a junket."

Environment minister John Gormley last week said that the maximum amount coucillors could claim for travel abroad would be reduced to ¤4,700 per annum.