John O’Donoghue’s resignation

Eleven weeks after the first John O’Donoghue stories in the Sunday Tribune, the Ceann Comhairle announced that he would be resigning his position.

This is the text of an article we carried in the paper, which sums up my thoughts on what has happened.

IN THE end, it was John O’Donoghue’s passion for betting that proved his undoing. The Ceann Comhairle’s last failed gamble in an attempt to salvage what remained of his political career. At 3.15pm on the Friday of the Lisbon treaty vote, he decided to wrest control of his own destiny and publish all details of his expense claims in the Dáil library.

Two hours earlier, the Sunday Tribune had been given the original documents under Freedom of Information legislation, and on first inspection, they did not appear too excessive, at least by John O’Donoghue’s standards.

They detailed just €90,000 in expenses in two years — nothing to be sniffed at but not exactly the almost sheikh-like existence he enjoyed at the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism.

The signs were positive: some media organisations had fallen for the spin and were almost congratulating the Ceann Comhairle on what appeared to be a grand gesture in the interests of transparency.

One newsreader begged the question as to whether other ministers would now follow the Ceann Comhairle’s “example” and publish their expenses.

The first battle in the war of misinformation had been won. The Sunday Tribune, O’Donoghue’s nemesis, no longer had its “scoop”, and as voting continued in the Lisbon treaty, it appeared the referendum would again take top billing.

First impressions were wrong — the gamble had failed. Saturday morning’s newspapers had not been so easily fooled. They were filled with the lurid details — €5,000 for VIP lounges, €633 for a night in a Paris hotel, €500 for more airport transfers at Heathrow.

As always, the devil was in the detail.

In releasing thousands of pages on Friday afternoon, O’Donoghue had deliberately given reporters just a few hours to digest the material.

The damning evidence of how at least four of the trips were timed to coincide with high-profile race meetings at Longchamp, Sandown and Chantilly had been buried under an avalanche of information.

The Sunday Tribune already knew what to look for. In a series of Freedom of Information requests to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission dating back over two months, we had been seeking not just details of expenses but also explanations for the trips.

We wanted to know what official business was involved, who had instigated the trips and what exactly it was in John O’Donoghue’s brief that required so many visits to horse-racing festivals.

Our suspicion was that these official visits were timed not to coincide with political events in other European parliaments, but rather with hand-selected sporting events.

In the thousands of pages of documents, there were just a few tiny hints which, without prior knowledge, were difficult to notice.

There was a receipt for a chauffeured car that had been hired and dispatched to Longchamp two days in a row in October 2007. In June 2008, there was a subsistence claim in Chantilly. The Sunday Tribune checked the dates and, sure enough, a major race meeting had taken place that day.

The following October, O’Donoghue was back in Paris for the presentation of awards. It was, by no coincidence, the week of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at the famous French racecourse.

Two months later, Johnny Cash — as one tabloid newspaper has since renamed him — headed off to London for the state opening of parliament.

Three days after arriving, O’Donoghue was still in London and headed to the winter racing festival at Sandown.

Were it not for an eagle-eyed reader who spotted him there, the Sunday Tribune would never have even known of this happy “coincidence”.

By this stage, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore’s mood was changing. His initial reaction on the Saturday of the Lisbon count had been one of caution.

“I intend to look through it and return to it next week but I don’t want to talk about it until I have studied it,” he said.

By Sunday, the details were starting to sink in and the already palpable anger of the wider public was beginning to be matched in the corridors of Leinster House.

Gilmore said there was a pattern of extravagance in what the Sunday Tribune had been reporting for more than two months. Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny echoed those criticisms later that evening.

The political establishment — notable by its absence from the controversy until then, with the exception of Sinn Féin — was beginning to realise the huge level of public anger.

Discussion boards on were running to over 100 pages, often with extremely thoughtful comments from people who just felt disenfranchised.

Ordinary taxpayers had, for months, been slowly digesting the intricate details of the original Sunday Tribune Freedom of Information request on the website of Gavin Sheridan, a blogger.

The anger was palpable as readers emailed, wrote and phoned by the dozen, most of them simply wanting to offer whatever support they could give.

A good number of them had lost their jobs and were grateful that somebody was finally being held to account for the incalculable sums of money that had been flushed down the drains of luxury hotels and VIP lounges.

It was always the minutiae of these trips that upset people. It was never the €700,000 that was spent, it was the €472 for an airport transfer, the €1,400 a day to have a driver sit outside Cheltenham racecourse, the €2.50 for tissue paper, the €80 “to the Indians” — always these small little things, gestures of unending profligacy.

Newstalk, Today FM, the Pat Kenny show on RTE Radio One and several local radio stations, which had championed the story throughout, asked me to contribute as genuine doubt over John O’Donoghue’s future began to grow.

On TV3, Vincent Browne asked me if I thought the Ceann Comhairle would resign. That was never for me to judge. I believed his credibility had been irrevocably damaged, not least by the way he had handled the entire saga — his veiled legal threats to the Sunday Tribune, his claim that we had “fundamentally misled” the Irish people, his unwillingness to say sorry and his absolute belief that he had done nothing wrong.

In deciding to resign, he brought an end to a controversy in which he had ample opportunity to explain himself but never actually did so.

The bitterest irony is that — as always in Ireland — the collateral damage from last week’s events will hurt others far more than John O’Donoghue, his pride excepted.

Some of the ten staff in the Ceann Comhairle’s office will lose their jobs, and yet again, it is ordinary workers — who have never travelled first class or enjoyed a chauffeur-driven car — who will be the sacrificial lambs.

John O’Donoghue will not have to resign his Dáil seat or lose his valuable pension, and his political allies in Co Kerry say he fully intends to run for office again.

Whenever that election comes, it will be for the people of South Kerry to decide if O’Donoghue’s generosity both to himself and to his constituency deserves another term in Leinster House, and whether our culture of rewarding shamed politicians continues.

Many people are resigned to expecting little change.

On Tom Dunne’s radio show on Newstalk, a [fictional] Fianna Fáil backbencher rang in, saying he was going to run a ‘Bring Back the Bull’ campaign and launch a petition to get O’Donoghue back to the job he belonged in.

Listeners, firmly believing a real Irish politician would be willing to do just that, flooded the show with texts and emails calling the TD a disgrace.

Already, the backlash against the media has begun. A letter to the Examiner accused the Sunday Tribune (and me specifically) of being “mongrel foxes” intent on destroying a man.

Kerry senator Ned O’Sullivan said idle journalists had caused an honest man to resign by filing FOI requests “on lazy days when they have nothing better to do”.

While most might not be familiar with Ned O’Sullivan, almost everybody knows Arts Minister Martin Cullen, who said coverage had been “extremely distorted”.

Cullen, who was a central figure in the €52 million e-voting fiasco, said there had been a “denigration of decent people”. He said these people would much prefer to be at home than attending international race meetings, sporting events and film festivals.

For our part, Pandora’s Box is well and truly open and we will keep on with our “lazy journalism”.

There will not be a minister, TD or senator whose overseas travel expenditure and domestic expenses will not be subject to the most extraordinary scrutiny over the coming months.

The media will be forced to pay over tens of thousands of euro for records that should always have been public and should as a matter of course be published from now on.

Freedom of Information officers in individual government departments and state bodies will continue to be put under unrelenting pressure to release as little damaging data as possible.

As Green Party leader John Gormley has already admitted, there is not a single serving government minister who will not have at least one potentially embarrassing expense claim lying at the bottom of some dusty filing cabinet.

If this government wants to avoid a death by a thousand cuts, it needs to release all of these expenses as quickly as they can be gathered together.

Only then is there a chance that the gravy train for politicians can be permanently derailed.

OF COURSE John O’Donoghue was not the only Minister or politician to enjoy very comfortable travel arrangements during the boom, he was simply the most excessive.

We have attempted to get to grips with some of the spending involved with other Ministers but as I’ve stated over and over again, it’s unbelievably time-consuming and extremely expensive.

On Primetime during the week, I estimated it could cost at least €65,000 to do full expenses for each Minister during the period between 2002 and 2009.

I believe that to be the case because when you look at somebody like John O’Donoghue, you have to get the records from his Department, Horse Racing Ireland, the Irish Film Board and Tourism Ireland. They’re only the bodies I am aware of where some travel expenses were paid and there may be others.

So, what I have tried to do is target areas and Departments, where we believed there was the possibility of extravagant spending. It represents just a small fraction of what has gone on in the past.

Green Party leader John Gormley has projected an image of making every attempt to be environmentally friendly; but sometimes the perception was not quite reality.

For Mary Harney, there were fifteen trips abroad in the space of three years. The Department of Health have not been particularly cooperative with our FOI request and have missed deadlines and given us highly incomplete information.

Bertie Ahern’s travel costs – as perhaps would be expected for the Taoiseach – were in some cases incredibly high. We looked at just a single year for him: 2006.

Finally, when given a list of St Patrick’s Day costs for 2007, one of them stuck out like a sore thumb and that was the €70,000 spent on a trip for Noel Dempsey and his entourage to travel to the United States.

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