Podcast: Political Scandals episode 1: John O’Donoghue

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It was a time when savage austerity budgets clashed in the public’s mind with ministerial limousine airport transfers. 

When the devastating banking sector collapse was compared to Government jet usage and hat rental at Cheltenham. 

When the worst economic crisis to ever hit this country was placed beside the purchase of expensive curtains and carpets for an office at the very heart of Irish parliamentary democracy itself. 

And, after months of increasing pressure, it was a time when the two competing public images ultimately led to a dramatic political resignation which is still disputed to this day. 

In the first in a new Political Scandals series for the Your Politics podcast, RTÉ journalist Fiachra Ó Cionnaith takes a trip back to autumn 2009 and the costs controversy that surrounded then Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue. 

The long-standing Fianna Fáil TD for the then Kerry South constituency had been a member of the Dáil for 22 years and a Government minister between 1997 and 2007. 

After not being returned to the cabinet by then Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern in June 2007, Mr O’Donoghue was asked to become Dáil Ceann Comhairle – one of the most important roles in Leinster House. 

But, despite being held in high regard by many of his peers, a costs controversy involving expenditure during his time as minister for arts, sport and tourism and latterly as Ceann Comhairle soon dominated debate. 

After a flurry of Freedom of Information Act stories over summer 2009, when the Dáil returned in September pressure was mounting over the issue. 

And by October, Mr O’Donoghue – who did not respond to requests to take part in the podcast – became only the second ever Ceann Comhairle to resign from the post, amid a political furore he said was unfair, saying costs were incurred by his ministerial and Ceann Comhairle offices for the purposes of carrying out the work of the offices rather than by him. 

Former Irish Times parliamentary correspondent Michael O’Regan, who covered the story from the Dáil, tells Fiachra Ó Cionnaith growing pressure firstly from Sinn Féin and then from then Labour leader Eamon Gilmore in a famous Dáil speech forced the issue onto the agenda. 

Right To Know transparency group founder Ken Foxe, who broke the story while public affairs correspondent for the Sunday Tribune, adds that the controversy occurred at exactly the wrong time in the political climate. 

And while reminding listeners the Dáil expenses system was subsequently overhauled by then minister for finance the late Brian Lenihan junior, Mr Foxe says what has replaced it is far less transparent than people realise, arguing a new overhaul may be needed.

The new Political Scandals podcast series is part of the RTE Your Politics podcast, and over the coming months will look back on other scandals and controversies to have befallen some of the most high-profile figures in Irish political life. 

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