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Irish parliament chief quits after spending row

The speaker of Ireland's parliament resigned Tuesday after his years of lavish expenses and foreign travel were exposed.
John O'Donoghue on Tuesday resigned as Speaker of the Irish Parliament.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The speaker of Ireland's parliament resigned Tuesday after his years of lavish expenses and foreign travel were exposed.

John O'Donoghue delivered a defiant, bitter parting speech that accused his fellow lawmakers of hypocrisy. He became the first speaker in the 87-year history of the parliament to be ousted.

"I will accept the verdict of informed judgment, but not the verdict of the disingenuous," said O'Donoghue, a widely liked lawmaker who became parliament's moderator in 2007 after five years as Ireland's minister of the arts, sports and tourism. Both are considered among the cushiest jobs in government.

O'Donoghue's ouster was inspired both by Ireland's sudden nosedive into recession and debt — fueling public anger at lawmakers still living large at taxpayer expense — and by the lawmaker-expenses furor in neighboring Britain. Irish broadcasters RTE, unusually, showed O'Donoghue's parting shots live.

"I never transgressed any procedure, guideline or regulation. I never committed any offense. I am not guilty of any corruption," said O'Donoghue, a 53-year-old former lawyer who has been a lawmaker since 1987. "I never took money or abused my office for my own enrichment. All these costs were paid to service providers. I did not receive a penny from such costs. These are the facts."

Media reported spending
His fall from grace began three months ago, when Irish newspapers began publishing previously confidential details of his expenses and trips abroad since 2002 with total bills exceeding $1 million.

The revelations proved politically fatal when documents demonstrated he continued to travel the world at taxpayer expense after swapping the travel-heavy tourism, sports and arts portfolio for the speaker's chair.

O'Donoghue published his most recent expense claims on a Friday night — the most common time for governments worldwide to bury bad news — on a day, Oct. 2, when Ireland's news agenda was dominated by a national referendum on the European Union.

Those documents demonstrated he was continuing to travel in his new job at exceptional levels, running up $135,000 worth of trips — travel that received a further $30,000 subsidy from Ireland's state-funded agency for horse racing promotion.

But in a half-hour address heard in stony silence within the 165-member chamber, O'Donoghue insisted he had not pocketed an illicit cent nor behaved differently from other Irish lawmakers past or present. He said aides, consular officials or others booked everything, not himself.

"I will not allow my life and public service to be stained by the triumph of the half-truth," he said, listing several expenses, explaining extenuating circumstances behind each expenditure, and noting that the government's accounting systems had screened and approved every one.

No confidence vote demanded
He condemned as unfair the actions of the opposition Labour Party leader, Eamon Gilmore, who last week made his ouster from office inevitable by demanding a vote of no confidence in the speaker.

O'Donoghue and Prime Minister Brian Cowen had appealed for the accusations against the speaker to be discussed among lawmakers behind closed doors first.

"In my case, I regret to say, I was not afforded the basic principle of a fair hearing. Instead, the soundbite took the place of fairness," O'Donoghue said. "The headline achieved was more enticing and more politically compelling than the fairness of the process that ought to have been followed."

Most lawmakers applauded O'Donoghue at the end, but Labour lawmakers did not. Gilmore said he had no choice but to demand O'Donoghue's removal given the government's refusal to answer direct questions about O'Donoghue's globe-trotting as speaker.

Cowen said all sides of the house recognized that O'Donoghue as speaker had demonstrated "impeccable fairness and sound judgment."

Lawmakers then elected a new speaker — Seamus Kirk, a 64-year-old lawmaker who has represented the border county of Louth since 1982 — in an 87-51 vote.

Both Kirk and O'Donoghue are lawmakers of Fianna Fail, the perennial top vote-winner in every Irish general election since 1932.

The party has suffered a long string of ethical scandals involving bribe-taking, influence peddling and tax dodging. Two former Fianna Fail leaders, ex-Prime Ministers Bertie Ahern and Charles Haughey, were among those caught hiding secret payments from many of Ireland's top businessmen.