How to raise Irish taxpayers' tempers

DUBLIN, Ireland — It is said that when a politician becomes a figure of ridicule his or her career is over. This was the case with John O’Donoghue, speaker of the lower house of the Irish Parliament, known as the Dail, who keeps members in line by shouting “Order, Order.”

O’Donoghue’s lavish living at taxpayer’s expense prompted Irish Times cartoonist Martyn Turner on Tuesday to portray him shouting “Order me first class tickets,” and “Order me the finest food taxpayers’ money can buy.”

At a time of cutbacks in pay and services, O’Donoghue’s extravagance as the arts minister from 2002 to 2007 and as Dail speaker since then has caused widespread outrage.

In a two-year period as the arts minister O’Donoghue, his wife and an aide claimed 120,000 euros ($175,000) in travel expenses. These included a four-day trip by government jet to Venice, where the hotel bills came to $8,000, hotel suites in Paris at $1,250 a night and $170 to rent a hat for his female press officer on a trip to London. On one occasion O'Donoghue and his officials ran up a bill of $750 for limousines to get from one terminal to another at London’s Heathrow Airport, where a free shuttle service is available.

O'Donoghue's excessive spending happened during the Celtic Tiger years, when cash flowed freely. The expenses were uncovered by journalists over several weeks of digging through government records.  However, it has now emerged that O’Donoghue has also been living high for the last two years as speaker, at a time when the economy was plunging into recession. He has admitted to incurring a further $133,000 in expenses, much of it for first class travel and accommodation for himself and his wife, and late on Tuesday announced his resignation.

The controversy comes on the heels of another spending controversy involving Rody Molloy, head of the state employment agency. Molloy resigned last year when his extravagance at the expense of taxpayers came to light. Then in September it emerged that, in order to persuade Molloy to step down, deputy prime minister Mary Coughlan authorised a $1.5 million golden handshake on top of his full pension as director of the Training and Employment Authority (known by its Irish initials as Fas).

Molloy had to quit his job after he gave an interview which has entered the annals of broadcasting in Ireland as a classic example of “car-crash radio.” He somewhat petulantly dismissed questions from RTE radio presenter Pat Kenny about Fas executives spending $3 million on foreign travel in four years, including $1,000 a night for a hotel room in Florida that included “butler services,” and a $14,000 round trip for Molloy and his wife to Orlando. He described expenses claimed by Fas personnel for pay-per-view movies in hotel bedrooms as “chicken-feed,” and when asked to explain a $410 bill at Solutions nail salon on West Cocoa Beach, Fl., he protested that it was a “very, very small” amount to prepare for an official event.

As indignant listeners jammed RTE phone lines, Molloy tried to justify claiming $942.53 for fees to play a three-ball golf match at Orlando’s Grand Cypress Resort Golf club, saying, "We are out there developing relationships … If that is a major sin, then I hold my hands up and say 'very sorry.' "  It was too late for apologies: Molloy’s position as head of Fas had become untenable. The revelation of his generous retirement package has led to calls for the resignation of the deputy prime minister, whose reputation for gaffes and missteps has earned her the nickname of “Calamity Coughlan.”

The controversies have added to the unpopularity of the Fianna Fail-led government. “It is part of our culture that officials treat ministers like gods,” said Irish Times political correspondent Deaglan de Breadun. “This culture has now been challenged for the first time because of the economic crisis and public outrage."