Dáil debates

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

2:30 pm

Photo of John O'DonoghueJohn O'Donoghue (Ceann Comhairle; Kerry South, Ceann Comhairle)
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It is an accepted convention of our political system that the Ceann Comhairle should remain above political controversy. Implied in that duty is an overriding obligation of fairness among all Members. It was, therefore, inappropriate for me as Ceann Comhairle to respond publicly to various matters concerning costs incurred while I was Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism. For many people my silence probably indicated an absence of justification and a lack of defence. By failing to respond to the various charges and allegations published in the media, I surrendered the right to protect myself in the public media. I did so to preserve the integrity and impartiality of the Office of Ceann Comhairle. I have no regrets for upholding the duties of that office.

My silence to date has been observed to ensure that the Office of Ceann Comhairle would not become the subject of political controversy. I did not wish to establish a precedent in that regard. Had I not stood back in full expectation that I would be afforded the constitutional opportunity to explain myself to this House and had I entered into robust debate, I thought I would inflict damage to the independent and neutral nature of the office. When the public mood changed, however, I determined to put my case to the appropriate body established by the House with oversight of expenditure, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. I was denied that opportunity by some Members of the House who decided to act without giving me a hearing. My principal complaint is not against the media, which, in spite of frequent excesses, also carry out a valuable function in society and whose constitutional right - more, whose constitutional duty to freedom of expression - I freely acknowledge. The members of the press, however, have never denied me my right of reply. On the contrary, that is all they demanded to date. Their most recent objection was to my self-imposed silence, a silence which I kept, as I have already said, to protect my office from becoming involved in unseemly political debate.

As I now depart from office, some matters require to be said of me and my office as Ceann Comhairle. Before addressing these issues in greater detail, I want to clarify an important matter. On Friday, 2 October, I published the records from my time as Ceann Comhairle. The time chosen for the release of those records is a matter that was inspired not by any personal or media advantage, but by a far more important consideration. Given the massive publicity and media frenzy that had attended the disclosure of my expenditure as Minister, I assumed the same would occur regarding the costs incurred as Ceann Comhairle. I believed that this would have been a distraction to the Irish public when matters of profound importance to the future of this country were the subject of the recent referendum. In my view, it was best to have that referendum decided on its individual political merits. That is why I waited until Friday, 2 October. In addition, the release of the records at that time secured parity of information for all media outlets. No other motive existed for the timing of the release of these figures. I want to assure the Members of the House of this fact. I did not attempt to bury the information in other events, as some have suggested.

Since I have assumed the position of Ceann Comhairle and notwithstanding recent controversies, remarks by Members of the House, both Government and Opposition, have at times been generous and gracious. I have at all times sought to uphold the high standards set by my predecessors. I have been fair and have never been partisan. I have never shown favouritism. I have applied the rules equally to all Members of this House. That is a record I believe I can be proud of. I am very grateful to those Members who publicly testified to my impartiality. It is some small consolation to me that no complaint is made of me in the discharge of my office in this House as Ceann Comhairle.

I now want to address the issue of expenses and costs in a general way. As the problem of expenses and costs is systemic in nature, the solution must be found within the system. Paradoxically, I, as Ceann Comhairle, had committed myself to bringing about reform in the expenses scheme for Members of this House. I now leave it to others to bring about the fundamental change that I believe is required to the regime for parliamentary expenses. I regret that I will not be in office to preside over the implementation of such changes. Public confidence in our institutions and our political life dictates that these changes be made and that they be radical in nature. In so stating, I recognise something of an irony in relation to my own situation. I leave office in the context of a costs controversy where my full defence has not been heard and where I perceive the treatment afforded to me - and in particular in this House - is that of a symbol of an expense regime and a costs regime that had been in operation for decades and that had fallen into public disrepute.

While there may be a difference of scale with some in this House, there is no difference of principle between me and many others who are subject to those regimes. That scale is accounted for by the nature of my portfolio as Minister and in the discharge of my functions as Ceann Comhairle. So be it. I will accept the verdict of informed judgment, but not the verdict of the disingenuous. I will accept the judgment of my peers after their careful reflection on all the facts and fair procedures. I will not allow my life in public service to be stained by the triumph of the half-truth.

I want to emphasise the following: travel, accommodation and related costs were all incurred on, or in connection with, official duties. Such arrangements were made in accordance with established Department of Finance guidelines and practices. This was the course of action I followed. To be held to account for the discharge of one's public functions is part and parcel of the duties of office. There are many layers of financial accountability in our system, to which I was subject without criticism or challenge. That was so for more than 12 years. These accounts were approved by the statutory Accounting Officer. They were audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General, but what I find somewhat discomforting is the concept of a new parallel system of accountability when compliance with directions, guidelines and standards was the hallmark of what I did. That is why I believe it was all the more important that I would have been afforded a fair opportunity to put my case to this House in an appropriate forum.

I never acted in secret or sought to conceal from public knowledge or accountability the expenditure on my functions. I never transgressed any procedure, guidelines or regulation. I never committed any offence. I am not guilty of any corruption. 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.

I do not seek to derogate from or diminish my previous apology in any respect. However, I think the public should be aware even at this early stage of the review of documentation of manifest misstatements about costs. I shall address this presently.

In these days of financial constraint and hardship, I accept that viewed through this prism some costs are excessive. At the time that was not my perception and I did not have knowledge of the cumulative sums involved. That a current day analysis of past practices carried out in different times and in compliance with established procedure may contribute to public cynicism about politics and politicians is something I profoundly regret. This was never my intention. It is something for which I repeat my heartfelt apology to the people. That my motives and my actions could be misconstrued in the light of changed circumstances is not something that ever occurred to me but, as the House shall presently hear, I believe the public impression that is abroad needs to be tempered by factual corrections. I do this not to diminish my apology, but to explain myself and to show what explanation I could readily have advanced if only I had been given a fair hearing.

By way of illustration, I refer to a number of specific issues. Many other issues are also in need of correction; this is for another day. I refer to these illustrations for the sake of demonstrating that the opportunity to defend myself, my office and others was one of substance. I do not appeal to fair procedures on the basis of some abstract principle. Being afforded a fair hearing would have real implications. I have been denied that opportunity by a pre-emptive assertion of no confidence. In referring to constant and repeated misstatements and misunderstandings, I do so simply to illustrate why fair process is important, specifically when one is dealing with the holder of a constitutional office such as Ceann Comhairle.

The impression has been created that I travelled very frequently to international events on the Government jet. I have extracted the records in this regard. While I was Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, I was on 14 international flights on the Government jet over a five-year period. The Government jet was not at my beck and call or for my personal pleasure.

It is important to point out that accommodation is frequently arranged locally for a visiting Minister. It is arranged by the hosts of an event one is attending or, alternatively, it is arranged by the relevant Department. Some have said that I stayed in a hotel in Venice at a cost of €900 per night. This is advanced as further evidence of extravagance. In fact, a perusal of the records demonstrates that the cost of staying in the Best Western Albergo San Marco Hotel in Venice was €312.50 per room. Likewise, the cost of the Hotel Novotel Cannes Montfleury was €352.50 per room. This is small detail that shows why making my case in its full detail was important.

The transfer between terminals at Heathrow was in accordance with standard protocol. This is a long-established custom and practice whereby an incoming Minister is greeted by an embassy official. My case was no exception. It has happened on hundreds of occasions in the past to others who have held office.

One of the most bizarre matters that has arisen relates to the sum of £1 on a hotel bill that has a charge imposed for the benefit of a charity. The hotel bill was processed in the normal way and in accordance with standard procedures and the costs duly paid. That hotel had an arrangement with the charity to make the payment of £1 in respect of guests staying in its accommodation. Through an administrative error, when personal costs on the bill were charged to me, the charitable sum was omitted, but I never saw the bill. I did not process it for payment. I was not aware of the deduction and the arrangement between the hotel and the charity. I did not claim back this £1. To impute to me this level of petty meanness is extraordinary. That again demonstrates the necessity for careful and detailed analysis of the costs incurred and why I have been wronged by a denial of fair procedure.

It has been suggested that I paid $520, and other amounts, in tips to limousine or taxi drivers. That is simply untrue. In certain countries, for example, the United States of America, a gratuity is automatically added. In the case of a trip to the United States, a gratuity at a level of 20% was added. The bill was processed through the consul in New York, paid and recouped from the Department. A similar process applied to other jurisdictions. I did not pay $520 by way of a tip. The tipping arrangement is a standard procedure which was followed on those occasions.

A cost of €12,000 is attributed to me, as Ceann Comhairle, for car hire for a trip to Hong Kong while in transit. In fact, the costs reported include the costs of officials and parliamentary delegates, that is, other Deputies and Senators.

Any common sense view of my situation will recognise the particular representative functions which arise for being Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, and indeed Ceann Comhairle. One attends events at home and abroad. In attending international events, I want to emphasis that it was my function to represent and promote Ireland in many ways. The goodwill and the networking that derives from these occasions benefit important industries in this State. In this context, my period as Minister saw record increases in the number of tourists coming to Ireland. I succeeded as well in providing invaluable assistance which attracted the Volvo Ocean Race, a stage of the World Rally Championship, and the Solheim Cup to Ireland. These are worth millions of euro to our country. Additionally, my attendance at international race meetings, where I promoted the Irish horse racing industry with Horse Racing Ireland, was of enormous benefit - as has been confirmed by that organisation - to an industry that employs over 16,000 people directly and indirectly, mainly in rural Ireland. At international arts and cultural events which I managed to attend in an official capacity, I increased the standing and value of our arts and culture.

Whether in the areas of arts, sport or tourism, I tried to be out in the marketplace wherever it was important to be there. Otherwise, we would have lost market share to our rivals, of whom there were and are plenty. It must be recognised that in principle my attendance at such events give it the same nature as the presence for many decades of various Ministers at St. Patrick's Day events around the world. The principle is the same but the occasion may be different.

I also believe that some degree of proportionality is required. When carefully analysed, one can see that the number of foreign events that I attended while an office holder is a minuscule percentage of all the events I attended. Moreover, persons holding equivalent offices in other countries also attended such international events; that is the nature of such matters.

It is important to emphasise that during my period as an office holder I attended thousands of local and community events throughout the this country. I cannot think of a town or village which I did not visit at some stage. I believed in what I was doing. I committed myself to improving arts and sporting facilities in every town, village and parish where I could find the time and the funding to do so. It would be a gross distortion and a deep injustice to me to suggest that my first allegiance, and my only allegiance, where the responsibilities of my Department were concerned lay anywhere but to the Irish people.

I am proud of my contribution to Lansdowne Road to Tallaght stadium to Semple Stadium and countless other sporting facilities throughout the country. I am also proud of my contribution to the National Convention Centre and the interpretative centre for the Cliffs of Moher and many other tourism facilities throughout the State. I am also proud of my contribution to Wexford Opera House, the Abbey Theatre, the Gate Theatre, the Gaiety Theatre, Cork Opera House and up to 150 other arts and cultural projects across the land. In short, I am proud that I fulfilled my mandate to the Irish taxpayer and to the Irish people.

It would be impossible for me to list all of the achievements of my Department during my tenure there in as much as it would be impossible to list all of our failures but let this much be said, where we failed it was never for the want of trying and when we succeeded it was because we never wanted to fail.

On assuming office, and as agreed unanimously by the Oireachtas Commission at its meeting in November 2007, staffing levels for all officeholders were increased based on the workload of the respective offices. Levels conformed to Department of Finance guidelines. This included the retention in my office of a special adviser with responsibility for media and office liaison. Moreover, the complement of office staff was on a par with one of my predecessors in the 1973 to 1977 Dáil.

It has, as Members know, long been recognised that the Ceann Comhairle, as Chairman of Dáil Éireann, is the main representative of the Oireachtas, our Parliament, in the outside world and in its relations with other parliamentary institutions. Foreign travel undertaken from the Houses of the Oireachtas by the Ceann Comhairle is either in response to an official invitation as Ceann Comhairle or in his capacity as Chairman of the Irish Parliamentary Association and as part of Ireland's obligations to be present at and to take part in Interparliamentary Union events. Ireland has been a part of the Interparliamentary Union since 1928 and the Ceann Comhairle has represented the Houses of the Oireachtas and led interparliamentary delegations at foreign events since then.

It is standard practice throughout the Interparliamentary Union that the speaker of a parliament is treated with the same level of courtesy as a Minister of Government. Items of expenditure, including use of lounges, courtesy cars or security, are the customary courtesies we provide when we host an incoming parliamentary delegation to Ireland. When the Ceann Comhairle travels abroad, the arrangements are made in keeping with whatever is recommended by the hosts, giving due regard to criteria such as security and proximity to the venues for conferences or meetings.

In the fullness of time, it will become apparent that many matters have been distorted and exaggerated beyond the bounds of fairness. Simple techniques such as aggregating annual expenditures to produce headlines, attributing the costs of other persons expenditures to the officeholder personally, insinuating that routine decisions in respect of expenses on car hire or hotels were made or dictated by me, failing to acknowledge that many expenses flowed from well established patterns of official duties such as the St. Patrick's Day festival, maliciously suggesting that I attempted to reclaim charitable donations and excessive gratuities, conflation of accommodation charges and many others were used to create an ugly, grasping, black caricature of the man I am.

As I depart from this office, it is appropriate that I give the benefit of my reflections. I urge and admonish all of those in this House who aspire to hold constitutional office of the requirement to maintain constitutional fairness. Transient political benefit will never be a compensation for long-term political damage. The institutions of this State and the dictates of constitutional fairness are bigger than any individual, his or her political ambitions or his or her career. I regret to say that I was not afforded the basic principles of a fair hearing. Instead, the soundbite took the place of fairness. The headline achieved was more enticing and politically compelling than the fairness of the process that ought to have been followed.

If the elected Members of this House want to counter cynicism about the democratic process, the first step is to accord to each other a minimum quantum of fairness and reasonableness.

Deputies:

Hear, hear.

12:00 pm

Photo of John O'DonoghueJohn O'Donoghue (Ceann Comhairle; Kerry South, Ceann Comhairle)
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That is so when those outside the House clamour loudest for their agendas to be preferred to the requirements of basic justice. If that duty gives way to satisfying the needs and appetites of others outside the House, no amount of good work will restore confidence in our democratic institutions.

I would have hoped to have been given an opportunity to answer each of the charges in a calm and reasonable forum. I would have hoped that this House could have allowed me a few days to put my side of these events on the record. However, patience in aid of fairness gave way, alas, to impatience to surf the political wave of competitive outrage. Lest it be said that the failure to give me an opportunity to defend myself has somehow embittered me, I wish to acknowledge that the failure to afford me a right to be fairly heard arises from weakness rather than malice.

I now leave this appointment in the knowledge that the Office of An Ceann Comhairle has been saved from further inappropriate political controversy. That has been my principal concern and it is what commanded my silence to date. There is some small satisfaction in that. I also content myself in the knowledge that friend and foe alike have acknowledged that I have discharged my duties in a fair manner without fear or favour. Denied my constitutional right to defend myself by a pre-emptive assertion of no confidence, I can only hope that the method by which my departure was contrived will be seen for what it is - a denial of due process. This was a wrong done to the Office of Ceann Comhairle. That it should have been perpetrated from the floor of this House bodes ill for the body politic.

I thank publicly my wife, Kate Ann, and family. I also thank the Clerk of the Dáil, Kieran Coughlan, and his staff for the wonderful service they have given to me since June 2007. I also thank my private secretary, Brendan Conroy, who has always worked above and beyond the call of duty, as well as his staff. I also thank my personal staff for all their hard and diligent work over the years.

I take this opportunity to thank my friends and supporters in south Kerry and beyond. I also thank Members of this House for the courtesy they have extended to me at all times. I thank the staff of the House for their unfailing kindness. Finally, to the men and women of the Fourth Estate, it has been the best of times and it has been the worst of times.

I have had the great honour and privilege to serve in this House for almost 23 years. I came into this House as an honest man and never asked anything of any man. I never took anything from any man. I never could and never would as to do otherwise would be to deny who I am and from whom I came. Those who think otherwise do not know me and never will. I will walk as proudly out of this Chair as the day I walked into it.

In the end, one must be true to one's people and true to oneself, and I have been true to both. Finally, while I may have been forced out of office by an unfair procedure, only the people of south Kerry have the right to exclude me from political life. They have had a good opportunity to judge me, my standards and motives, as well as my commitment to this country for almost 23 years. I now look forward to representing the interests of the constituents of Kerry South to the best of my ability. Guím rath Dé oraibh go léir agus go deo. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

Sitting suspended at 3.05 p.m. and resumed at 3.25 p.m.