CONTROVERSIAL senator Fidelma Healy Eames and her husband are enjoying a luxury holiday in Kenya this weekend after they were flown out to Africa by a state-funded agency.
Ms Healy Eames was invited to Rwanda by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) Ireland to work on an education project. The agency paid for her flight and for her husband's.
It also paid for the couple's flights to the luxury four-star hotel in Kenya, where they are staying at their own expense.
The Galway senator said she requested that her husband Michael should be brought on the initial trip to Rwanda for her safety and because she said she would be lonely without him.
"It's a strange culture and I wouldn't have had the confidence to go on my own," she told the Sunday Independent, adding: "It was also probably a bit of loneliness."
Ms Healy Eames carried out voluntary work as part of the 'Politicians For Development' programme.
She was advising a minister in Rwanda on early childhood education, while her husband Michael spent the week giving business advice to an organic farm which produces essential oils.
The VSO, which paid for the trip, lists Senator David Norris as one of its company directors and the state-funded organisation received almost €1m in taxpayers' money in 2011.
Ms Healy Eames said she has to "balance the books" when she returns from her romantic spa break in Kenya. But she insisted that this had been agreed prior to the trip.
"We have to balance out the books and work out how much we have paid that is their cost and how much they have paid that is our cost.
"The VSO booked the flights for us and booked our private flights and we are refunding them for that.
"We paid €185 each for vaccines, €132 each for medicine and €50 each for visas.
"When we go back, we will be balancing the books and the VSO will be covering the vaccines, medicines and the visas because the reason we are out here is because of the VSO."
She added that once they have paid the organisation back on their return "the only round trip they will be paying is Fidelma's."
Asked if it was convenient that the family holiday coincides with the couple's volunteer week, she replied: "Obviously, it is convenient because we are here already -- but that's just reality.
"I gave up a holiday with my children for the VSO. My children weren't allowed to come because they had to be over 25. So it was definitely a sacrifice. It was a week out of our family holiday time."
Ms Healy Eames described the work load on the Rwandan trip, saying: "We lived in shared accommodation, which was very basic. There was no running water and it had intermittent electricity.
"You couldn't drink the water, so you had to hold your mouth closed while someone washed your hair and you might not even have an iron."
She continued: "It's very hard work. You have two-and-a-half to three weeks' work in one week. We start at 8 in the morning and don't finish until 5 or 6. That's a lot more work than a day at home."
The Galway senator has been in the news on a number of occasions in the course of the past month.
She was fined for boarding a train without a ticket on July 12 and was also involved in a court case in which her husband was ordered to pay over €12,000 to a builder who had sued the couple after he had been forced off a job he was carrying out at their Oranmore home.
Her Mercedes car was then seized by gardai in Galway for failing to display a current tax disc.
Speaking about the negative press she has received, which she described as "a witch hunt", Ms Healy Eames said certain sections of the press were trying to demonise her and that the public had an element of misplaced anger.
"As a country, we have lost perspective. People bought property during the boom because everyone thought it was going to make them wealthy.
"Now there's a genuine anger and they are trying to find someone to blame. Justice needs to be done to those who were reckless but the pendulum has swung again and we are in danger of losing perspective of stuff that's normal and almost everyday.
"Trying to find someone to blame -- it's petty. It's daftness gone mad.
"It's like a witch hunt. And if we pursue someone like this, we are going to get rid of a lot of good people out of politics.
"There has been a perception of me out there, the way I have been portrayed, like the headline 'My jacuzzi was too big', that was sick. They are making out like I am totally materialistic, that I'm on a gravy train. But I really believe I am in politics for substance."
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Malcolm Quigley, the executive director of the VSO Ireland, said: "We will pay for Fidelma's flight and all the medical vaccines and visas. The VSO also has a driver that they can avail of.
"We pay in advance and the partner reimburses. We do this all the time.
"We have an internal travel unit and we have specific agreements with international airlines and tour operators, so we always get the best fare -- in other words, we get discounted tickets."
Other politicians who have participated in the Politicians for Development programme in the past include: Leo Varadkar TD (Fine Gael); Sean Sherlock TD (Labour); Chris Andrews (ex-Fianna Fail TD); Dominic Hannigan TD (Labour); Senator Mark Daly (Fianna Fail); and, from Northern Ireland, Carmel Hanna MLA (SDLP, now retired).
The VSO, which was set up in 1958, is the largest independent volunteer organisation in the world and has reached 26 million people (5.2 million of whom are children) worldwide with its voluntary work. It works in the areas of education, HIV and disability, health, governance and livelihood.
The organisation says that at the moment it is desperately looking for retired Irish teachers to participate in its volunteer work.