Monday 22 May 2017

Paschal Donohoe - A reluctant contender who may find it hard to say no

In the last of his in-depth profiles of the leaders-in-waiting, John Downing profiles Paschal Donohoe. Bertie Ahern's 'Drumcondra mafia' kept him out of Leinster House but the tenacity he showed to win a seat at the third attempt has put him firmly in contention

Paschal Donohoe during his stint as Transport Minister in 2015. Photo: Tom Burke
Paschal Donohoe during his stint as Transport Minister in 2015. Photo: Tom Burke
Paschal Donohoe at the RDS Count Centre following his election to the Dáil for the first time in 2011. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Paschal O'Donoghue with Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

Paschal Donohoe was standing in the Fine Gael meeting room openly crying for all to see.

It was Thursday, June 17, 2010, and the young Senator, as party secretary, had the job of giving out the ballot papers for the crunch vote in the leadership heave against Enda Kenny. Later, he said the huge emotion of the occasion just got the better of him as he handed the voting papers, one by one, to well-liked colleagues.

Some of the battle-hardened political warriors were less than impressed. "He'd really want to harden up. I mean, for God's sake…" one rather crusty party veteran fumed even weeks later.

Donohoe, who had been three years at Leinster House by then, would later collect those same ballots. Along with then-party chairman Pádraic McCormack, he counted them and declared Kenny the winner, ending a very acrimonious few weeks in Fine Gael.

Then Donohoe took those ballot papers to the office of the Leinster House superintendent where he shredded them all. Officially, only Donohoe and McCormack know the final score which remains a matter of ongoing conjecture - for the pair, silence has been rigorously maintained.

Donohoe was among those forgiven easily for backing the heave by his northside Dublin political neighbour, Richard Bruton. He got a junior ministry within two years of winning a Dáil seat, a full ministry a year after that, and after the last election, and marathon government-making talks, he got a very senior job as Public Expenditure Minister.

And now, despite his own vehement denials in both public and private, he is talked of as a potential leader and Taoiseach.

***

Paschal Donohoe learned at first hand the caprices of Ireland's proportional representation voting system. In May 2007, he sat with his small band of supporters at the RDS count centre and tried to take in what had happened as he was fifth in a contest for four seats.

"I have just been beaten by a candidate who got little more than a quarter of my first-preference vote," he said miserably.

Fianna Fáil's Cyprian Brady, a Bertie Ahern acolyte at the time, had caused his own bit of amazing electoral history that day. On 939 first-preference votes, to Donohoe's 3,302, he got heavy transfers from Ahern and the other Fianna Fáil candidate, Mary Fitzpatrick, to take the final seat in the eighth count. The outcome bucked nearly all the usual rules of thumb in relation to PR and elections.

Donohoe had been targeted by Ahern's notorious "Drumconda mafia" in that 2007 campaign.

"They were a machine. They went around the area telling people I wasn't ready for the Dáil. They knew where my support was and targeted it. They canvassed my street three times in a week, and even tried to convince my wife to vote for them. But I take my hat off to them," he said in an interview.

He had better luck, however, in the Seanad Éireann elections six weeks later as he took a seat on the administrative panel. When the tragic death of sitting TD Tony Gregory occurred in 2009, he was the first candidate nominated for the by-election and was soon tipped as favourite.

His keenness to win that one was evidenced by the way he managed to be first at Kenny's shoulder for the leader's post-ard fheis speech shots still running on live television in April 2009. Ahern's brother, Maurice, fielded for Fianna Fáil but fared badly, and Bertie himself had noted sourly that Donohoe had put out 14 separate leaflets in the latter stages of a tough campaign.

But while Fine Gael's short-stay political star, George Lee of RTÉ, romped home that same day in another by-election in Dublin South, luck was not with Donohoe in Dublin Central, where he got 6,439 on the first count. Gregory's supporters' determination carried the day for his long-time collaborator, Maureen O'Sullivan, who won the seat with 7,639 first preferences.

These two defeats annealed him politically and made him determined to win and keep his Dáil seat above all else. Though he is now minister in charge of national public spending, he canvasses in Dublin Central every single Monday, and keeps a close eye on local details, backed by a small team including Cllr Ray McAdam and John Gannon, whose day job is manager of Chapters independent bookshop in Parnell Street.

From his earliest days as a councillor, he was extremely active and vocal on local issues. He continued this as a senator but also found time to head the Oireachtas special committee on Ireland's EU role after the shock defeat of the Lisbon Treaty in May 2008.

One of the great imponderables of the February 2011 general election is whether former Taoiseach Ahern could have held his Dublin Central seat had he not decided to quit. From the death of Fianna Fáil grandee George Colley in 1983, Bertie had been the undisputed constituency kingpin, but the party vote just fell asunder there as elsewhere in 2011.

And this time, Donohoe headed the poll and was just 20 votes shy of the quota on the first count. He was part of Fine Gael's historic landslide which saw them return a record 76 TDs on the day and high office beckoned for him.

But from day one in the Dáil, Donohoe knew the fickle nature of politics. He was right to be so cautious because by the time of the next election, in February 2016, population shifts had reduced Dublin Central from four to three seats, and in the boundary redraw, he had lost Glasnevin, Drumcondra and Navan Road.

By one tally, these lost areas had previously yielded 54pc of his first preferences. He resisted invitations to shift constituencies and dug in for a massive campaign in what looked like an impossible fight. Back at the RDS count centre for more drama, early tallies suggested he was history.

But he took solace from being placed third in boxes opened from the Seán McDermott Street area. In a remarkable performance, against the national trend, he took the second of three seats in the 11th count without reaching the quota.

***

Paschal Donohoe epitomises the old Brendan Behan maxim that "a culchie is a Dubliner's father".

His late father, Jimmy, came originally from Mountmellick, Co Laois, and grew up at Dunboyne railway station in Co Meath, where his own father had been stationmaster. His mother, Caitlín, his biggest political supporter, originally comes from Roscommon.

Jimmy Donohoe worked for Stena-Sealink and also had a sideline in renting marquees and tents. Some of Paschal's earliest memories are of helping his father heft and hoist tents for hire.

He went to school at St Declan's CBS in Cabra, where serious asthma curtailed sports activity, but where he took to debating. He got a scholarship to Trinity College to study politics and economics, and does not publicise the fact that he got a first-class honours degree.

From Trinity, he was picked by the multinational company Procter & Gamble for their fast-track graduate training programme. He spent six years working in England and became director of sales and marketing.

He met his English-born wife, Justine Davey, in England. In 2003, he was persuaded to return to Ireland with his wife and contest the 2004 local elections. Brian Hayes, now a Dublin Fine Gael MEP, played a big role in this move which required a huge commitment to a long-haul political slog by the couple.

"Justine worked in Diageo in Dublin initially as did Paschal for a time. But soon he was committed to full-time politics," a friend recalls.

"In Procter & Gamble, his career was effectively made. The switch to politics, with no guarantee of anything, was a big material sacrifice and risk," the friend adds.

Among the benefits was that he was able to return to the area where he grew up. He still lives in Phibsborough and walks his two children, Oscar, aged 11, and Lucy, aged 9, to school most mornings. He also clearly enjoys politics and relishes the challenges of government office.

He has also kept in touch with the business world through political contact, and through his voracious reading of business books which he frequently reviews for various newspapers.

As Transport Minister he was left to face a Luas strike and a threatened Dublin Bus strike. Both were resolved by a cave in to pay demands,while ostensibly he stood well back and said it was for the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court to sort things out.

In his new job as Public Expenditure Minister, he has to face up to the demands of the entire state and semi-state sector champing at the bit after years of pay freezes and cutbacks. So far he has shown signs of being prepared to buy industrial peace with taxpayers' money - but he insists not at any price.

It is a huge test his political mettle and the jury is still out on just how strong and guileful he can be.

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