Paschal Donohoe’s date with fate is not as trivial as it might first appear. It is not just about “roughly a grand for posters” in the last two elections.
It is about our still-flawed efforts to control the role of money and the input of business in our politics to show people that the system for ordering our affairs is open and properly supervised.
Of most all politicians at Leinster House, he is among the least likely purveyors of questionable work
In a pretty fraught hour of Dáil exchanges, the Public Expenditure Minister acknowledged to Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín that Ireland has a recent “dark history” of businesspeople wrongly buying political influence for their own selfish ends.
“I’m aware of that ‘dark history’. I know what it did to our politics – and I don’t play any part in that,” the embattled Fine Gael minister said.
The Dublin Central TD is far from a political novice, having first fielded as a general election candidate in May 2007 and been part of the government team for a decade.
It is not lost on anyone that he has been Finance Minister, and his current job as Public Expenditure Minister ironically puts him in charge of the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo), which most observers agree is woefully short of powers to effectively police public life.
The latest explanatory session was number three in the series covering benefit-in-kind donations by businessman Michael Stone and his engineering firm in the general elections of 2016 and 2020.
Mr Donohoe had called a most unusual press conference on Sunday, January 15, did a special, but incomplete, Dáil explanation last Wednesday, and finally he was back yesterday to explain himself one more time.
For such a seasoned politician, that is a pretty lamentable situation. Add the fact that he brushed aside questions about the 2016 election donations back in 2017, and again last November, and you have grounds for saying Mr Donohoe brought much of this woe on himself.
Yet before we go any further, it is also worth noting that Mr Donohoe comes across to most people who encounter him as genuine, straightforward, courteous and likeable. He has a good track record as a hard-working and skilled minister, and his retention as president of the Eurogroup of finance ministers, despite a move sideways to Ireland’s Public Expenditure department, speaks to the general regard in which he was held.
The opposition have lingering grounds for saying important questions remain
Of most all politicians at Leinster House, he is among the least likely purveyors of questionable work. And yesterday, he largely played for “a fool’s pardon”, insisting that he would never be “knave”, but acknowledging he should have taken more care.
Despite conceding this reality, and despite also a belated improvement in the explanations – largely facilitated by Mr Stone, taking a large share of blame earlier – the opposition have lingering grounds for saying important questions remain. Mr Stone said he only very belatedly told Mr Donohoe of his paying workers to put up the posters, a move that turned voluntary work into a benefit-in-kind donation under election finance rules.
For Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty, the amounts that Mr Donohoe concedes for labour and vehicles engaged in putting up posters in the 2016 and 2020 elections are not realistically priced. He accuses the minister of “reverse engineering” to conveniently keep the amounts under permitted limits.
Social Democrats leader Róisín Shortall homed in on Mr Donohoe’s reliance on not really being aware of these campaign finance realities.
So, is that the end of all that, then? Well, the opposition must decide on that as it moves into put-up-or-shut-up time. It remains unclear whether they will opt for a full-on motion of no confidence. That could raise the political stakes again.