A double sting on the bookies was pulled off in the 2007 general election by staff in Fianna Fáil HQ.
The first was a spread bet on the party taking more than 75 seats. The bet was placed at a point in the campaign when Bertie Ahern was up to his neck in explanations around his personal finances, and Fianna Fáil’s opinion poll ratings were in a nosedive. The gamble was orchestrated by Colin Hunt, the party’s economic adviser. He’s now the chief executive of AIB, so he knows a thing or two about figures.
The second was less lucrative but equally clever, with a couple of insiders putting a few bob on a young candidate. Darragh O’Brien in Dublin North had gone under the punditry radar, where the focus was on celebrity candidate John O’Leary, a former Dublin All-Ireland-winning captain.
O’Brien, a new councillor, had tapped the vibe of young couples living in new suburbs in the north of the county, where Celtic Tiger estates were popping up, with little by way of transport or amenities. He was typical of Bertie-era Fianna Fáil’s ability to represent an aspiring generation.
O’Brien is delivering a jackpot again for Fianna Fáil headquarters this week. The Housing Minister is also in charge of Local Government and Heritage, taking in items such as the political system. He’s passing a long-awaited and hugely welcome bill to bring in an Electoral Commission, an independent body that will be in charge of elections.
Despite the importance to our democracy, councils around the country treat the maintenance of electoral registers as a nuisance, there is no nationwide consistency, and official turnout figures are often guesswork as the voting lists are so inaccurate. The new political tsar will be in charge of electoral registers, while emerging issues such as regulating online political advertising and allowing voting to take place across a number of days, in case of a pandemic, will also come under its remit.
The Electoral Reform Bill has been making its way through the Houses of the Oireachtas for the past 18 months, with all sorts of points about the political system being debated.
The new law said absolutely nothing about facilitating the big political parties to raise millions of euro in fundraising – until last Thursday.
Suddenly, out of the blue, O’Brien tabled a last-minute amendment to allow political parties to get a permit to run a fundraising lottery. It’s less a minor amendment and more an entire section of the legislation, which is unusual for the final stages of a legislative process, when it tends to be technical changes. Ironically, the new section is connected to other amendments on transparency of party donations and accounts.
The lottery licence law didn’t just fall out of the sky. Fianna Fáil badly needs it. It all goes back to the Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Bill 2019, which tidied up gambling laws.
The bill was passed through the Oireachtas by then Fine Gael junior minister David Stanton and brought into effect by his successor, Fianna Fáil junior minister James Browne.
The law limited who can run lotteries to charities and philanthropic organisations, such as sports clubs.
What wasn’t spotted was the impact on the big political parties. Overnight, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were not able to run their hugely lucrative fundraising raffles as normal. Fine Gael regularly rakes in €1m every Christmas from its “Superdraw” and Fianna Fáil brings in about €600,000.
To stay within the new law, Fine Gael split its “Superdraw” into a series of mini raffles. Fianna Fáil, curiously, got a licence from the courts by declaring itself a “charity”. But the party got rumbled and the licence was legally challenged.
Fianna Fáil had to abandon its annual draw and return the proceeds of ticket sales, leaving a hole of about €500,000 in the party’s coffers. That couldn’t be allowed to linger.
A comprehensive overhaul of the gambling laws is on the way. The Gambling Regulation Bill 2022 will modernise the rules on gambling and create a gambling watchdog.
Now, it was widely expected that the political party fundraising problem would be cleaned up in that law with appropriate debate. The Government is even admitting O’Brien’s last-minute change is in keeping with normal gambling legislation. “The amendment proposed is in line with the provisions that generally apply to fundraising lotteries as set out in the Gaming and Lotteries legislation,” the minister’s department says, begging the question why it’s going into an electoral law now, rather than forthcoming gambling legislation.
However, it appears waiting for that legislation is not an option. It’s costing Fianna Fáil too much. Instead, a Fianna Fáil minister is railroading through a change in a law that will benefit Fianna Fáil.
It’s a great little nation.
The Labour Party, the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin are all objecting to the minister’s actions. Labour’s Ged Nash has described it as an “old-style Fianna Fáil stroke”. A note from an official in the Oireachtas points out the amendment is “outside the scope of the bill”.
Let’s not just point the finger at Fianna Fáil. Fine Gael and the Green Party signed off on this one as well at Cabinet. Green Party junior minister Malcolm Noonan has been assisting his senior ministerial counterpart in the Custom House in passing the bill through the Oireachtas. All three Coalition parties will vote through the legislation this week with the lottery licence change. In the Dáil, there’ll be a bit of a hullabaloo and those on the government benches will throw barbs back at Sinn Féin about the source of its funding. You can usually expect the kidnap of Shergar, the Northern Bank raid or Colonel Gaddafi to get a mention.
It displays a skilful cynicism to use a law aimed at enhancing public confidence in the political system for your party’s own political financial means. The spirit of the legislation is thrown out the window.
As for Darragh O’Brien: there’s an ever-widening housing crisis, but he’s busy pulling strokes for Fianna Fáil.
It’s an example of how Ireland works. When a law really needs to be changed, it can be done faster than the dropping of a bingo ball.