Paschal Donohoe solidifies key position in the party

Donohoe has solidified his position as a central player in Fine Gael and is now in pole position to be a contender the next time a leadership contest is held, writes Daniel McConnell

Paschal Donohoe solidifies key position in the party

SHORTLY after his election as a new TD in 2011, Paschal Donohoe was languishing as a backbencher, after being overlooked as a candidate to be a junior or senior minister.

Having served in the Seanad since 2007, Donohoe had emerged as a thinker and a genuine candidate to reclaim a Fine Gael seat in the hugely working class constituency of Dublin Central.

But in 2010, as secretary of the parliamentary party, Donohoe sided with Richard Bruton in the abortive heave against Enda Kenny.

“It is off to the gulags with me,” he joked wryly with me at the time in the Woodstock Café in his home base of Phibsboro, reflecting on his decision on the night after the vote was declared.

As secretary, he is one of two people in the world who know for definite how large the margin of victory for Enda Kenny was, but he wasn’t and has never been for telling.

Having secured his seat as a TD, he immediately set about getting himself noticed. Within 11 days of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition being formed on March 9, 2011, he published a pamphlet arguing why the 31st Dáil shouldn’t become a ‘Default Dáil’. Launched amid a raging debate as to whether Ireland would default on its crippling debts, Donohoe made the case for the hard slog and swallowing the painful medicine.

He held a press launch in the AV Room in Leinster House, but the event in truth was a failure. Only a handful of people showed up and media interest was scant to say the least. Those who did attend showed up more out of courtesy to Donohoe. To most, it was a forgettable occurrence, but it offered an insight as to his abilities. It showed an aptitude for thinking beyond the parochial dimensions which 90% of TDs operate in.

Just six years later, Donohoe is big news.

With the resignations of Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan this week, Donohoe now finds himself sitting at the very heart of Government.

He went on Morning Ireland and Pat Kenny on Newstalk yesterday morning to confirm our lead story yesterday that he is declaring for Leo Varadkar in the Fine Gael leadership race.

He held a separate press conference on Leo Street in the heart of his constituency and the media were there en masse.

Little has changed of the man himself other than the political system, the media and the public have come to realise his attributes.

Promoted in 2013 to replace Lucinda Creighton as junior European Affairs minister, Donohoe was all of a sudden based out of Government Buildings with considerable access to the Taoiseach’s office.

His rehabilitation was aided by his willingness to flog himself on shows like Tonight with Vincent Browne and defend the indefensible when no one else would.

Within a year, following a reshuffle, Kenny promoted him again and this time into Cabinet, just three years after becoming a TD. He was made Minister for Transport.

Some colleagues openly resented his swift rise, particularly those who had backed Kenny in the heave and were left behind.

He fell victim to an anti-intellectual bias which is pervasive among many in Leinster House. Colleagues who would smile and be pleasant to his face would snipe the minute his back was turned, resenting what they called his goody-two-shoes class-prefect image.

But his ability again soon became clear. He successfully faced down a series of Irish Rail strikes while progressing the Luas cross-city project.

But perhaps his big achievement was the successful selling off of the State’s 25% stake in the former national airline Aer Lingus to the IAG group.

While the cash amount for the sale was not significant, the political ramifications of not getting agreement were substantial.

The deal exposed fractures within the Fine Gael Labour government as well as considerable backbench concern and agitation.

But over many weeks, slowly and carefully, he navigated his way through to the point where he nullified all concerns.

Two years on, there is no one saying the sale was not a success.

That he too became a central character on satirical shows like Gift Grub on Today FM and more specifically Callans’ Kick on RTÉ was a clear sign that he was moving centre stage.

But his crowning political achievement was to retain his seat in a massively shrunken Dublin Central, having lost two-thirds of his electoral base.

“I never thought I would be sitting here in this office talking to you about the job I now have,” is what he said to me during an interview I did with him last Christmas.

Installed as public expenditure minister on the forming of the minority government a year ago, Donohoe was identified by Enda Kenny as a real contender at the top level of Fine Gael, and his elevation immediately put him in the mix to become leader.

That move alone saw the power base begin within Fine Gael and Government to shift from Michael Noonan to Donohoe and it is clear that over that year Noonan’s influence has waned and Donohoe’s influence has increased significantly.

“Paschal is smart, I mean really smart…He reads books like and everything,” is how one of his colleagues described his prowess.

But then came a twist to the story.

Donohoe moved quickly to say that when a leadership contest got underway he would not be putting his name forward.

“I am very lucky to be where I am, I want to continue doing the job I love,” he said. “I will not be a candidate,” he added.

He said he wants to concentrate on the day job but, in reality, he probably felt Varadkar has been cultivating a base of supporters for so long as to make a realistic challenge unlikely.

But that did not stop party elders, including Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan approaching him to reconsider his position. Those seeking him to run had privately made it known that neither Coveney or Varadkar would be their preferred choice.

But Donohoe held firm and has since come out backing Varadkar.

By doing so, Donohoe has solidified his position as a central player in Fine Gael and is now in pole position to be a contender the next time a leadership contest is held.

His decision to back Varadkar and the manner of how he did too was a sign of his influence.

On Thursday, Varadkar did not make any media appearances in relation to his campaign but the fact that he broke cover to stand beside Donohoe on Leo Street in Dublin 7 yesterday was a strong reflection of how powerful Donohoe has become.

Regarded as a kingmaker in recent weeks, he has chosen who he wants to be king.

Assured of at least keeping his current job in Public Expenditure and Reform, there are increasing suggestions that another promotion may be on the cards.

He is certainly on the up.

Tánaiste Paschal Donohoe anyone?

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