Daniel McConnell: Donohoe’s credibility is being eroded by a minor controversy

Every day this saga remains alive, Donohoe’s position becomes more and more precarious
Daniel McConnell: Donohoe’s credibility is being eroded by a minor controversy

Paschal Donohoe’s curiously misjudged handling of his failure to declare about €1,000 in election services all week has only allowed the opposition parties to heap misery on his strained shoulders.

Should Paschal Donohoe be forced to resign over his failure to declare about €1,000 in election services from his friend Michael Stone?

This is the space we are now in as we await Donohoe’s latest statement in the Dáil next Tuesday.

By rights, given what is believed to be the relatively small amount of money involved, this matter could have and should have been put to bed two days ago, but Donohoe’s curiously misjudged handling of the matter all week has only allowed the opposition parties to heap misery on his strained shoulders.

Readers of this column will know I have long been an admirer of Donohoe and have named him on more than one occasion as my politician of the year.

He has represented the best in Irish politics — something which has been sorely lacking.

A true intellectual, Donohoe’s economic prowess has served him and the country well in recent times and his handling of the economy during Covid-19 has been vindicated.

He also has managed to keep his feet somewhat on the ground for the most part of his career, a task which is normally impossible when you are a minister for so long.

The rarefied air of palaces, ballrooms, limos, and big meeting rooms would impact on even the most down to earth character after a while.

When I started in Leinster House in 2007, Donohoe had just been elected to the Seanad.

Even then, it was obvious that the Upper House was not the summit of his ambitions and his entry into the Dáil came in 2011.

It was Lucinda Creighton’s downfall over the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill in 2013 that saw Donohoe’s ministerial career commence, at junior level ahead of his elevation to Cabinet as transport minister in 2014.

After the 2016 election, he was appointed public expenditure and reform (PER) minister for the first time and on Leo Varadkar taking office he took on the dual role in PER and the finance portfolio.

His return to the public expenditure portfolio in December as part of the historic changeover of power between Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin did not prevent Donohoe, the boy from Blanchardstown, from retaining his role as President of the Eurogroup.

Throughout his entire career, Donohoe has consciously and deliberately portrayed a style of someone driven by the idea of the public good.

‘Pious Paschal’ or ‘Prefect Paschal’ have been monikers attributed to him for his best boy in class manner of doing things.

But more than an image, those who know Donohoe will know he is as earnest as he comes across.

He will be beating himself up silly over this matter as it has done so much damage to that carefully curated image of goodness.

He has managed to avoid personal controversy even if his political decision making as director of elections for Fine Gael in the 2020 General Election campaign or as finance minister have been criticised.

Yet, since my story on last Saturday and a story in last Sunday’s Sunday Independent about Donohoe being subject to a Sipo complaint (both of which followed on from a story in The Phoenix a few days previous), Donohoe has allowed himself be led from controversy to a crisis where his position is in the balance.

While his spokeswoman did proffer a statement to the Irish Examiner last Saturday, the story and the emerging controversy led to Donohoe calling a hastily organised press conference on the street outside a closed Merrion Square.

So hastily was it organised that the notice stated the event would take place inside the park at 4.30 even though it has already closed for the night as darkness fell.

He admitted to knowing about allegations about this in 2017 but not doing anything about it.

He said on foot of the Sipo complaint he reviewed his files and identified an anomaly of €1,057 for the putting up of posters and the use of a van.

Trickier for Donohoe was the fact that his office had sought to pawn off media inquiries about this matter since November, claiming there was “nothing to see here”.

On one level, I considered what he did was smart in seeking to be fully transparent and try and close down all potential avenues of attack from the media and his opponents.

Handling of controversy

But as with other controversies in the past, you know you really only get one chance to hold your hands up and plead a ‘mea culpa’.

On Monday morning, I was asked to appear on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland to discuss the story and at that point I gave my analysis that the situation was one more of embarrassment as opposed to anything fatal.

What was interesting were the contacts from within government I received after my appearance.

“Not sure an apology and rap on the knuckles will wash,” warned one leading government TD.

Donohoe was always likely to face questions about this matter in the Dáil, as he did this week, but he made a critical error in not allowing the opposition parties to ask questions of him.

He needed to take his beating and move on and let the opposition run out of steam and take the oxygen away from them.

By denying them that opportunity, on the shaky basis he did not want to jeopardise the Sipo inquiry, he merely gave the likes of Pearse Doherty, Roisin Shortall, Paul Murphy, and others to ramp up the heat.

Even at that stage, there was literally no one calling for Donohoe’s head, no one was even threatening a motion of no confidence in him.

But between his foreign travel and a lack of time in the Dáil schedule, Donohoe’s first and second mea culpas have not worked and the issue is still live.

Now that he has signalled a need to return to the Dáil to further clarify matters, even it is on a tangential or minor matter, is a further erosion of Donohoe’s credibility.

As he has to wait until Tuesday to deliver his latest statement in relation to whether Stone’s Designer Group helped him out in his 2020 election campaign, he now has to endure a second weekend of negative headlines and accusations from Doherty et al about his “cock and bull” story.

All the time, the matter becomes less about the original allegation of wrongdoing and increasingly about the noise around him and the impact it is having on government business.

Every day this saga remains alive, Donohoe’s position becomes more and more precarious.

We now know as of last night that there will be further changes to his story. Will they prove sufficient enough to lead to a draining in support for him from Leo Varadkar, the one person who can seal his fate?

If Varadkar decides to stand by his man, through thick and thin, chances are he will survive.

However, if Varadkar decides that this matter is now untenable and needs to be ended, Donohoe will be gone.

So far the line has held, but whatever he does, when Donohoe does finally speak up, he must ensure that he kills this political controversy off. If he doesn’t then he could very well see himself toppled.

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