Alison O'Connor: A storm in a poster teacup? Maybe — but it still leaves a bad taste

We've seen and heard far worse in politics but there are wider issues at play
Alison O'Connor: A storm in a poster teacup? Maybe — but it still leaves a bad taste

Paschal Donohoe: His departure could have proven very damaging as nobody, least of all Sinn Féin, wants an early general election. Picture: Sam Boal/

A friend who phoned on Tuesday morning launched straight into it. “Just don’t tell me that Paschal is going to have to go over a few posters. It’s just ridiculous.”

This friend does take an interest in politics, but there were variations on that sentiment from others in the preceding days, people who generally pay zero attention to what goes on inside the world of politics.

So at some point this story, or bits of it, did make its ways outside of the “bubble” of Leinster House to a point where many people were scratching their heads that we could lose one of our best ministers over the putting up of posters during a general election campaign. It wasn’t an easy one to formulate an answer to, at least not a short one.

Sure we’ve seen and heard of far, far worse in Irish politics. Paschal Donohoe himself acknowledged in the Dáil on Tuesday the “dark history” we have in relation to what can be a toxic relationship between politics and business in Ireland. This didn’t have anything like the cut of that. And yet, and yet. A deep sense of disappointment lingers.

He expressed regret for not addressing the postering issue when it was first raised in 2017; he didn’t “give it enough attention”. Again last November. We never really got a satisfactory answer as to the why though.

It does tell you, doesn’t it though, how there has been a distinct absence of fear and respect from at least some politicians when it comes to our Standards in Public Office Commision (Sipo). The Commission know this. In fact, it has basically confirmed it to us, pleading to be beefed up. Whatever was going on with Paschal he clearly wasn’t ranking Sipo that highly in his considerations.

It’s true that in 2020 in particular the minister was exceptionally busy in his role as national director of elections for his party, leaving minimal amount of time for his own Dublin Central constituency. Anyone who has held that post in the past for their party will tell you it’s beyond demanding.

It’s a good part of our democratic process that “ordinary” people muck in and help parties and politicians, party members, supporters, friends. Clearly, though, there are levels of support and helpfulness. Having resources or largesse to spread around is likely to set you apart from the “ordinary” foot-soldiers out leafletting.

There is an added layer to this when the politician is at the top tier of Government in the finance portfolios, likely to be falling over wealthy entrepreneurial types on a daily basis. Just the sort of people who have the financial wherewithal to help you along — even without you being aware of it. It can be so run of the mill they forget to tell you just how helpful they were. 

I mean which one of us doesn’t yearn for a poster fairy type in our own lives?

That is not to say there is a thing wrong with being wealthy and ambitious, or to be those things and also want to get involved in the political process. Or to be a minister who has wealthy friends who are supportive.

But things do veer off course when that friend is someone who can reach into his pocket to pay a group of men and a van to put up posters for you, then forget a few years later that he ever did it, even when asked. 

And the minister also seems to think it’s all something that can be, if not forgotten, then parked.

That same friend could be fantastically well intentioned, taking on public roles such as chairman of the North Inner East City Programme Implementation Board and as a board member of the Land Development Agency, taking no fees, including the €15,759 annual entitlement from the LDA. 

That is all very admirable from a man who began his working life as ESB apprentice and is said to have a very strong public service ethos. His commitment, skills, and contacts would have been invaluable in that inner city role. 

But we must also factor in how privilege and social standing bring you closer to power and to opportunities, yes including those where you get to give back.

Back to the bigger picture. Paschal has been a shining light in our political firmament. At a time when we most needed steady heads, reassurance, and balance — in other words in the midst of a global pandemic — we knew when it was him we were listening to we would get that in spades. 

During those Trump years and the Brexit madness and when we wondered, for instance, might France really be following in the same direction, Paschal was always there calmly pointing out the importance of the political centre holding. There was also his skill negotiating the very tricky corporate tax issue.

Not only that but over the last few years he has honed a very particular skill in seeming to soothe over, while not directly contradicting, when asked to comment in the wake of some other seemingly top-of-the-head half daftness uttered by his boss Leo Varadkar, now Taoiseach.

Donations and financial benefit

On Tuesday in the Dáil during an appearance of just over an hour, Paschal used the word poster or postering 30 times. Understandable but also an attempt to deflect from the opposition’s efforts to talk of it actually in terms of donations, corporate or personal — and the financial benefit of those to a candidate, and what they clearly viewed as efforts by the minister to retrofit his explanations to avoid further trouble.

But he was clearly trying to replace that image of any financial advantage, with a far more innocuous one of just a few oul’ posters being put up on polls, organised by a good pal.

You can indeed look on it all as a storm in a poster teacup, where it would have seemed daft for the man who is currently chair of the Eurogroup of Finance ministers to be demoted to the backbenches.

Paschal Donohoe is a lynchpin of this Government and his departure could have proven very damaging.

The Coalition is lucky that Sinn Féin does not want a general election in the near future. There is also the fact that party is becoming mired in its own issues on electoral returns to Sipo, not to mention the cheapness of not paying a venue for its hire back in 2016 during the general election campaign. The money was finally handed over this week when the non-payment was made public.

In his concluding remarks, Paschal Donohoe, after he had answered opposition questions, said that “while this is all some in the opposition will seek to define me by, it is not all that I have done while serving the constituents of Dublin Central and looking to provide service to our country. I have apologised for my errors in these events….I take hard won lessons from them”.

This is true. But it is also a real pity it all happened at all. It leaves a bad taste.

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