Elaine Loughlin: Stephen Donnelly's fumbling of details painfully exposed

Perhaps Stephen Donnelly should be made Minister for Lack of Information, as not having the facts to hand seems to be the adopted approach when asked about most things relating to his portfolio
Elaine Loughlin: Stephen Donnelly's fumbling of details painfully exposed

Elaine Loughlin: The car-crash minister has in recent weeks been involved in multiple single-person media collisions and has bounced himself from one blunder to another

Last summer, Stephen Donnelly warned us all about the dangers of trampolines and driving – he needs to heed his own advice.

The car-crash minister has in recent weeks been involved in multiple single-person media collisions and has bounced himself from one blunder to another.

Mr Donnelly's media interviews and Dáil appearances, in which he cannot provide answers on the pandemic and the rollout of the vaccine, have become so frequent they are no longer surprising.

Opposition spokespeople have been trying to get vaccine figures out of the minister for some time. They have worked themselves up into a tizzy at times after failed attempts to draw anything more than a back-of-an-envelope estimate out of Mr Donnelly.

Before the Easter break, exasperated Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane interjected a Dáil discussion to accuse the minister of "confusing people" by dealing in approximates, which he said seem to constantly change overnight.

Mr Cullinane asked three times for the number of doses due to arrive into the country in April, but all he could get in response was a caution that publishing exact figures would cause anxiety and so the best Mr Donnelly could offer was a figure of "slightly less than a million doses".

"Once we give accurate figures that we know are going to change, those change and people jump up and down and say 'this is an outrage'."

Labour leader Alan Kelly accused Mr Donnelly of being 'incompetent'. 
Labour leader Alan Kelly accused Mr Donnelly of being 'incompetent'. 

In a heated Dáil exchange just a few minutes later, Labour leader Alan Kelly accused Mr Donnelly of being “incompetent”.

It was April Fool's Day, but for Mr Kelly, the lack of transparency was beyond a joke.

"You are Minister for Health, you report to this Dáil, it is absolutely irrelevant and this whole charade is a waste of time if you are not actually going to answer questions," Mr Kelly said.

Later in the debate, another frustrated politician, this time Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall explained that this was the sixth week in a row that she was asking the minister to publish a plan for the rollout of the vaccines.

"One sometimes wonders what the point is of coming in here on a Thursday morning," she said.

Last Wednesday, with the Dáil on recess, the Health Minister went on radio to say he didn't know how many people would receive a vaccine this week: "I don't have the exact figure in front of me."

But journalist Gavin Jennings was determined to get facts and asked when we might see 250,000 people being vaccinated each week.

"By the time we're moving into late May and June, we'll be doing quite a bit in excess of 250,000. It'll be a bit less this month, it will be a bit more in May and it'll be quite a bit more in June," said Mr Donnelly.

The host interjected to press the minister for specific details and again asked exactly when we might hit the 250,000 weekly target.

"I haven't got the week-by-week figures in front of me."

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly's media interviews and Dáil appearances, in which he cannot provide answers on the pandemic and the rollout of the vaccine, have become so frequent they are no longer surprising. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly's media interviews and Dáil appearances, in which he cannot provide answers on the pandemic and the rollout of the vaccine, have become so frequent they are no longer surprising. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Might it be this month, broached the journalist, hoping the minister might provide some level of detail? 

"If it's not this month it will be early May, I haven't got the figure in front of me, but essentially we are ramping up."

The interview lasted 13 minutes and 19 seconds – in that time Mr Donnelly had "no idea" whether a group of SNAs who jumped the vaccination queue were in his constituency and the best timeline he could give for having vaccination centres working at full capacity was "probably June".

His radio appearance coincided with his own department sending out a release at 1.15pm that did contain figures.

The press release stated that 929,000 doses are expected to arrive into the country this month, 1.25m vaccines will be delivered in May and a further 1.75m in June.

At the same time as Mr Donnelly was on radio, the Taoiseach was out in Citywest inspecting a vaccination centre, where he was in a position to list the latest Department of Health projections to the waiting media.

Micheál Martin had clearly got the vaccine stats as his minister fumbled over figures on air.

Mr Donnelly was back on the radio on Monday morning, just as FOI correspondence revealed he had asked for a full-scale review of the department's Twitter account.

The Irish Times story found Mr Donnelly had queried why he was not being mentioned in tweets posted on the Department of Health’s Twitter feed.

The analysis was carried out in mid-January as the country and the healthcare system battled a third Covid wave.

When it was found that Mr Donnelly was not being mentioned, interim secretary general Robert Watt raised the issue with Deirdre Watters, the department’s head of communications, telling her "there is no reference to the minister, as you can see. We need to discuss".

Asked about the story on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Mr Donnelly said: "I believe it was a piece of work that one of the team was looking at. I haven't seen the article but I believe it was one piece of work that somebody was looking at."

It is difficult to understand why, prior to going on national radio, a minister would not have read a front-page article relating to him, especially since the story had also been published on the website late the night before.

But again, the minister insisted: "I haven't seen the article, it's a piece of work that somebody did within the department, and it came up presumably in an FOI request, I'd have to take a look."

In the 13 hours between the article going live online and the minister appearing on radio, did one of his staff not think to alert him to it or at least provide him with enough information to answer questions on it?

Perhaps he should be reappointed Minister for Lack of Information, as not having the facts to hand seems to be the adopted approach when asked about most things relating to his portfolio.

Knowledge is power, unless you are Stephen Donnelly.

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This week in years gone by

April 18 marks the two-year anniversary of the shooting dead of Lyra McKee in Derry. Picture: Chiho Tang/Oranga Creative/PA Wire
April 18 marks the two-year anniversary of the shooting dead of Lyra McKee in Derry. Picture: Chiho Tang/Oranga Creative/PA Wire

April 20, 1954: Michael Manning, who was convicted of the rape and murder of 65-year-old nurse Catherine Cooper, was the last man to be executed in Ireland. He was hanged at Mountjoy Jail, Dublin.

April 19, 1969: Rioting broke out in Derry after the RUC banned a civil rights march. The Cork Examiner reported that more British troops were being drafted in to guard key installations following the "stormiest weekend" since the previous October. Police blocked roads and in the Bogside area of the city there was a mass exodus of residents.

April 12, 1972: The country ground to a halt on the first day of an ESB strike. In Leinster House, politicians were forced to work by candlelight. "Some people, (not me) of course, subscribe to the popular belief that Dáil deputies are mostly 'in the dark' anyway," wrote Anthony Ring in the Cork Examiner, as he reported on how candles were drafted in to Leinster House. The cuts paralysed 95% of the country's industry, with 40% of telephones not operating, traffic jams at intersections and entertainment abandoned, it was reported.

April 18, 2019: This day marks the two-year anniversary of the shooting dead of Lyra McKee in Derry. In an incredibly personal and poignant piece published in the Irish Examiner in the wake of her death, political reporter Aoife Moore described how Lyra fell in love with beating heart of Derry.

Did you know?

Unlike the Dáil, whose members are elected through a general election, or less frequently a by-election, there are a number of ways to gain seat in the Seanad.

Eleven senators are chosen by the taoiseach of the day.

Three senators are elected by the graduates of the National University of Ireland

Three senators are elected by the graduates of Trinity College, Dublin.
The remaining 43 senators are elected from vocational panels of candidates, the electorate for which consists of members of the outgoing Senate, the TDs of the recently elected Dáil and the elected members of the county councils throughout the State.

What to look out for this week

Historian and campaigner Catherine Corless will address the Children's Committee on Wednesday. Picture: Ray Ryan
Historian and campaigner Catherine Corless will address the Children's Committee on Wednesday. Picture: Ray Ryan

Tuesday: The controversial Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) is up for discussion again this week. The Joint Committee on European Union Affairs will look at the impacts of the deal on Irish-Canadian relations with members of the Canadian Embassy and Chris Collenette, chair of the Irish Canada Business Association.

Tuesday: Meat plants hit the headlines in August when many were forced to temporarily shut due to Covid outbreaks. The most recent survey found there have been 42 clusters of Covid-19 in meat and poultry factories during the third wave, involving 1,071 cases. 

The pandemic has also highlighted a persistent issue for mainly minimum-wage or low-paid workers who feel obliged to work even if they are not fit to. 

Opposition parties have called form the urgent introduction of statutory sick pay. The working conditions in meat plants will be discussed by industry representatives and the Migrant Rights Centre when they appear before the Enterprise Committee.

Wednesday: Members of the Children's Committee have a marathon 10-hour day, scrutinising a controversial Burials Bill, which aims to allow for the exhumation of remains at Tuam and other mother and baby homes.

Pre-legislative scrutiny of the General Scheme of a Certain Institutional Burials (Authorised Interventions) Bill begins at 9.30am and the committee will hear from campaigners including Catherine Corless, Dr Maeve O'Rourke, Susan Lohan, as well as the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and a number of forensic archaeologists.

Wednesday: Having taken last week off, apart from a hastily arranged incorporeal meeting to sign off on extending the hotel quarantine list on Friday night, the Cabinet is due to hold its regular weekly meeting.

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