LAST night’s resignation of Defence Minister Willie O’Dea was as inevitable as it was belated. It would be better if it could be said that Mr O’Dea left office with his dignity intact but that, regrettably, cannot be.
That was pointlessly squandered in the months since he acknowledged he had made what he insists was an error. It would have been better too to be able to say that his resignation came in an honourable effort to serve the high standards public affairs depend on but no, he was forced from office by political imperatives rather than conscience.
Mr O’Dea says he made nothing more than an error but to describe giving a misleading, inaccurate affidavit to the High Court as an error tests the charity of language to its very limit and is, frankly, implausible.
It stretches logic too to accept that a man of his parliamentary, legal and accounting experience might make such an extreme mistake at such a serious moment.
Was his amnesia inspired by the fact that had he admitted he had made the remarks captured on tape by the Limerick Leader reporter Mike Dwane, he might have faced prosecution on a charge of illegal practice?
The Electoral Abuses Act 1923 is clear: “Every person who, before or during any election and for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at that election, makes or publishes any false statement of fact in relation to the personal character or conduct of such candidate ... shall be guilty of an illegal practice.”
The penalties attached to illegal practice are severe. Section 15 provides that on conviction, a person will be barred from voting in all State elections for five years. Section 16 provides that on conviction, a candidate for election to the Dáil or Seanad shall be incapable of being elected to such office for a period of up to seven years and if elected that election shall be void.
Had he faced such charges – he might yet – and been convicted, Mr O’Dea’s career would have ended in circumstances even more shabby than last night’s.
In this context his error – possibly a version of Archbishop Desmond Connell’s moral reservation – could not have been more convenient.
Now that it has been established that he did make a false statement about a rival, there arises the question of whether Mr O’Dea will face prosecution under the Electoral Abuses Act. It is more likely, however, that in our perverse Irish way, he will increase his very impressive 19,082 first preferences at the next election.
That Fianna Fáil put tribe before principle until it was no longer possible is not surprising but their behaviour again showed why our political system is held in such low regard. Had Mr O’Dea recognised the inevitable at the start of this sordid affair and gone then, his resignation might have helped restore some faith in our political system. Now he, and our democracy, got the worst of both worlds. He resigned with a gun to his head and the Oireachtas was reduced to a poker school where the players got away with as much as they could for as long as they could. This was a victory for expediency over conscience and there remains a whiff of cordite in the air. Now it must asked how long more this cosy little arrangement with the Greens can last.
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