Given the whiff of scandal that permeated the corridors of power in Dublin these last couple of weeks, Irish politicians could do worse than to read Luke 16:10: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.”
Barely a week back in office and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s administration is mired in controversy, with one junior minister having to resign and another senior minister fighting for his political life.
In the scale of things, the issues involved are hardly earth shattering but the effect has been to damage reputations and threaten government stability. Not the new beginning that Varadkar would have wished for.
Damien English, minister of state for employment affairs, business and retail, really had no option other than to resign once it became clear that he had made an untrue declaration on a planning application 14 years ago. On The Ditch broke the story reporting that the Fine Gael TD failed to disclose that he owned a bungalow when applying to Meath County Council for permission to build a new home.
This omission allowed him to get permission to build a house in an area where the council only granted permission to local residents who didn't already own a house, and who could prove they had a housing need.
His actions in breaching regulations were unethical, the question as to whether they were illegal resting with Meath County Council. As soon as the story broke it was clear his position was untenable, and without political support from the Taoiseach, he promptly resigned.
I have informed the Taoiseach last night of my decision to resign as Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
Yesterday in an online article, questions were raised about my planning application from 14 years ago. I reviewed this application,— Damien English TD (@Damien_English) January 12, 2023
Some apologists for English pointed out his popularity across the political spectrum and proposed the “cute hoor” defense. This is a uniquely Irish concept where those that manipulate laws or regulations are given a begrudging respect. No doubt there were plenty of cute hoors who lied on planning applications in order to game the system, but the vast majority of people did not and do not.
While English lost a seat in government and also suffered serious reputational damage, he got to retain his 2,800 square-foot bungalow as the statute of limitations to seek demolition of an unauthorized structure has passed. Only he can decide whether the price he ultimately had to pay for the home was worth it.
Then, just as the government was recovering from that resignation came a second bombshell involving Paschal Donohoe, the minister for public expenditure. He has had to apologize and submit an amended financial statement to SIPO, the political ethics watchdog, after it was disclosed that he did not correctly account for expenses paid during his election campaign in 2016. A complaint against him has been submitted to SIPO.
The issue involved the putting up of posters during that year’s general election. Donohoe did not record the payments made to workers and the cost of the use of a friend’s company van as he was required to do.
His subsequent valuation of both of these elements once they had been identified as requiring disclosure led to the happy coincidence that the amount was, by a whisker, within allowable legal limits. To howls of derision in the Dáil, opposition TD Roisin Shortall mocked the calculations as the work of “a minister for finance who can’t keep track of his election donations and expenses and who was relying on mate’s rates.”
It was a telling intervention and turned the spotlight of the story away from posters and toward Donohoe’s mate who helped out with the van and manpower. It turns out that person, Michael Stone, founded and runs an engineering company, Designer Group, which has 750 employees and a turnover of €170 million.
There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on anyone’s part in this relationship, but the media has highlighted that companies Stone is associated with received €8.7 million in government payments over six years. He was also appointed to the board of the Land Development Agency.
This had proved to be hugely embarrassing for a minister who has been characterised as “Mister dot your i’s and cross your t’s.” The very antithesis of the cute hoor.
Meticulous and detailed orientated by nature, Donohoe clearly failed to read the small print in his election returns. He also ignored this problem when it was first brought to his attention in 2017 and failed to deal with it satisfactorily when he made a Dáil statement last week. At the time of writing, a further public statement is awaited this week.
While this is hardly a resigning offense, it will rumble on and erode confidence in the government. Donohoe is too close to the center of power to be thrown under a bus, and in truth, there is no real demand for this to happen. His presidency of the European group of finance ministers, the Eurogroup, puts Ireland at the center of EU monetary policy, and to relinquish it would be a disproportionate price to pay for his negligence.
What the controversies have highlighted is the major shortcomings in our ethics legislation, and the fact that SIPO lacks real clout. This is no surprise as the ethics body itself last year found that 49 recommendations it had made to tighten up Ireland’s electoral law and improve the transparency and accountability in Irish politics were awaiting government action.
These included its top recommendation that powers should be given to SIPO to appoint an officer to initiate investigations as opposed to having to wait for a complaint to be made. Other recommendations also waiting for action included a call to introduce a code of conduct for public servants and members of state boards, and a demand that liabilities or debts should be disclosed as material matters in the annual register of interests by elected members.
So it now falls to the minister with responsibility to take action to strengthen Ireland’s electoral laws. The only problem with that? The person responsible is Paschal Donohoe.
He has rightly recused himself from all involvement in decisions relating to SIPO until the complaint against him is dealt with as it would never do for a poacher to become gamekeeper.
Donohoe’s harshest critics are in Sinn Féin, a party that has flirted with ethics legislation in the past. Perhaps an additional biblical reading might be appropriate for them, John 8:7: “Let he or she who is without sin cast the first stone.”
*This column first appeared in the January 25 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral. Michael O'Dowd is brothers with Niall O'Dowd, founder of the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.