In (sort of) defence of Paschal against SIPO

Speaking on my weekly podcast with David Quinn last week, former PD advisor Cormac Lucey made a straightforward point in relation to last week’s Ministerial Casualty, Damien English: Who’d want to be a politician, these days?

For many of you, I suspect, the answer will be “me! – for that money? Are you joking?” or words to that effect. And it’s true – TDs earn well above the average salary, and, as we all know, the job comes with good expenses, free parking in Dublin for life, pensions, and, some people will tell you, globe-trotting travel on the Government jet, or whatever. You’ll never be unpopular, in Ireland, shouting that TDs are overpaid and under-worked. It’s a staple of populism.

On Sunday, my colleague Ben Scallan quite rightly asked Paschal Donohoe, the Minister for Public Expenditure, whether he would resign if, as is possible, the Standards in Public Office commission were to find that he failed to properly declare election expenditure arising from his 2016 campaign for re-election in Dublin Central. The Minister, notably, did not say “no”. His job is, indeed, on the line:

The gist of the story was summed up, very well, by Harry McGee in yesterday’s Irish Times:

The facts are undisputed. Michael Stone, a friend of Donohoe’s, offered to put posters up on lamp-posts. Stone is the chief executive of Designer Group, a successful international company. Six men drove around the constituency in a company van and erected election posters for Donohoe. They took down the posters after the election.

There are strict rules for spending in election campaigns as laid out in the Electoral Acts are strict. The maximum donation from an individual is €1,000. From a corporation it is €200. Any donation from an individual worth over €600 must be declared. It’s not just cash. If somebody offers a free supply of services without payment in money or in kind, that has to go down as an expense. The amount that is recorded is how much the candidate would have paid for that service if it were a commercial transaction.

We will not, and cannot, pre-judge this case. But the facts, it is fair to say, are problematic for the Minister, and will require a robust defence.

But should they be?

Election campaigns – and I write as a veteran of several – are fantastically expensive and stressful things, even in a country like Ireland with very strict limits on donations and spending. Between the time when an election is called, and polling day, politicians in five-seat constituencies are permitted to spend up to about €35,000. But they can only raise €1,000 from any one person. Try finding 35 people to stump up a grand, or seventy people to stump up 500 quid, some time, to get you a job. And all of that is only in the period between the election being called, and the vote itself. If you don’t spend another five-figure sum in the months before the election is called, you’ll be starting at a big disadvantage.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that many politicians find some way of creatively accounting what they are given. Paschal, I promise you – if he is guilty – would not be the first, or the last.

Then there’s the posters: The fines for not taking them down in time are eye-watering. They can run into €150 per poster. Candidates have hundreds of the things, and if even ten go astray, there’s another €1,000, for which you are personally liable. In recent years, it has become a quietly nasty practice in Irish politics for posters of candidates one opposes to go “missing” in the weeks before an election, only to mysteriously reappear as soon as there’s a fine for having them up. Some parties on the left, for some reason, never seem to have this problem, but it’s been known to afflict everyone from Labour to Fine Gael at various times.

Having a good team to erect your posters, and get them down again, then, is necessary and vital. I would not blame the Minister for jumping at the offer allegedly made to him.

And so, assuming – purely for the purpose of argument – that the Minister is guilty as sin here, then I would still find it very hard to condemn him. There is no allegation that he profited, or sought to profit, personally. Essentially, he is accused of an accounting error – receiving help from a friend and not accounting for it correctly as a campaign donation.

This brings me back to Cormac Lucey’s point: What do we, as a society, gain from these rules? To be clear: If anyone ever asked me, as a veteran both as candidate and campaigner, whether they should seek election, I would honestly tell them not to do it. Your chances of success are low, and your chances of incurring huge costs and stress are high. And that’s only in the election.

There are many problems with this Government, and regular readers will know that I am not a fan, in the round, of their agenda. But that doesn’t mean that we benefit, as a society, from creating more and more rules to make the entry of people into politics an utter misery. If anything, we should be encouraging more people to get in, and compete, and stand on their ideas.

Whether Paschal is guilty or not, SIPO will decide. But for my money, if this is the stuff we’re hounding politicians for now, then we as a country should re-assess our priorities. Say what you want about the Minister for Public Expenditure, but Liam Lawlor or Ray Burke, he ain’t.

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