Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe arrives in the Dáil again on Tuesday to explain his election expenses. By riding the tiger, he risks ending up inside of it. In the game of gotcha there are no rules and Donohoe’s offence is not what he did with his posters. It is what he failed to do for his colleagues. Alan Shatter, Frances Fitzgerald, Maria Bailey, Jerry Buttimer, Phil Hogan and Damien English are six of his own fed to the beast by Fine Gael.
English is a case apart. He admitted to a serious accusation and resigned immediately. Shatter and Fitzgerald were entirely innocent and subsequently found to be so. In Shatter’s case, he is entitled to a State apology that has never been forthcoming. Buttimer was leas cathaoirleach of the Seanad when he sat down to dinner with the Oireachtas golf society in Clifden. He resigned in the furore of golfgate. So did European commissioner Phil Hogan after then tánaiste Leo Varadkar effectively withdrew his support.
What is known about Donohoe’s election expenses is cause for concern. It doesn’t yet approach the threshold for resignation. He justifiably says for himself that “honesty and integrity matter above all”. What is lacking in Fine Gael is a sense that others were entitled to the due process he wants now. The brutal demands of politics, interpreted as the necessity of managing the news cycle, itself driven by social media, set ever sharper standards of expediency. A parliamentary seat cannot become the seat of judgment in respect of another’s reputation. Political judgment may occasionally be fair, but it is more likely to be expedient. So it has proved to be, too often.
The casual cruelty of his party, of his party leader and his own complicity in a culture of instant execution contributes to his predicament. Fine Gael perfected the politics of righteousness, being better people with a higher calling. Above the squalor of their competitors, principally Fianna Fáil, they distilled class and morality in ways they found self-satisfying, but rarely found wider electoral appeal.
But that is to speak of an old Fine Gael. They momentarily replaced Fianna Fáil as the natural party of government in 2011. That historic advance as well as old bailiwicks have all been lost since. Electorally it is barely above its worst result ever. Its base, bereft of rural seats that were a leavener socially, is now as rarefied as ever. But otherwise the party is hardly recognisable. The 2016 election, the expenses for which are causing Donohoe such grief, was a turning point. In failing to build a broader coalition, it wasted the crisis of the economic crash. It will never see such a chance again. As the counting of votes continued and Fine Gael TDs waited to be counted out, Simon Coveney abandoned the cause of water charges on national television as the bodies still lay on the field.
Nothing much of what apparently motivated Fine Gael when it went into government in 2011 now remains. It settled into the centre-left slipstream of simply passing on taxes collected as ever-increasing expenditure. But if that is just to speak of what they do; what they are has changed most. It is a party where tactics have replaced strategy and due process, if it ever counted, means nothing if you are surplus to requirements. In terms of their own principles, they are beggars on horseback.
Donohoe’s advantage is that he has remaining utility. It is also based on Varadkar’s own sudden reach for due process when his own fate was in the hands of the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo). Lacking a personal coterie in the parliamentary party, Donohoe has managed in Fine Gael as the late Brian Lenihan snr did in Fianna Fáil to become the X in OXO. The face of benignity and the voice of competence, he enables the substitution of plausibility for principle. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Fine Gael, diminished in 2016, its poster campaign regardless, was retrofitted after the 2020 election. Donohoe’s utility for Varadkar is that he is both grand vizier and whipping boy. If only he had spent public money even more lavishly before the 2020 election, the result would have been better for his party. He lives on to fail better and help divvy the spoils of office within Fine Gael.
Fine Gael, smaller now and strictly utilitarian, is a life raft in government for the rump of the 2011 landslide. In a three-party Government that compartmentalised responsibility between the parties under Micheál Martin as taoiseach, Varadkar is already restless of that restraint. Donohoe is not only required by Varadkar, he has utility across the Coalition.
There is too little money so far and too much detail for this to take down the Minister. More is needed. Successful politics speaks in the future tense. This drags it backwards. In an outbreak of pantomime, Heather Humphreys accused Sinn Féin of wanting to set up a kangaroo court with themselves as Donohoe’s judge, jury and executioner. How right she is and how supremely qualified, as a Fine Gael Minister, to know what she speaks of.