Irish politics reached a new level of absurdity over the past 10 days when the career of one of the most able Ministers ever to hold the Finance portfolio was supposedly hanging in the balance over a minor mistake in declaring his election expenses.
As if it was not enough to have got rid of one of the country’s best ever European Commissioners, Phil Hogan, in 2020, the Opposition and much of the media joined forces again in an attempt to remove the first ever Irish chair of the Eurogroup of Finance Ministers from his position.
To have lost the second Irish holder of a key European role because of domestic political hysteria over a relatively trivial issue would have rightly made us an international laughing stock and raised questions about the political stability of the country.
Thankfully, this time around the leaders of the Coalition parties held firm in the face of the fake outrage and called it out for what it was: a blatant political ruse, orchestrated by Sinn Féin, to discredit a key Minister and do lasting damage the Government’s ability to function.
Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin and a number of other Coalition politicians came out fighting last weekend to defend their colleague and attack the hypocrisy of Sinn Féin, which has far more serious and embarrassing skeletons in its cupboard than anybody on the Government side is ever likely to have.
Expense allowances, threats to politicians, home truths
Former Fine Gael minister Michael Ring hit the nail on the head when he described the campaign against Paschal Donohoe as a cynical attempt to tarnish the reputation of an exemplary public representative with a formidable track record at home and abroad.
As Ring pointed out, Donohoe has an enviable record on the things that really matter. Having helped to bring the country back from the brink of financial ruin to full employment and healthy public finances, he ensured there was money in the kitty to cope with the Covid pandemic and the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In fact, Donohoe earned the ire of many of his Fine Gael colleagues by refusing to release funds for an election spending splurge in 2020. Because of his policy of putting the country ahead of party advantage, the public finances were in a robust state to deal with the challenging and unexpected events of the past three years. Contrast the healthy state of the Irish economy today with the steady and worrying deterioration in that of our UK neighbours.
If there had been evidence of serious and deliberate ethical breaches by the Minister then it would have been necessary to put his economic competence to one side in coming to a conclusion about whether or not he should continue in office. However, the fact is that not only were the sums involved in the election posters controversy tiny, but there is no evidence that he deliberately concealed them. Going by the Minister’s record in public life, there is every reason to believe his account and no reason to take his detractors seriously.
The lesson for the Coalition parties from the controversy is that they need to be far more robust in defending themselves from attacks by their political opponents, and neither should they feel intimidated by breathless media coverage, which tends to portray every minor Government misstep as an existential crisis.
The attempt to discredit Donohoe also raises the question about why somebody with his abilities, who gave up a lucrative career in the private sector to commit himself to public service, should take the risk of exposing themselves to abuse and potential humiliation.
The Minister’s travails coincided with reports detailing the public abuse and intimidation suffered by a variety of politicians. Holly Cairns of the Social Democrats was the latest to come forward and describe the harassment she has suffered since becoming a TD for west Cork. She made no bones about the fact that she would not have stood for election in the first place if she had realised how bad it was going to be.
Her revelations came not long after the court case involving the prosecution of an individual for sending sinister messages to Dún Laoghaire TD Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and the prosecution of an individual in Longford for threatening local Fine Gael senator Michael Carrigy.
Then in Galway we had the episode where animal dung was flung at local TDs Anne Rabbitte and Ciaran Cannon during a public meeting, while in Leitrim Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny has announced he is moving house because of a number of threatening incidents, including the burning of his car.
While politicians were always targets for some verbal abuse, it seems that the level and the insidious nature of the threats has increased dramatically in recent years, with the publicly known episodes just the tip of the iceberg.
While the nature and scale of the abuse has been fanned by the rise of social media, politicians and the mainstream media need to look at their own behaviour and reflect on how the tone of political debate feeds into the wider public attitudes, encouraging not only cynicism but even violent behaviour towards our public representatives.