Kathy Sheridan: Stephen Donnelly banking on electoral amnesia

After six years of potshots at Fianna Fáil, we must now witness the unmasking of a crush

Even by Twitter standards, this one seemed a touch over-the-top.

"Kids are sick, Scotland won, and everybody hates me. Not gonna lie, I've had better weekends".

By Sunday evening, it was possible to feel a twinge of sympathy for Stephen Donnelly. Having tweeted a link to his Sunday Independent column about his decision to join Fianna Fáil, the response was mixed. On occasion, it was like eavesdropping on the fallout from an affair.

Sam (who has “never been more let down in politics”): “With respect – during that year I worked for you– did you consider joining FF?”


Donnelly : “No, Sam. I didn’t consider it when we worked together.”

Pace Sam, the real problem with Donnelly’s decision is that at a time when Trump, Putin, Brexit, et al dominate the daily news, it’s hard to care about the snakes and ladders of Irish politics. While journalists trawled the archives for the balls of excrement Donnelly once horsed at Fianna Fáil, it all felt a bit old.

The mountain of excrement will be catapulted back at him over a couple of entertaining and cringeworthy news cycles. There will then follow the ritual swallowing of some humble pie, a few wry "shucks you got me" posturings, the regulation attack on the Government record, followed by a totally reassuring declaration of Fianna Fáil's firm purpose of amendment for past mortallers. Then will come the justification: wrong socioeconomic western model, Brexit and Trump, all requiring some "big, brave thinking . . ." And finally, a nod to that intriguing partner selection : "Over the past six years, I've worked with a fair number of Fianna Fáil TDs and senators on three different Oireachtas committees, and have been consistently impressed."

Forensic breakdown

In the fallout from the affair, this is the agonising point where the aggrieved partner, demanding a forensic breakdown of how long, where, when exactly . . . is stopped dead in her tracks. “You were whaaat . . . ? ‘Consistently impressed’? For six bloody years?”

So during the entire relationship, when he was taking deafening potshots at that Jezebel, the faithless hound was actually nursing more than a bit of a crush on her.

Does it matter? Has he not done a sterling job for those six years, as he and a few faithful followers insist? Is it not painfully true, as he tweeted on Sunday evening, that “Politics is flawed. Parties are flawed. Democracy is flawed. It involves us humans, and we’re flawed”?

But that sounds as near as dammit to saying they are all the same – the preserve of the lazy thinker and the ill-informed. Still, imagine the mighty reduction in blood pressure meds and carbon dioxide had he spent the six years sweetly urging his 160-odd Dáil colleagues to remember, people, everyone is flawed and we all make mistakes.

I was among the earliest interviewers of a then unknown Donnelly, my attention drawn by a friend who worked on his 2011 campaign. His international education, training and work experience, combined with articulate delivery and righteously indignant edge made for a timely offering: “We are standing on a beautiful, old sinking ship”, he said that day, “but I and a few people like me have some of the skills to fix the holes.”

I failed to push the then Independent candidate to identify the "few people like me", or with whose shipload of pixie dust, a newbie without a party proposed to fix the catastrophic holes. But the people of Wicklow, bristling with distrust in the established parties, believed in his independence and his trenchant condemnations of the status quo.

Take this from 2014: “There’s an appetite for public representatives the public know will say what they think, not what they’re told . . . There’s no sign of the traditional political parties becoming more tolerant of dissent, or welcoming of different ideas. Many within the Dáil argue that the level of centralisation and control is getting worse. But the public are moving on”. That’s just a couple of years ago. It must have taken one rapid, radical shake-up within Fianna Fáil to produce all that tolerance and truth-telling he now discerns.

Macho manoeuvring

The tone of some Donnelly supporters suggests that only the naive or those who never knocked on a door get shaken up by such macho manoeuvring. Sure if one party isn’t doing it for him, why not take his undoubted talents to another?

Back in December 2014, he cited “a clever academic”, who told him “that when we’re deciding whether or not to trust people to do a particular job, we look for two main traits – competence and integrity”. But only six months previously, Donnelly was lamenting Fianna Fáil’s spectacular local government success, “just six years after laying waste to our beautiful island”. Voters have repeatedly shown themselves capable of holding their noses and plumping for (perceived) competence over integrity. He knows that. Electoral amnesia is the politician’s forever friend and breeds much of the deep cynicism about politics. Is it naive to care about that in the era of Trump?

And no, they are not all the same. The biggest difference between Fianna Fáil and the Social Democrats is history. And we all know what they say about those who ignore history.