After every national election, all candidates – having been successful or otherwise – are required by law to submit an election expenses statement. These are completed under a number of headings including advertising, publicity, election posters and literature, transport and campaign workers.
Candidates fill in the forms and send them to the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo), which in due course scans the documents and uploads them to its website. In a digital age, it is an arcane exercise to be trawling through thousands of handwritten (and sometimes badly scrawled) pages of returns.
The rules governing the returns are also complex. Figuring out who spent what is like someone without an interest in rugby trying to understand the intricacies of scrummaging laws.
Back in 2016, the maximum amount a candidate could spend in a three-seat constituency such as Dublin Central during the general election campaign was €30,150. This rose to €37,650 for a four-seater and €45,200 for a five-seater.
It all seems clear enough, right? But very quickly the windscreen can fog up.
A candidate can assign some, or all, of their spending to their national party. Say a candidate in a three-seater assigns €10,000 of their €30,150 to the national organisation, it can then spend up to €10,000 on that person but that money is not then reflected in the candidate’s personal expenses statement.
The Opposition has this week pointed out repeatedly that Paschal Donohoe valued the work done by six men erecting and removing posters for him before (and after) the 2016 general election at €1,100. Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall described this as “mates’ rates” and something the Fine Gael deputy was not allowed to do.
At the same time, his constituency rival Mary Fitzpatrick, who was not elected, spent €4,920 on such work.
Fitzpatrick’s costs for actual posters amounted to less than €500 when most others were paying 10 times that, including Donohoe. What was going on here? The reason was that she had assigned the cost of printing the posters to Fianna Fáil centrally, which she was allowed to do as long as the total did not exceed the limit. Therefore, that entry did not appear in her personal expenses statement.
So, the first difficulty is that, for many candidates, the statements give only a partial picture of their total spending. It can take some very complicated cross-referencing with other forms to reconcile all of a candidate’s spending.
The second big difficulty is the mass of inconsistencies. Fitzpatrick spent the most of all candidates on erecting and taking down posters. Nobody came near her. Fine Gael’s Mary Mitchell O’Connor spent €3,294 in 2020. Josepha Madigan spent €640, as did her constituency colleague Neale Richmond. It is likely that those candidates only got some of their posters erected and had volunteers to do the rest.
If its attention is drawn to an omission, or an anomaly, or an incorrect declaration, Sipo must wait for somebody to make a formal complaint before it takes action
In fact, of the many hundreds of candidates, only a handful actually said they paid for that service. But did the vast majority of them have volunteers doing all that work?
And is it comparing like for like?
For example, in Donegal in 2016 Pat the Cope Gallagher registered expenses of more than €1,000 for diesel under the transport and travel heading, while Pearse Doherty’s spend was €120. By 2020, Doherty’s travel spending was down to zero. Again, the vast majority of candidates did not include any expenses for travel, which means volunteers did not charge for their fuel.
Likewise, Doherty’s office and stationery costs were €1,333.95 in 2016 but had fallen to zero in 2020. It was a big drop and probably explained by costs being assigned. But the returns leave you none the wiser in terms of explaining that.
Some of the entries are very detailed. Michael D’Arcy in Wexford included €2,952 for “aeroplane hire” in 2016.
Despite the controversy this week, Paschal Donohoe’s returns would be in the top 10 per cent when it comes to providing a level of detail. He included paying nearly €2,000 to get his car “wrapped” with Paschal Donohoe #1 livery. He also recorded €857.14 for car hire and €3,500 for stamps. Of course, what was omitted was the value of the postering services.
On the other hand, some statements are very scant. Some would appear to be little more than box-ticking exercises and at a remove from what was really spent.
This brings us to the third problem: the legislation underlying the ethics of elections. If the forms and rules are arcane, the law is also lagging badly behind. Sipo is unable to initiate an investigation of its own volition. If its attention is drawn to an omission, or an anomaly, or an incorrect declaration, the watchdog must wait for somebody to make a formal complaint before it takes action. It is an artificial device.
There has been talk of reforming the law for many years but little has been done. In the last decade, it was suggested that an electoral commission be established to oversee everything to do with elections including constituency changes, advertising, education, research, spending limits and disclosures. But somehow, along the way, the role played by Sipo got decoupled from the plan.
The notion that the current arrangements are fit for purpose is wrong. They are not. The need for change is compelling— Peter Tyndall, former ombudsman
“I recall the debates starting on the electoral commission,” says Dr David Farrell, professor of politics at University College Dublin. “Many were pushing for the commission to include ethics and include many of the roles of Sipo.
“It ran into the sand because Sipo has a wider remit than looking at only elections from an ethical perspective. I wonder, though, was that a moment that was missed.”
That train has now left the station. The electoral commission has been established but its remit does not extend to ethical issues. As for Sipo, it is still in need of reform. In 2015, draft legislation for public sector standards was published and a Dáil committee held hearings on it.
Then-ombudsman Peter Tyndall, who was a member of Sipo, outlined the difficulties with the law. “The current arrangements are difficult to understand, it is impossible for people who have to deal with them to fully understand what their responsibilities are, and they are very difficult to implement in practice.”
He went on: “The number of successful outcomes achieved by the current arrangements in holding people to account appear to fall far short of the perceived difficulties that the commission should properly be tackling. The notion that the current arrangements are fit for purpose is wrong. They are not. The need for change is compelling.”
In comments that seem prescient, Tyndall shared his view on what should be disclosed. “If somebody enjoys a close friendship or a business partnership with a Member [of the Oireachtas], clearly one could be seen if one acted in a way that favoured them as not having been disinterested. One has to capture that.
“I think it is a difficult job but that is where one can look elsewhere. Other people have grappled with these problems and have come forward with solutions which are different from ours. I am conscious that the level of gifts that one has to declare and return in Ireland seems significantly more valuable than is the case elsewhere.
“One example is that one can accept from friends within Ireland, a service at a reduced price without that being in breach of ethics legislation... I think having an online register that anybody can look at where everybody has to register is one thing, but the other is the actual set of interests, the correct set of interests, both positive and negative interests.”
Farrell says the electoral commission coming into being could also have provided an opportunity to clean up party finances, and those of TDs and Senators, particularly around election times.
“If Sipo were proactive, we would not have these missteps,” he says. “We need to get them to improve the manner in which they gather data, through an online process, rather than ticking boxes on paper that then needs uploading.”
Echoing Tyndall’s comments, he says political parties receive a “huge amount of State funding for everything except election spending”. The quid pro quo for that, he adds, was a strong disclosure regime where everybody could easily access – and understand – what was spent, how it was spent, and how it compared to other candidates.
An additional safeguard would be the ethics watchdog having the power to investigate any anomaly that comes to its attention, rather than having to wait for someone to complain about it.