And with one bound, Paschal Donohoe wasn’t free.
So the Minister for Public Expenditure had to come into the Dáil on Tuesday afternoon and try again. Like the placement of those infamous election posters, he was highly put out.
But not for the first time, his generous friend stepped in and helped him out.
It was assistance that would prove far more significant to Paschal under pressure than the provision of any amount of complimentary corriboard or lads on paid nixers to slap them up around Dublin Central.
Businessman Michael Stone’s final service was to confess to giving the wrong information surrounding a minor postering service he laid on at the last two general elections, corroborating the Minister’s assertion that he assumed unpaid volunteers did the work on the first occasion and had been completely unaware of any postering done on his behalf during the other.
Paschal’s benefactor then fell on his sword and stepped down from his two unpaid public roles.
However, the businessman’s intervention ensured there would be no smoking staple gun at the end of Donohoe’s second Dáil attempt to clarify the issue of his underdeclared election expenses. Stone’s personal statement released to the media on Tuesday morning expressing his “deep regret for any embarrassment” he caused to Paschal as a result of his “mistaken recollection” took the heat out of the controversy.
In holding his hands up for forgetting all about his part in providing a portion of Paschal’s postering in 2020, something he never mentioned to the Minister, he cable-tied the hands of Opposition TDs out to bag themselves a major league scalp.
Last Wednesday evening the Minister for Public Expenditure explained he should have declared the €140 cost of a van to the election watchdog in his returns for 2016, while all the time under the impression that the six lads in high-vis jackets adorning the lamp-posts of Dublin’s north inner city with his full colour campaign close-ups were doing the job for nothing. And what about the following election? Did the same thing happen again?
Not to the Minister’s knowledge, no.
But then, as he told a highly sceptical Opposition a week later, that was before Michael Stone got in touch after that statement to break the news that he contributed in 2020 as well. By his own admission, he was very apologetic for giving his friend the wrong information when asked on two different occasions if he had provided such help.
Which meant one of the most senior ministers in Cabinet was forced back into the Dáil chamber to correct his previous account to the House. However, instead of moving immediately and furnishing the amended bottom line on the posters, Paschal chose to announce in the Dáil that a second statement was on the way, but not quite yet as he needed to get all his ducks in a row.
The scandal cauldron simmered all over the weekend. Why was this taking so long? Posters thrown up as a favour with the cost not exactly of tribunal-tickling proportions? There had to be more to this than Paschal was letting on. Maybe the services rendered in 2020 were far more significant than the downplayed amounts from 2016.
When the Minister’s initial attempts to roll away the Stone proved unsuccessful, it fell to his benefactor to save the day. At least that’s how the Opposition viewed it, with various spokespeople citing the convenient way the figures produced by the businessman seemed to dovetail quite nicely with the contribution levels laid down by ethics watchdog Sipo.
“Reverse engineering” was the phrase de jour.
Róisín Shortall of the Social Democrats eased up briefly mid-excoriation to flick a crumb of hard comfort in the Minister’s direction.
“You’ve made a complete hames of this and I think that’s a charitable reading of the situation.”
The downcast Donohoe didn’t argue. He told the Dáil he is very disappointed with himself.
In his opening statement, he took us on an unexpected tour of UCD, not the campus in Belfield but a concept known as the Unauthorised or Unintentional Corporate Donation. This, he submitted, was the main contributory factor in his incorrect declaration of the value of the postering service he didn’t know anything about until last week.
You see, Paschal just assumed the posters went up on a voluntary basis because that’s how it’s usually done for him by family, friends and party supporters. He has learned a hard lesson, he said ruefully. He didn’t ask enough questions “and I know I should have”.
Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty, who went in boots flying, was not buying the contrition and he did not believe the explanations.
“Now Paschal, please come clean on this here,” boomed the Donegal deputy, demanding to know how many posters were erected by Stone’s Designer Group’s high-vised half-dozen. “And don’t take the mickey.”
“Thank you for asking your two questions,” began the Minister sweetly, confessing that his “key mistake” was assuming that all the work was voluntary.
Pearse was incandescent, roaring about cover-ups.
Donohoe shot him an icy glare. “Deputy, I don’t know if you’re interested in my answer, or my head?” he seethed.
Was the famously, sometimes annoyingly, even-tempered politician finally going to lose his rag?
He didn’t, despite a constant heavy barrage of criticism from the likes of Doherty and Shortall, ably backed up by Labour’s Ged Nash, with Paul Murphy and Mick Barry of People Before Profit getting stuck in as a tag team. When Murphy, running out of time, asked why the Minister repeated the mistakes he made in his 2016 declaration all over again in 2020, Barry jumped in. “I’ll deal with that!”
Then he unsuccessfully tried to floor his opponent by invoking the spirit of Oscar Wilde and paraphrasing Lady Bracknell’s observation that the loss of one might be regarded as a misfortune, the loss of two could look like carelessness.
The chamber, which was never full to begin with, quickly emptied out as the main protagonists took their tilt at the Minister who remained standing throughout the onslaught, taking notes and replying on the hoof. At the outset, the Government and main Opposition benches were crowded, further underscoring the feeling that this was a political scrap between the heavyweights of the Irish political system.
A grim-faced Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader sat on one side of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Simon Coveney, deputy leader of the party, sat on the other. Next in the row was the Minister for Finance, Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath.
The session was already fizzling out when Mattie McGrath started to question a bemused-looking Donohoe on whether the posters in questions had been put up at night or during the day. He also wanted to know how Michael Stone paid for the Fine Gael raffle tickets he bought from the Minister.
“Credit card, cheque, cash, bank draught or whatever,” he wondered. “Or was it pound notes?”
Mattie seemed to think he was on to something here. “Was it some of these new currencies you have – crypto, or something?”
The drama had evaporated by then, but only just.
If anyone managed to get under Paschal’s affable skin, it was Peadar Tóibín of Aontú. The deputy for Meath West talked about political corruption in Irish society, talking about “people with money buying influence with regards to what happens in this democracy”.
Then he noted it was “significant” that wealthy businessman Micheal Stone had been appointed to two State boards and went on to talk about “State contracts”.
It was the only time Donohoe lost his composure, if only slightly.
“I am aware of that dark history. I know what it did to our politics and I did not play any part in it,” he replied, accusing the deputy of making unfounded “assertions”. He replied that he was only mentioning the facts.
Paschal chose the wrong word. “Insinuation” might have been a better one.
“You know, you know in particular, I have no role in who gets a contract,” he countered, clearly angry.
And that was it. The wagons uncircled and Government TDs left the chamber. Their Opposition counterparts left quietly.
They will continue to question Paschal Donohoe’s state of knowledge at the time of the declarations and marvel at his self-confessed ignorance about how the postering was going in his own backyard.
And the Minister, well, he has undertaken to pay back the princely sum of €234.20 to multimillionaire Michael Stone to atone for his ignorance and the UCD.