As Paschal Donohue fights for his political career, Michael Bergin takes a look at a party growing complacent in office.
Since becoming a TD in 2011, Paschal Donohue’s record in office, regardless of his politics, can be said to have had at least one enduring quality; competence. In various governments where competence was treated less as a requirement and more as a preference for Ministers, Donohue managed to maintain a reputation for quiet, cold efficiency. A government will often live and die on the strength of its Minister for Finance’s ability to keep the economy in check, and under Donohue, what was often an unpopular government managed to survive until the 2020 election. Retaining his position in the grand coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and guiding the Irish economy through the trials of the coronavirus pandemic, further heightened his reputation for competence, as did his elevation to the Presidency of the Eurogroup in 2020.
However, Donohue had barely finished furnishing his new office in the Department of Public Expenditure when that reputation took an enormous hit. The revelation that he failed to disclose money spent on postering in his constituency, and the subsequent Standards in Public Office (SIPO) complaint relating to campaign finance breaches, have severely damaged Donohue’s image. The fact that breaches seem to have occurred not just in 2016, but 2020, will further sour the public mood. This is a man who has been the definition of governmental competence for over a decade. As Minister for Finance, it is difficult to suppose that a man of Donohue’s stature and intelligence could have broken regulations accidentally, not once, but twice.
The actual amounts in question, roughly €1,100 in 2016, and, at the time of writing, what is said to be a smaller amount in 2020, will not be enough to take the Minister down. His presence is far too important for the Government to realistically last very long in his absence. However, the broader principle of someone at Donohue’s level making such a basic political mistake - a virtual open goal for opposition parties - speaks to a party that, after 12 years, seems to have lost the hunger it once had. Complacency seems to have overtaken competence.
The broader trend within Fine Gael is fairly apparent. Damien English’s resignation last week, after he failed to declare a home he owned in his planning application for another, speaks to the same phenomenon. Thinking back to the early days of the coalition, when a fresh Fianna Fáil administration blundered its way through a summer plagued by Golfgate and Barry Cowen’s driving licence controversy, you might presume that beginners in government are bound to make rookie mistakes. But Fine Gael are no beginners.
Days before he was due to become Taoiseach for the second time, a damaging video of Leo Varadkar began to circulate online, of him socialising in a Dublin nightclub. The Irish newspaper media at the time prided themselves on not discussing the contents of the video, or its existence at all, until they indulged themselves the following weekend. Anyone who saw the video knows exactly what happened in it, though for the purposes of maintaining what’s left of this newspaper’s dignity, I will not be discussing it in depth. It is safe to say that the video would be extremely difficult viewing in Varadkar’s personal circle.
I am in no way condoning the taking of the video in question. Such behaviour, recording people socialising without their consent, and particularly in what was an LGBT space, is vile in the extreme. The person holding the camera is the only person involved with this video that deserves our condemnation.
However, from a bluntly political point of view, knowing that you are a highly recognisable figure, who will shortly resume the most powerful office in the land, why on Earth would you put yourself at risk of being filmed in such an exposed manner? Of course the principle applies that politicians are people like the rest of us, and are entitled to a social life too, but the hard reality of everybody being armed with a camera reduces this well-meaning point to nought. The video may not be from December, as the timing of its release would hope to portray, but it is demonstrably from 2022, a time when Leo Varadkar was Tánaiste.
Varadkar is no fool, he surely knows that a life in politics will inevitably take its toll on your personal life, regardless of whether or not it should. Varadkar did not breach any laws in the video, but he would have known that should his actions become public knowledge, as they did, he would lose support from certain sections of the electorate, no matter how unfair it may seem. And this at a time when Fine Gael are not fighting to be the most popular party in the land, but the second most popular.
All of the above cases seem to point to a growing complacency within Fine Gael. After 12 years in power, perhaps this is inevitable. The energy and enthusiasm shown by supporters and politicians within Sinn Féin, which shows no signs of abating, is the antithesis of this. Also unwavering is the clear lead that Sinn Féin have over the Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil duopoly in opinion polls.
Fianna Fáil, and in particular Micheál Martin, seem to have come from their time in the top job in a better state than they went into it. As it stands, they seem by far the most likely party of the three to go into government at the next election, though as a junior partner to either Sinn Féin or Fine Gael. If Fine Gael are not able to reinvigorate themselves, and expel the complacency that breeds such needless political own-goals, then it isn’t even going to be close.