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Fáilte Ireland director’s punishment does not fit the crime

As with Cawley before O’Donoghue, the bigger mistake lay in the State’s travel rules

Something sits uneasily about the resignation this week of Fáilte Ireland director, the veteran former Penneys/Primark executive Breege O'Donoghue, just because she visited her Spanish holiday home this summer. Politically, it may be just about possible to justify it. But politics is a brutal business.

People, in all their flaws, are often trampled beneath its brutality. It is worth occasionally stopping to think about this and to ask ourselves if we are on the right track as a society. And as people.

O'Donoghue resigned suddenly on Tuesday night following a phone call with Catherine Martin, the Minister for Tourism. The minister was made aware following inquiries from an Irish Examiner reporter that O'Donoghue had spent a week in her holiday home in Marbella in July and again in August.

The fact that any of this is the Government’s business at all shows how strange and terrifying these times have become. But the State tourism agency on whose board O’Donoghue had served since 2018 was promoting a “staycation” message this year to people – not that the majority of us could have done anything else this summer, given the Government’s clampdown on foreign travel.


In August, Fáilte Ireland's chairman, former Ryanair executive Michael Cawley, was also forced to resign following a phone call with Martin, after the Irish Independent revealed he was on holidays in Italy. It caused a massive stink on social media, but sure what doesn't? Twitter is the well of fear that sets the trajectory for much of public discourse at the moment.

With Cawley’s exit as the benchmark, it would have been difficult for O’Donoghue to stay on. Whether or not such a benchmark should have existed in the first place is another matter entirely.

It must be crushing for O’Donoghue, one of the best and most respected corporate directors in Ireland, to have to depart from the State’s tourism board in such ignominious fashion. This isn’t Golfgate, and you could argue that Cawley’s case wasn’t in that bracket either.

Anyone who truly understands the detail knows that neither of them was on a gravy train. O’Donoghue was paid €12,000 annually for her services, while Cawley received €21,000. Like it or not, that is just walking around money for two of the most senior names in corporate Ireland. They weren’t on the State’s tourism board for the money.

Is there any real difference between Cawley’s case and O’Donoghue’s? The former Ryanair man is a corporate bruiser, supremely confident in his own abilities and not one to suffer fools easily. His critics might call him arrogant, a perception that may have meant support for him in some sections of the tourism industry was muted when the knives were unsheathed.

O'Donoghue's profile is different. Aged 76, she is the most senior businesswoman in Ireland. She has served in numerous public positions, such as chairwoman of the Labour Relations Commission. She seems to be universally liked.

She also worked in the hotel business with the State-owned Great Southern chain for years, before joining Penneys the same week that Pope John Paul II visited in 1979. They say Ireland was a harsher place back then. I'm not so sure if we're all that more charitable now.

We must be careful not to patronise somebody so accomplished. But there is something deeply unedifying about the Government discarding O’Donoghue in this manner, at this stage of her life. Remember, just like my mother and perhaps like yours, she is in the age bracket that would have been cocooning for months earlier this year when the virus was raging at its height. I suspect that experience has left its mark on many older people, more so than most of them will let on. To be told by the Government to not leave your home and to stay away from everybody is no small thing.

In that context, if I was lucky enough to own a holiday home in Marbella, you would have needed to hold me at the point of a gun to keep me away from it after lockdown, Government travel advisory or not. It is advice not law. People who were forced to cocoon for months on end must have been gasping for air. It isn’t the crime of the century to hop on a plane to Spain. It’s an understandable human impulse.

But to describe any situation honestly, we must also look it squarely in the eye. O’Donoghue will know in her heart that she should probably have known better, especially given the febrile atmosphere that has enveloped the State in recent months and her position on the State’s tourism board.

Fáilte Ireland formally launched its ‘Make a break for it’ staycation campaign in June, so both of her subsequent sojourns to Spain were clearly out of tune with that message.

I do not know whether or not she followed the State’s guidance to restrict movement for two weeks following foreign travel. But in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it is fair to assume she did. Either way, the fact that she is well now shows that, in hindsight, she was never even remotely a threat to anyone else’s health.

That O’Donoghue and Cawley made errors of judgement is not in question. The real issue is whether their punishments fit the crime. Forcing their resignations seems slightly puritanical from this vantage point, although the political messaging context is also plainly obvious.

Others might argue that Martin has held the line as a new era of accountability for bad decisions in public life dawns. Accountable to who, though? Social media is not society and we must never forget that. I’d wager that most people are reasonable judges, if you let them do it in their own context.

The real issue is that the State’s anti-travel rules were too draconian in the first place. They helped to wantonly devastate an industry and needlessly interfered in people’s lives. Banging the table and shouting “but, but Covid!” is not a catch-all justification for every dumb restriction.

Even the Government now acknowledges that its travel rules are inappropriate. That is why ministers are set to overhaul the regime next week.

If they had done this months ago, when many in society and the industry were bellowing at them to step out of the fear bubble and see sense, O’Donoghue and Cawley would still be on the Fáilte Ireland board now, and there wouldn’t have been any problem.