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Pat Leahy: Short-sighted Sinn Féin may regret turning up the heat on Donohoe

Paschal Donohoe’s breaches were significant but trying to generate a full-blown political crisis has drawn attention to Sinn Féin’s own finances. We need to learn to focus on what is most important

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald TD and vice-president Michelle O’Neill. It is entirely legitimate to question aspects of the party's continuing journey. Photograph: Tom Honan for The Irish Times

We can say with some confidence, I think, that when the electorate assembles to cast their votes at the next general election, they are unlikely to be thinking about how many posters Michael Stone put up for Paschal Donohoe.

That’s not to say that the issue which convulsed the Government and threatened the future of perhaps its most essential member wasn’t important. It was. Campaign finance laws are there for a reason. And that reason is a big one: for decades, the influence of money on our politics was overt and pervasive. Parts of our system of government were utterly corrupt; prominent leaders, elected to act in the public interest, were beholden to private concerns. The age of the tribunals ended that.

It would be too much to say that the influence of private interests has been completely eliminated from Irish public life. Do powerful economic interests exert a gravitational pull on policymaking? You bet they do. Are well-organised and well-funded groups good at getting what they want from government? They sure are. Are there concerning instances of an inside track? There certainly seems to be.

But the idea that the country is awash with graft, is irredeemably and thoroughly corrupt – so beloved of some commentators and indeed others who have a record of looking for special favours from the Government themselves – is simply not supported by the evidence. Transparency International ranks Ireland as the 13th least corrupt country in the world, ahead of such reasonably well-governed places as Belgium, Japan and South Korea, and 164 other countries.


The price of that has been public funding of politics and the rigorous demands of campaign finance laws, annual declarations and strict controls on political donations and spending. That legal framework badly requires updating to make it more workable and accessible. But it has largely succeeded in its aims. It has improved standards in political life.

So in a way, Paschal’s purgatory was an example of that system working. And now – Donohoe having survived, bloodied but unbowed – the unforgiving eye is turning its gaze to his chief tormentors.

In a way, Paschal Donohoe's purgatory was an example of the system working. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

It is a widespread and long-standing prejudice among the other parties that while they make every effort to abide by electoral rules about spending and declarations and so on, Sinn Féin is a lot less punctilious about it. There is some evidence in recent days that there might be some truth to the second part of this.

The argument goes that a party which in the not-too-distant past condoned intimidation, robbery and murder in pursuit of its political aims is unlikely to have a crisis of conscience about breaching electoral spending regulations. The Good Friday Agreement was 25 years ago, it is pointed out; but the Northern Bank Robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney were more recent, and postdated the party’s commitment to peaceful and democratic means. This is a bit – but only a bit – unfair to Sinn Féin. It ignores the determined journey that the party has made from the margins to the centre of politics in pursuit of legitimate aims and the acceptance of that journey by large numbers of voters.

It is hard to see how the storm over electoral expenses doesn’t result in voters concluding that ‘they’re all at it’ – a conclusion that would undermine Sinn Fein’s claim to be different

But just as it is reasonable to accept the “new” Sinn Féin at face value, so it is entirely legitimate to question aspects of that continuing journey. This week, it has been pretty badly exposed by first inflating the controversy over Donohoe’s breaches of electoral regulations into a full-blown political crisis and then rather excruciatingly pleading that its own breaches of the same laws were simple “administrative errors”. Brace yourself for more. The party’s circumlocution of the law to enable it accept a mysterious multimillion pound donation from a dead Englishman who lived in a caravan is surely ripe for further investigation.

The episode shows a remarkable lack of political foresight, which I think Sinn Féin will regret. It is hard to see how that doesn’t result in voters concluding that “they’re all at it” – a conclusion that would undermine Sinn Féin’s claim to be different. That would not be a good result for the party.

For the rest of us, perhaps the lesson is we would all be better applying a keener judgment to these things. Not everything is a massive scandal. Some inadvertent breaches of electoral regulations are just inadvertent breaches of electoral regulations. After all, if everything is a massive scandal, nothing is a massive scandal.

We need to concentrate on the really big problems that are brewing, such as a permanent housing crisis.

There are much more important things happening and this week saw several signposts to serious future problems. We learned that the State’s housing needs are going to be even greater than previously assumed, with projections by the Housing Commission showing a need for between 42,000 and 62,000 units a year; current plans are to build 33,000 a year. This is a preview of a permanent housing crisis.

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The decision by western countries to send heavy battle tanks to Ukraine suggests an intensification of that conflict in the coming months, and – very possibly – a dangerous escalation. Aside from the obvious dangers inherent in that, it means that the refugee crisis is going to get worse.

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The tumult of British politics continues unabated. A New York Times article headlined “Britain’s cautionary tale of self-destruction” cited analysis by the Financial Times number-cruncher John Burn-Murdoch that has concluded that by the end of next year, “the average British family will be less well off than the average Slovenian one; by the end of this decade, the average British family will have a lower standard of living than the average Polish one.” Think about the implications for Ireland, North and South, of that.

All these will need thoughtful, substantial and clever responses by this and future governments. Of course, politics has to do a lot of short-term stuff. But we have to get better at thinking about the longer term, and at preparing for it.