THE ONLY safe form of communication about the John O’Donoghue affair is a blurt of rage, and the way to be sure of getting to talk about it on a radio phone-in is to call foaming at the mouth about the criminal arrogance of politicians.
The other day, I heard Mary O’Rourke getting it in the neck for an hour because she had the audacity to defend her departed colleague on the lunchtime news. Any attempt to propose a different way of seeing things is interpreted as a tribal or advocatory intervention on behalf of John O’Donoghue.
So, let me first state for the record that, although I once appeared on RTÉ's Questions and Answersalongside John O'Donoghue, I do not know him, have never had a conversation with him and have no personal or political interest in defending him. I believe that he had a prima facie case to answer on the expenses question but I do not believe he was given an opportunity to answer it. I believe this episode should alarm us because of the break in the chain between accusation and punishment – the gaping hole where due process should have occurred.
The aftermath of his resignation has been characterised by a general inability to distinguish between the accusations levelled against him and the manner of his removal from office.
Other than a general sense that he was tearing the arse out of it, we still have no settled view of the precise nature of O’Donoghue’s sin. Everybody agrees that some of his expenses were excessive, but nobody has set out a clear measure by which this could be judged, or proposed any guidelines by which, in future, the scale of similar accusations might be assessed.
Is, for example, a public representative travelling abroad henceforth prohibited from spending more than might be considered reasonable for an average citizen? Must a government minister find the cheapest flight, avoid additional charges and bring along a packed lunch? These questions have not been clarified or even discussed.
O’Donoghue was dispatched on the basis of a general public feeling of disgruntlement rather than for a specific and quantified breach. In the context of an election, this might be called democracy, but is it democratic when it happens on the floor of Dáil Éireann? Eamon Gilmore, defending his decisive Dáil intervention, declared: “We should remember that if the floor of this House is not to be the forum where we articulate the public’s views, concerns and, at times, anger, then we will be failing in that primary constitutional duty,
undermining the position of this House and the role of parliamentary democracy.”
This sounds impressive but it is actually humbug. Gilmore knows that, as Ceann Comhairle, John O’Donoghue could not defend himself in the Dáil in the manner of an ordinary TD. He knows also, that, in following Sinn Féin’s lead in seeking the head of the Ceann Comhairle, his own intervention already placed the matter beyond further discussion. Once O’Donoghue had lost the support of one of the major Opposition parties, his position – regardless of the facts – was no longer tenable.
It is true, as Gilmore suggested, that the “primary constitutional function” of TDs is “to represent the people who sent us here, and to express on the floor of our national parliament their opinions, their sentiments and their concerns”. But this does not mean that a TD must relay and vindicate the rantings of every taxi driver he encounters. As a parliamentarian, Gilmore has a responsibility to use his judgment and reason and to ensure that the democratic process is fair and just.
We still do not know, for instance, the extent to which Gilmore believes John O’Donoghue exceeded his entitlement to reimbursement. Speaking as leader of the Labour Party, Gilmore simply told the Ceann Comhairle that his position was untenable and that, if he did not resign, he would have to be removed. He seemed to assume that the charge against O’Donoghue was obvious. But was it? It is true that there was public disquiet about the details published in the newspapers – but how valid was this disquiet, and in what respects? Surely it was important to place the precise nature of O’Donoghue’s misdemeanours on the record of the House, so that future generations might access a full explanation for what happened? Politicians have a duty to reflect the views of those who elect them, but they also have a responsibility to go beyond the sentiments rattling around the public square. A score of screened calls to a radio hotline does not amount to a democratic mandate, but is, at most, just another element to be weighed in the balance.
It is difficult to avoid the impression that O’Donoghue was shafted because he was a soft target. A section of the public had a pain in its posterior and was looking for his hide. The Labour leader followed the lead of Sinn Féin in responding to a wave of public rage that lacked precision or concreteness. The outcome may be proving popular but it was not democratic.