“It’s the little things that trip you up,” reflected the late taoiseach Albert Reynolds in 1994 after his Government fell apart.
That’s not to diminish the reason for Damien English’s resignation as a Minister for State. He made a mistake and he paid for it on Thursday morning when he stepped down. But it relates to a single event which occurred 14 years ago, when he was a backbencher, long before he became a minister. The facts are unforgiving for him though. It was wrong then. It is wrong now. There is no statute of limitations for political accountability.
The reason for English’s downfall is similar to that of Robert Troy who was forced to resign last year. In Troy’s cases it was omission, failure to declare all relevant information about the properties he owned.
In English’s case he applied for permission to build a once-off rural home on family land. The planning rules that applied at the time required a need for housing and also stipulated that the applicant should not own another property in which they resided, or had resided.
[ Q&A: Why English resigned, and what rules were broken ]
English, when applying for permission with his wife Laura, neglected to include the highly relevant fact that he already owned a property.
In his resignation letter this morning, the Fine Gael TD for Meath West said: “Yesterday in an online article, questions were raised about my planning application from 14 years ago. I reviewed this application, made in 2008, and it is clear to me that I failed to inform Meath County Council about ownership of my house in Castlemartin.
“This was wrong, not up to the standard required and I apologise for doing so.”
His failure had no bearing on his current performance as a public representative or as a Minister. But the nature of it was such that there was no choice in the matter. For example, a politician who had sent distasteful tweets as a younger person would probably get away (albeit not without embarrassment) with an abject apology. For English, however, there was no room for manoeuvre. This was a formal application, a direct dealing with the State. He needed to be fully honest. There was no ambiguity. Viewed through the political sphere, therefore, the fact that it happened 14 years ago made no difference.
There is an old saying that politicians must adhere to a higher standard than anybody else. That is not true. It’s the same standard as anybody else. However, if a politician is exposed for an omission, or a lack of candour, or of a lack of honesty, or for cutting corners, the price, of course, is much higher. For an office holder, it inevitably means resignation.
English, and his party leader Leo Varadkar, knew once the story broke that it was an open-and-shut case. The Minister of State for Employment quickly became an unemployed Minister of State.
It’s another scoop for the online investigative site, The Ditch, which also broke the story on Robert Troy’s undeclared properties last year.
Politicians complain that they are now expected to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’. Well, they are. That is the standard. It’s more than form-filling, however: it is being fully honest and upfront.
Damien English is only 44 but is already a 20-year veteran of the Dáil. He has forged a reputation as a reliable, smart and hard-working politician – a “safe pair of hands” in other words. He did the right thing in resigning. Perhaps he had seen the messy way it ended for Robert Troy last summer and decided to cut his losses early. What he did in 2008 was wrong and he will now begin doing reparation. In the long term, it is unlikely to bar him from becoming a minister again at some stage in the future.
Did he make the correct decision in resigning? Yes. Did he have a choice? No.