What could go wrong for Paschal Donohoe as he addresses poster controversy in Dáil?

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform’s political career at a key juncture ahead of Tuesday’s Dáil statement

Paschal montage

At just before 4pm on Tuesday, Paschal Donohoe will rise to his feet in the Dáil to try to draw a line under a political controversy that has dominated the agenda for more than a week, and caused significant damage to his political standing.

Postergate’, and potentially the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform’s political career, is at a key juncture.

He has admitted omitting a sum of €1,057 from his 2016 general election expenses, which related to the use of a van provided by his friend Michael Stone’s company and the payment of six workers who erected election posters in his Dublin Central constituency seven years ago.

But after trying to clarify those matters in the Dáil last week, he returned to the House the next day and said he would have a further statement to make.


What could go wrong for the embattled Fine Gael TD on Tuesday?

A poor performance

Since the controversy emerged more than a week ago, Donohoe has traded on his reputation for probity while offering a succession of grovelling mea culpas. Colleagues are dumbfounded not so much at what has been disclosed but the manner of its disclosure, with Donohoe limping between failed attempts to put the issue to bed.

He unwisely disclosed last Thursday that he was preparing for a second Dáil appearance to address the matter further before leaving it to stew over the weekend. Underscoring all this is the feeling that he mishandled his first attempts to address the issue, and was clearly evasive when questioned in the Dáil – before rapidly revising an undertaking to leave the issue with the Standards in Public Office commission (Sipo) following his statement in the House.

“He made such a hash of it last Wednesday the danger is he makes a hash of it again,” a Government TD said on Monday morning, adding that there is more nervousness about his appearance on Tuesday than there was last week. “He’s cashed in a lot of his chips.”

Donohoe is among the most powerful figures in the Coalition. His relationship with Michael McGrath is key to its wider functioning. The bar that would have to be met is higher, fairly or not, than for others. Nonetheless, he has to put in the parliamentary performance of his career, in front of a packed House, to convince friend and foe alike that he has turned a corner on the controversy.

A change to the existing story

TDs spent the weekend outside the Leinster House bubble, allowing a non-scientific sampling of constituents’ opinion which they reckon suggests the wider public is not baying for Donohoe’s blood.

“Joe Public is incredibly pro-Paschal on this,” one said. “Most people are saying ‘ah it’s harmless for f***s’ sake’,” a second TD said. It’s unlikely that all assessments will be so benign, and the controversy will have taken a toll on public perceptions of Donohoe, Fine Gael and the Government. But if Coalition TDs don’t feel there’s a groundswell against the Minister, it bolsters his position. This was also helped by an intervention from Barry Cowen, the Fianna Fáil TD for Laois-Offaly, last week, which calmed the backbenches.

The Government side has effectively decided that Donohoe’s story about his 2016 expenses is damaging, was mishandled, but ultimately is acceptable and defensible. While the Opposition is rightly pursuing every thread, and also unloading on Donohoe at every opportunity, a new fact or revision around the existing narrative would need to emerge to force a change to that calculus.

If, on the other hand, his story shifts – especially in a way that suggests he had been in any way misleading so far – it would be very damaging. A reclassification of an expense as a donation, or changing the costs given last week, would bring him right into the danger zone and exposé him to charges of having misled the Dáil in his statement last Wednesday.

Damaging 2020 revelations

Sinn Féin smelled blood in the water on this last Wednesday, with Pearse Doherty repeatedly challenging Donohoe to make clear whether the businessman who paid for the 2016 postering work did so again in 2020. Donohoe has now identified some sort of issue with that year′s campaign – already reversing steadfast denials in the first half of last week that there was nothing there to be seen. That in and of itself is damaging, but the risk is the issue identified is more substantial – beyond the threshold of political acceptability already established by the 2016 disclosures.

This, he has effectively said, was an error compounded by a failure to act and address it when it became apparent in 2017 and again last year following media queries. A repeat of the original issue may also be a problem.

Donohoe briefed Coalition leaders over the weekend and the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have said that he retains their confidence. However, if anything above and beyond what he disclosed to them emerges, or he fails to convincingly land his explanation, it could spell trouble.

If all that is avoided, will he be in the clear?

Not necessarily. And in many ways, Donohoe’s standing has already been badly damaged. His entire political brand is built around not just prudence and probity, but good judgment. His failure to twice address the expenses issue, his inability to put it to bed for a week, and the weaknesses of parts of his explanation have exposed him to unprecedented levels of criticism from the Opposition.

At times, the defence offered by some Coalition TDs has been qualified and watery, indicating the deeper concerns individual TDs have. The Tánaiste has been clear that while he is not willing to pre-empt Sipo, he ultimately will defer to that body on more fundamental issues of compliance with the law. An uncomfortable investigation by the ethics watchdog, including public sessions, may be in the offing, as will ongoing scrutiny by the opposition and the media of the issue.

“As of now, he’s halfway out the gap,” said a Government TD – but that in and of itself is some distance from political safety.