Businessman Michael Stone’s mea culpa and his resignation from two unpaid State roles, will help the embattled Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe as he seeks to draw a line under the controversy with a Dáil statement on Tuesday afternoon.
Stone, who heads the Designer Group engineering company, issued a statement on Tuesday morning in which he took responsibility for not informing Donohoe that he had paid for assistance with posters in the 2016 election.
He also said that he had misinformed Donohoe in December and again last week that he had not given any assistance in the 2020 election. Upon checking that his recollection was correct, he discovered it was not, and informed Donohoe – but only after the Minister had misled the Dáil.
Donohoe will get some flak for that in the Dáil, but he can say – backed by Stone’s statement – that his incorrect statement last week was inadvertent and issued in good faith.
Donohoe’s incorrect declarations of election spending are his responsibility and he is likely to be told repeatedly today that ignorance of the law is no defence. But Stone’s explanations, and his resignation, seem likely to take much of the political heat out of the issue.
Last week, Sinn Féin questioned the costs ascribed to the postering in Donohoe’s accounts. It is likely that the party will do so again. But questioning is one thing; it is hard to see how the party’s TDs would be in a position to disprove them.
Donohoe will still face an investigation by Sipo, the standards watchdog, on the issue. But if he gets through Tuesday’s events, the immediate political danger will dissipate.
But it will leave a residue in its wake.
Firstly, Donohoe has shipped substantial political damage from the episode. Secondly, the partisan atmosphere that the controversy has heightened is likely to see multi-lateral scrutiny of the statutory declarations that all politicians have to make; this is unlikely to be last story we see about incomplete or misleading election returns.
Thirdly, the resignation of Stone from the chairmanship of the North East Inner City Implementation Board deprives that body of an energetic and effective leader whose work has made a significant difference in some of the most deprived and troubled communities in the country. Anyone who knows about its work knows the NEIC board is unlike most State boards, and the role of Stone – a fixer, a motivator, an impatient driver of progress - was unique.
When political scandals reach a certain level of intensity, only a resignation will calm the tempest. But that comes at a price.