Will he be saved by the bell?... Minster for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe.

Gavan Reilly: Why Postergate is about much more than just posters

You really can’t win sometimes. I was in studio on Sunday hosting my show on Newstalk when I got received tweets in quick succession. (I always ask for listeners to tweet as well as text; the former is free!) The first accused me of making light of the controversy surrounding Paschal Donohoe, trying to explain away his apparent wrongdoing and minimise its political significance. The second accused me of making a mountain out of a molehill.

The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in the middle. I understand that on the face of it, Donohoe’s apparent sin is fairly facile. Someone paying a few lads to put up a few posters?, you might think. Hardly something worthy of ten days of breathless coverage.

But it’s not just about the posters. The implications of possible wrongdoing are far more extensive – and even if everything else about Paschal Donohoe’s account is above board, there’s still one embarrassing admission which will be a permanent blemish on his record.

First, though, it might be worth a little refresher course. In 2016 the tide was going out on the FG-Labour coalition, and its fight in Dublin Central was even more intense. Phil Hogan had sought to cut the number of TDs and Dublin Central lost a seat, going four seats to three. The only safe one belonged to Mary Lou McDonald. Three other incumbents – the Tony Gregory-mould independent Maureen O’Sullivan, Labour’s Joe Costello, and cabinet minister Donohoe – were fighting for the two remaining seats. The competition was heightened by the challenge of Mary Fitzpatrick from a somewhat resurgent Fianna Fáil, the recent Lord Mayor Christy Burke, and a youthful energetic Gary Gannon of the Social Democrats. As elections go, it was the archetypical Group of Death. Donohoe and O’Sullivan retained their seats on the final count; no other TDs nationwide got elected with fewer first preferences. Donohoe soon became Minister for Public Expenditure, a role which includes responsibility for the law on public ethics.

Re-election didn’t come easy. In a three-seat constituency, the legal limit for electoral spending is €30,150. Donohoe’s campaign spent €22,916.80 of its own funds, plus €477.03 of public money (under the heading ‘office and stationery’ – likely the use of envelopes or a phone line from his ministerial office). Throw in another €4,307 of costs paid by party headquarters – which isn’t itemised, but usually covers a candidate’s contribution to the cost of a party political broadcasts or centralised printing – and the overall cost comes to €27,700.83.

That is before the issues of the last ten days, and the emergence of other spending on Donohoe’s campaign. A company lent the campaign the use of a van for ten hours, while some of its staff were also paid to put some posters up. The use of the van is valued (by Donohoe himself) at €140, while the manpower were paid €1,100 by their boss, Michael Stone.

In the aftermath of his donation, Stone was made chair of a government taskforce on deprivation in the north inner city – Donohoe’s constituency – and then appointed to the board of the Land Development Agency. While waiving his fee of around €15k a year, a quick browse of public diaries shows Stone enjoys quite a lot of scheduled facetime with Donohoe and with respective Taoisigh. Even if the time is spent discussing only public business, that’s access money can’t buy.

Donohoe became aware of the use of the van in 2017, and valued its use at €140. While this amounts to a €140 donation to his campaign, it is under the €200 limit for undisclosed corporate donations. Nonetheless it also amounts to €140 on extra spending on his campaign, as a donation-in-kind – and Donohoe did not seek to update his election disclosures. A reminder again: he was the minister responsible for ethics law, and was not in full compliance.

That’s the most charitable interpretation of the whole thing. Stone claims to have paid his own staff €1,100 out of his own pocket, though there’s photographs of them putting up the posters during daytime hours. Most people would think that people putting up posters during the daytime, working out of a company van, would really be working on company time. If they were, two issues arise: firstly, the donation is a corporate one (and thus in breach of limits), and secondly, was €1,100 fair value for their time?

SIPO’s guidelines make clear that donations-in-kind should be considered as donations to the candidate (not to the party, as Donohoe has sought to claim – which is important because €1,100 breaks the limit for candidate donations) but also that so-called ‘mates rates’ aren’t permitted. Explicitly, they point out that a printer who usually charges €1,500 for a print run, but does a candidate’s job for free, should be considered a €1,500 donor.

So is €1,100 an appropriate price for the man hours of the staff involved? Is €140 a fair market price for the use of a van for, seemingly, three separate days? Or are they simply convenient accounting totals for donations which are truly worth far more?

And that leads us to the two central questions. Did Donohoe – the minister responsible for overseeing and empowering the independent ethics watchdog – breach the limits for accepting political donations? Moreover, with those donations, did Donohoe – the minister responsible for overseeing and empowering the independent ethics watchdog – secure his Dáil seat by spending more money than allowed?

It shouldn’t, and doesn’t, matter if the accused is a likeable, competent, capable technocrat. The stakes are far too high for that.