HomeEuropePressure grows on Ireland’s Donohoe over election expenses

Pressure grows on Ireland’s Donohoe over election expenses

DUBLIN — Irish Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe faced growing pressure to quit Tuesday after a business friend admitted he gave Donohoe undeclared aid in back-to-back elections at odds with donation rules.

Donohoe, the Eurogroup president and one of Ireland’s most important politicians on the EU stage, will face hostile questioning later Tuesday in parliament — his second time in the past week in a suddenly hot seat. But government officials told POLITICO they expected Donohoe to mount a vigorous defense of his ethics record.

At stake is the stability and potential survival of Ireland’s coalition government, which only last month reshuffled top posts between Micheál Martin’s Fianna Fáil and Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael as previously agreed. While Varadkar become prime minister and Martin foreign minister, Donohoe of Fine Gael handed the key finance portfolio to Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath but retained his Eurogroup leadership post in Brussels.

Donohoe apologized to parliament last Wednesday after admitting that his 2016 election campaign had failed to disclose donations from construction chief Michael Stone, an issue currently being investigated by the Standards in Public Office Commission.

Donohoe’s explanation cut no ice with the chief opposition party Sinn Féin, whose finance spokesman Pearse Doherty repeatedly asked him to confirm whether Stone had provided undisclosed aid for Donohoe’s 2020 campaign too.

While an off-balance Donohoe didn’t answer directly, Stone finally did Tuesday morning — and confirmed he had provided similar aid in 2020.

Stone, founder of a multinational construction firm called the Designer Group, immediately resigned from two government-appointed posts on the boards of the Land Development Agency and an inner-city development trust.

At face value, the stated donations as disclosed by Stone look like the smallest of potatoes, just €1,240 in 2016 and €1,406 in 2020. In both cases, Stone said, he had paid six of his own construction workers to erect Donohoe campaign posters around his Dublin Central constituency, using a Designer Group work van.

However, not many politicians, even within Donohoe’s own party, believe the receipt-free figures — because they don’t reflect their own experience of real-world campaign costs. Under Irish ethics laws, campaigns are supposed to report commercial costs even when services are offered at a discount or for free.

Most say the true postering cost should be nearer €5,000 per campaign. Such a bill would have to be financed by multiple donors to stay within the law’s cap of €1,000 per personal donation or, arguably in the case of Stone, a lower €200 limit that applies to unregistered corporate donors.

Yet Donohoe is further arguing that Stone’s newly disclosed donations don’t violate those limits, in part because they weren’t donations to him at all, but rather to the wider Fine Gael campaign in Dublin Central. One problem with that argument is that while Fine Gael ran two candidates in the multi-seat constituency, Stone’s workers erected posters featuring Donohoe.

While many supporters express disbelief that Donohoe could be toppled by a scandal involving such modest sums, Ireland has a history of toppling senior figures over scandals initially seen as minor affairs. The most notable recent example is Ireland’s previous European commissioner, Phil Hogan, who was forced to quit as trade chief in 2020 for failing to observe Ireland’s pandemic quarantine rules.

Many politicians and staffers chatting in parliamentary corridors Tuesday took turns recalling a famous quote from the late Prime Minister Albert Reynolds. In 1994 he was considered a possible Nobel Peace Prize candidate for his role in delivering an Irish Republican Army cease-fire — only to be ejected from office within weeks by unhappy coalition allies.

“It’s amazing,” Reynolds told reporters after his out-of-the-blue ouster. “You cross the big hurdles, and when you get to the small ones, you get tripped up.”



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