In my first post of 2023 (apologies for the delay) I look back at the first few weeks of the Donohoe #Postergate saga and explore how Fine Gael has taken the old political dictum: when you are explaining, you are losing, and turned it on its head. Though they may feel it is working in the short-term… I believe that in the longer term, it will not. I do not see Minister Donohoe resigning – even post SIPO investigation – but I think his value (commercial or otherwise) to Fine Gael is now considerably diminished.
If you are explaining, you are losing.
So ubiquitous is this political truism that its authorship is variously ascribed to such election campaigning greats as Ronald Reagan or Karl Rove.
The idea underpinning the phrase is appropriately straight forward. If you want to win voters over to your cause you must sound confident and convinced. You do this best by having a message that is clear and concise. Spend too much time explaining your position and you come off looking desperate to convince.
Though this approach has come in for criticism over the years – one notable critic being the former GOP Congressman J.C. Watts who equated it with “a bumper sticker culture” – it has been the prevailing campaigning mantra… or least it has been, up to now.
Over the past few weeks it has seemed that the Fine Gael spin machine decided that the if you are explaining, you are losing approach has had its day and that it was time for a new approach… one that might best be described as: keep explaining and the voters will be snoozing.
Why else would they persist in produced statement after statement and version after version and extend what should have been a one-week political crisis beyond two or more weeks.
As the latest edition of the Phoenix magazine points out, the public allegations about errors in Paschal Donohoe’s 2016 election expenditure first emerged on its pages over two weeks ago. Indeed that issue, which was circulating from late on Wednesday Jan 11th, had the story Donohoe’s SIPO Complaint on its front page, so it was odd to hear Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tell Mary Lou McDonald in the Dáil on Wednesday January 18th that:
I only heard about this in the last couple of days. I could not tell her for sure whether it was Friday [Jan 13] or Saturday [Jan 14] but it was only in the last couple of days. I had no prior knowledge of it before that point.
Maybe no one in his office or in Fine Gael HQ read the Phoenix on Wednesday January 11th or 12th though it is worth recalling that the Phoenix says it first contacted Minister Donohoe’s office in early December to ask about the GE2016 minister’s postering arrangements.
The point here is that this story is now well into its third week in the public arena and has been hinted at around Leinster House, though without any reference to the names involved, since late last year.
So why has it dragged on for so long and isn’t Fine Gael right when it says that this is purely a matter for SIPO alone to determine.
Well, Fine Gael is partly right.
As I see it there are two elements to this saga. The first is about process. The recording and processing of election expense reports are about process – just in the same way as any someone’ government grant or welfare application. It is about correctly following the rules and guidance and diligently and scrupulously completing the forms as directed.
Minister Donohoe’s colleagues are right. It is for SIPO alone to decide on the process. It can determine if its rules, which arise from the 1997 Electoral Act, were honoured and whether the value placed on the support, as offered by Minister Donohoe, was the usual commercial price.
The Minister has assisted SIPO in this process, not only by submitting freshly amended and corrected returns – for both the 2016 and 2020 elections – but by admitting that errors were made and that there was an “unauthorised corporate donation” a.k.a. “a donation that was inadvertently received” to use his phrases from Tuesday’s second Dáil statement.
SIPO must now work expeditiously, to use Ged Nash’s words, to decide on the breaches of process that are within its scope, but as I said there are two elements to this and the second one is wholly outside SIPO’s area.
This other element is primarily political and relates to how both the minister and Fine Gael have handled this mess over recent weeks months.
Why was there a repeated effort to insist that there was nothing to see here?
Why the lack of openness and transparency.
Why did the full facts have be pursued by journalists, particularly the Sunday Independent’s Maeve Sheehan and the Phoenix?
This is where the Fine Gael bore them rigid strategy of keep explaining and the voters will stay snoozing, may have been working… but only up to a point. Their relentless blather about the minutest detail of the election expenditure process has, it seems, managed to divert some focus – especially media focus – away from the fact that the real Fine Gael response was to deny that there ever was a problem.
Some might even call this tactic a cover-up – and students of political controversies will know that the cover-up can often lead to more disastrous consequences than the original event you were trying to conceal.
But there are very legitimate questions about how both Fine Gael and the Minister have handled this matter since it was repeatedly brought to their attention. Why the passivity in addressing the questions repeatedly raise since last November? Indeed why, right up to this week, is Minister Donohoe still referring to this matter in the third person, speaking of “…the best answers that I have available…” and being “so disappointed to be in this position”.
The minister and Fine Gael are in this position partly due to the errors in process in the calculation and reporting of his 2016 and 2020 election expenditure, but also because of the efforts to stonewall and deny that there were issues about those elections, issues whose consequences the Minister now accepts as serious.
These issues have only emerged because of the persistence of others, as mentioned earlier.
Which brings us to Sinn Féin’s glaring election expenditure issues.
The whataboutary from both Sinn Féin and Fine Gael over recent weeks is just a taster of what’s to come in a future where politics is both polarised and dominated by these two political mirror images.
Sinn Féin has as many questions to answer as Fine Gael, though Sinn Féin’s has the added joy of a binitarianist all-island/ partitionist structure that seems to allow it accept donations in Northern Ireland that would not be permitted here.
There is nothing in what Sinn Féin has done that in any way mitigates Fine Gael’s behaviour. Nor is Sinn Féin the source of Fine Gael’s travails here. Though its spokespeople have been assiduous in their pursuit of both Donohoe and Fine Gael, it is only fair to observe that the Social Democrats Roisín Shortall, Labour’s Ged Nash and People Before Profit-Solidarity’s Paul Murphy have been far better prosecutors of the case against Paschal Donohoe.
There are many who tell me that Fine Gael’s strategy is working and that the voters are not that exercised or angered by Paschal’s poster peccadillos. No one cares, they say.
That’s quite possibly true. But we should not confuse indifference and exhaustion. I accept that voters may not be that vocally exercised about this scandal, but I reject the notion that this is just something that interests those within the Leinster House bubble.
Voters are paying attention – and that’s the problem.
The public’s expectations of their political leaderships are now so low, so diminished, that they see a minister’s refusal to acknowledge errors without a massive campaign to slowly drag the facts out of them as simply par for the course.
I do not sense any public desire for Minister Donohoe’s scalp… but neither do I detect any belief, outside of some in Fine Gael, that his voluntary departure – which I still believe is highly unlikely – would mean the collapse of this government, and a general election.
Losing Donohoe would hurt the government and damage Fine Gael. He has been one of that parties ablest performers and as several opinion polls have shown, he had been the most highest rated ministers in this government.
The events of the past few weeks and months will take their toll on that, and while the matter may disappear from the headlines for some weeks, it is not yet at an end.
I do not see Minister Donohoe being compelled to resign – even post SIPO investigation – but I think his political asset value to Fine Gael is now considerably diminished. The SIPO report may devalue it further. Might it devalue it to a point where the one time asset becomes a liability? If so, then he will no longer be too big to fail.
In the podcast which accompanies this post I continue past the text abaove and chat about the way that Fine Gael sees itself. Its self image is that of a party that is ethically superior to others… and for most of its exitence that was Fianna Fáil in particular. This self image is now tarbished, thanks to this saga, but I see no sign that the leadership in Fine Gael can see this.
In the podcast I highly recommend that people watch the full length interviews which Sean O’Rourke conducted as part of his Two Tribes RTÉ documentary. You can view these interviews on YouTube HERE