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Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe says neither he nor his team were aware of any payments to any individuals for the erection or removal of posters in either election.
Paschal Donohoe

Donohoe confirms breach of 2020 election rules, says he was unaware of details last week

Taoiseach says Donohoe told him businessman Michael Stone would be making a statement in advance of his Dáil statement.

LAST UPDATE | Jan 24th 2023, 8:00 PM

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said he believes the explanation put forward today by Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe this afternoon in relation to his general election donation declarations.

Speaking to reporters at the Irish Farmers Association annual dinner in Dublin, Varadkar said he spoke to Donohoe over the weekend and the minister informed him that businessman Michael Stone would make a statement explaining his role in the events.

The Taoiseach said the minister said he would then make a statement in the Dáil thereafter.

“I was aware of the sequence of events and what was going to happen at that point in time,” he told The Journal.

He added that at that point the fact that he would resign from the North Inner City Taskforce and the Land Development Agency was not yet known.

“That wasn’t definite at that point,” he added.

Varadkar said Donohoe “was very keen” to make sure that everything was right in advance of the Dáil statements today.

When questioned about what orchestration there was in Government in relation to the sequence of events, the Taoiseach said:

“I had no contact with Michael Stone on this. So there wasn’t any coordination. Pascal handled this matter.”

The Taoiseach said Donohoe called himself, Tánaiste Micheál Martin and Transport Minister Eamon Ryan over the weekend “to let us know what was going to happen and that’s the reasonable thing to do”.

He said it was correct for the minister to speak to the party leaders in the coalition.

“He wanted us to know what was going to happen before we heard about it through the media,” he said.

irish-farmers-association-dinner Leo Varadkar speaking to the media at the Irish Farmers' Association Dinner in Dublin PA PA

The Taoiseach added that he believed Donohoe’s explanation in the Dáil this afternoon. 

Donohoe apologised again in the Dáil for the “difficulties” and the “distraction” from the Government’s work that the controversy around his postering in two general elections in 2016 and 2020 has caused.

Controversy emerged last week over the the minister’s 2016 general election campaign.

Speaking in the Dáil this afternoon, he said that following his statement in the chamber last Wednesday he received a phone call from businessman Michael Stone telling him that a member of his team did recall support being provided in 2020 through the campaign team. 

Stone said in a statement that he provided workers and vans to assist Donohoe during his 2020 General Election campaign.

Stone confirmed that he provided six workers and vans to assist Donohoe’s campaign with hanging posters in his Dublin Central constituency.

Stone, the head of the Designer Group, said that work was carried out by the six individuals over five days, both before and after polling day, at a cost of €972. The commercial value of the vans used totalled €434.20.

He added that Donohoe had contacted him last December to inquire whether or not help was provided in 2020. However, Stone said that he “mistakenly” believed that he had not provided assistance. 

Minister says he was unaware of details

The minister said in the Dáil he was unaware of any of the details contained in Stone’s statement prior to last Wednesday night.

“Despite my best efforts in recent weeks to ensure the fullest account of the support given in both 2016 and 2020 was accurate, an amendment will now be made to my 2020 General Election expenses form to reflect the new information to the amount of €864 for labour and €392.20 for vehicles for support received during the election period,” said Donohoe. 

“As I laid out in my statement to this House last Wednesday I have been undertaking a review of my 2016 General Election expenses over the last few weeks. I also reviewed expenses incurred during the 2020 General Election.

“In seeking to determine the full facts of the matter, I consulted with the local organisation in Fine Gael about any involvement from Michael Stone in both the 2016 and 2020 elections,” he said. 

The minister added:

However, the situation regarding support provided in 2020 was unclear. There was some recollection by my team of support being provided by Michael Stone in 2020 but despite my asking directly a couple of times, Mr Stone’s view was that he had not provided any support three years ago. This was confirmed to me on more than one occasion.

Corporate donation discovered 

In addition, Donohoe revealed today that he is now aware that an unauthorised corporate donation of €434.20 was unknowingly received by Fine Gael Dublin Central.

This was in the form of the use of vehicles, the commercial value of which exceeded the maximum allowable donation limit of €200.

The minister said the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) have been notified of this breach and €234.20, the amount received in excess of the allowable limit, will be refunded to the Designer Group.

“An amendment will also be made this week to my election expenses return to the value of €1256.20 for the work carried out and use of the vans up to polling day,” said the minister.

Donohoe said last week he”aimed to be fully transparent on all details”.

“This was, I believed, the case at the time and the statement I made was an honest reflection of the information I had. 

“It remains the case that when SIPO returns were being submitted in both in 2016 and 2020, they were believed to be accurate, as any postering done throughout the campaigns was not paid for by Fine Gael Dublin Central nor by me. All activity, it was understood, was carried out by volunteers on a voluntary basis,” he said. 

“Let me be clear. Neither I nor my team were aware of any payments to any individuals for the erection or removal of posters in either election at the time of filing election returns to SIPO.

“The vast majority of my posters were erected and taken down on a voluntary basis. This was, we believed, to be the case with regard to the support given by Michael Stone.

“At each point in this, having undertaken reviews designed to determine the full facts, we have always taken the appropriate steps to correct the record,” said the minister. 

Since Thursday, the minister said he has been working to ensure that the information regarding the 2020 General Election is completely accurate.

“I have informed the Dáil of the facts as I have known them to be true at each and every juncture. I again apologise for the difficulties this has caused for my party and the distraction it has caused to the important work of Government. I have always sought to hold myself, and those around me, to the highest standards,” he added. 

“Finally, I would like to say that I deeply regret that this has caused the loss of Michael Stone from the boards of both the Land Development Agency and the North East Inner City Taskforce. Mr. Stone has given his time freely in an attempt to make a difference to the lives of those faced with significant challenges. His experience will be a great loss to both,” said Donohoe. 

When questioned by Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty about when he became aware of issues around the 2016 election postering, and why questions in 2017 by the media were dismissed, the minister said he initiated “a more thorough review” of the 2016 campaign, in the aftermath of having received further contact [from SIPO]. 

He said it then became apparent that monies had been paid.

“They hadn’t been paid for me,” he said, insisting again that he was unaware of anyone being paid.

There was a heated exchange between the paid, with the minister telling Doherty: “I don’t know if you’re interested in my answer or my head.”

The minister acknowledged that he did not give the questions raised in 2017 about the issues ‘adequate consideration” and that is something that he regrets. 

Speaking to reporters this evening, the Taoiseach said:

“I think at this stage it really boils down to whether you believe him or not.”

Varadkar said he does believe Donohoe, stating that the minister assumed that the work was happening on a voluntary basis because all the other posters were being put up on that basis.

He added that since the controversy he suspectes all politicians have reviewed their declaration of interests, stating that he had done so in recent weeks and no discrepancies had surfaced. 

Filling in declaration of interest forms should not be a “box-ticking exercise”, he said, urging politicians to be more careful. 

He committed to reforming SIPO powers before the end of the year with new legislation.

Directorship

Earlier today, it was revealed that Donohoe had not declared his directorship of a company while he was still a Senator.

First reported by The Ditch, Donohoe had not included his directorship of a company known as ExSite Politics on the Register of Members Interests while he was in the Seanad in 2009.

However, he did declare his directorship of a company known as ExSite Communications, which he carried out on a “pro bono basis”.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Donohoe said:

“Exsite is a company the Minister was involved in for 9 months 14 years ago. He did not benefit in any way from it. ”

“The Minister has contacted the owner of the company about the matter.”

When questioned about this matter this evening, the Taoiseach said he could not comment as he was not aware of the details. 

Opposition’s concerns

On Friday, Labour’s finance spokesperson Ged Nash said the minister had several opportunities over recent years to clarify the situation but that the first attempt at this was a “hastily arranged press conference last Sunday (15 January) where limited information was provided to the media”.

“The minister now is trying to make the case, and I think he’s failing to do so convincingly at least, that this is a donation that was made to the Fine Gael Dublin Central constituency organisation,” Nash told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

“But in fact, in the context of an election, there really is no such thing and the only person who can incur expenditure on behalf of, or authorise expenditure, is the election agent on behalf of the candidate.”

Elsewhere, one of Donohoe’s own colleagues from the government parties queried how he calculated the work carried out for his campaign.

Neasa Hourigan, who represents the same Dublin Central constituency as Donohoe, said the figures amounting to the duties provided “seem slightly low”. 

“It’s  six people and a van and that seems like a very good rate he got,” Hourigan said on RTÉ’s Late Debate on Thursday.

“He’s not only my government colleague but he’s also my constituency colleague so I’m not trying to have a go at Paschal particularly.

“But it is actually a lot, it is a lot of support. and if you’re somebody who’s trying to get elected, we have to keep it a level field. ”

While answering parliamentary questions in the Dáil on Thursday, Donohoe told the chamber that he would make a further statement on the matter at the earliest opportunity.

While the Dáil business committee had the view that it would have been preferable for the statement to have been made that day, Donohoe told the Dáil that he would be unable to make a statement until later.

He since confirmed he will appear again for a further statement and questioning today.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Prime Time on Thursday, Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty questioned whether businessman Michael Stone paid for putting up Donohoe’s election posters in 2020.

Speaking on the same programme, Minister of State for European Affairs Peter Burke said the Fine Gael TD would come forward with all the details this week and called for a proportionate response.

With reporting by Eoghan Dalton, Christina Finn and Tadgh McNally

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