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Sam Boal

Larry Donnelly How will Irish politicians cope with an increasingly angry electorate?

Our columnist says the Donohoe affair and protests of recent weeks show that the political mood here has darkened.

“NOTHING IS ON the level. Everything is a deal. No deal is too small.” This is the mantra of long-time Boston Herald columnist and radio talk show host, Howie Carr, about how the “people’s business” has often been conducted by elected officials in the back rooms and corridors of power in my hometown.

Regrettably, even though Carr exaggerates the degree to which there is a culture of endemic dishonesty, he has a point. It’s debatable as to whether what might be termed “the bad old days” in Massachusetts politics are actually history or not, but growing up in this milieu definitely left lots of us jaded.

Positions within the judicial branch – from judge down to court officer – were occasionally purchased and routinely handed out to the politically connected. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) was labelled “Mr Bulger’s Transportation Authority” – so often did supporters of William Bulger, President of the State Senate for decades, wind up on the MBTA payroll.

My great-uncle Frank Kelly, who was a Boston City Councillor and Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General, once lamented to my father that the next generation of politicians was so stupid that they were happy to take cheques as donations instead of insisting upon cold, hard cash.

A very Irish scandal

There is no denying that my background, together with the dodgy dealings I know transpired in Boston and its environs factored into my reflexive dismissal of the controversy that has lately surrounded the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe, regarding his election campaigns in 2016 and 2020. While his foes have asserted, not without justification, that the rules are the rules and no one is above the law, the quantity of money involved here is objectively trivial in the grand scheme of things. The Ireland of 2023 ain’t the Boston of yesteryear.

Donohoe’s integrity, work ethic and commitment to serving his constituency and his country are attested to by virtually all acquainted with the man.

He earned a scholarship to Trinity College and abandoned a successful business career in the United Kingdom to return to Dublin and enter politics. Uncharacteristically for someone who is usually articulate and detail-oriented, he did not handle what swiftly became “Postergate” well. The slow drip of revelations with respect to 2016 and then 2020 fed a mini-frenzy in the media and emboldened his opponents to (almost) go for the jugular.

Ultimately, it looks as if Donohoe has done enough to survive politically, notwithstanding some tarnishing – how much depends on one’s viewpoint – of his heretofore unblemished reputation. Part of why he lives to fight another day is that a good-sized chunk of the population paying attention took note of what Sinn Féin and others alleged was a scandal and concluded that it was small potatoes. It’s obviously anecdotal, yet that’s what those who raised the topic in conversation with me said unanimously. They also cited the reality that Sinn Féin’s hands aren’t entirely clean on this front.

Online mob

On Twitter, however, fury was palpable and pervasive. Charges of “cronyism” and “corruption” abounded. “A fascinating insight into how the Irish establishment has always worked” was another claim. Numerous attempts were made to tie the misguided efforts of businessman Michael Stone and his associates to hang posters touting the candidacy of Donohoe, his friend, to millions in government contracts awarded to the proud north inner city native’s firms with absolutely no proof.

A tweet I sent expressing bewilderment at “Postergate” fever and endeavouring to contextualise the wrongdoing engendered a litany of quite vicious personal attacks.

Twitter, of course, is not representative of where the broader citizenry is on any subject. But neither do the sentiments I heard from the primarily comfortable, middle-class people about recent events encapsulate the totality of public opinion on the culpability of Paschal Donohoe.

The truth is that there is a tremendous amount of deep-seated anger out there that is boiling over. This hostility is driven by a range of issues and it is emanating from divergent places.

At rallies near to where refugees and protection seekers are being housed temporarily, throngs of irate locals and far right agitators from elsewhere chant provocative slogans, such as “Get them out!” These can be heard loud and clear by newly arrived individuals and families fleeing a variety of difficult circumstances.

Thousands packed the streets of Limerick last weekend – other gatherings and marches were held in Galway, Letterkenny, Tralee and more – to convey a collective sense of outrage at the excessively crowded hospitals and myriad further problems in the health service.

And the prohibitively high cost and very short supply of housing continue to incense young, and not so young, renters hoping and praying that they can get on the property ladder. A Red C poll for Virgin Media News shows that 9 in 10 of this cohort are afraid that they will never own their own home and a significant percentage are considering emigrating as a consequence.

Political sparring

The widespread anger on housing, health and immigration is of varying legitimacy and is emerging from across the ideological spectrum: right, left and centre. Increasingly, it is being directed at politicians and government parties in particular. When a minister like Paschal Donohoe is perceived to flout the law that he decrees everyone else must obey, no matter how long ago or the extent of the transgression, resentment is only heightened.

Sinn Féin has been the main beneficiary of the discontent to date. Nonetheless, as has been unearthed during the past several days, the party has also made a series of missteps when it comes to electoral expenses. This will not sit well with the cadre of voters intending to vote Sinn Féin the next chance they get because Mary Lou McDonald and Co have argued persuasively that they will be change agents and depart radically from what they call the failed policies of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Some will brand Sinn Féin’s prominent TDs, who have led the onslaught against Donohoe, hypocrites.

Additionally, to its credit, Sinn Féin has repudiated the xenophobia and racism that animates many on the far right who see the worry precipitated by this country’s accepting tens of thousands in the midst of pre-existing health and housing crises as an opportunity. But speaking politically, it has alienated a portion of its working class base in doing so. A big group of them congregated at the Finglas constituency office of party stalwart, Dessie Ellis TD, chanting “out, out, out” and brandishing tricolours.

In sum, a substantial and diverse cross-section of the Irish people is mad as hell at the moment. Politicians of all stripes have to determine how best to engage with, address and assuage anger. That won’t be easy.

I’ve always believed that hope and fear are the two strongest emotions in politics. Anger is a close third. The local and European elections are not until 2024; a general election mightn’t happen before early 2025. Anger could be a decisive element in these contests.

That the – to repeat, objectively trivial – mistakes made by Paschal Donohoe have inflamed passions in some quarters and have dominated discourse suggests that politicians have a tiny margin of error in the months ahead. Plenty of voters, for an array of reasons, cannot wait to stand in judgment.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with


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