Dáil debates

Wednesday, 18 January 2023

Statement by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform

 

5:55 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for the opportunity to address Dáil Éireann and clarify matters pertaining to the 2016 election campaign. In that campaign, the Fine Gael organisation in Dublin Central was offered assistance with my re-election campaign, erecting and removing posters. This assistance was understood by me to be on a voluntary basis. It was provided across four dates during the campaign period before and after polling day. Six individuals were involved, working in three pairs. Neither I nor anyone involved in my campaign team paid the people concerned, nor was I, at that time, aware they had been paid. For that reason, no cost was attributed to this support on the election expense form submitted to the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, following the election.

In December, in light of a complaint made to SIPO concerning this support and the letter confirming the receipt of a complaint which I received last Friday, I undertook a full review of the campaign in recent weeks. During the course of the review, I was made aware that the individual concerned had been paid for their help in the 2016 campaign. I was not aware before this time of any payment having been made. It was a personal payment made by Mr. Michael Stone in support of the local Fine Gael organisation which funded the campaign. The total payment to the people involved was €1,100, of which approximately €917 pertained to the campaign period. The remainder relates to work done after election day.

With regard to the vehicles used, two of them were personal vehicles and a company van was also used. I was not aware during the election campaign of the use of such a van. However, I was aware of an allegation in 2017 that a company vehicle had been used during the campaign. In retrospect, at that point I should have amended my election expenses form to the value of €140 to take account of the commercial value of a vehicle for the hours used. This was a clear mistake on my part and I acknowledge and apologise for that error. As the equivalent commercial value of the van was below the relevant donation limits, it did not need to be included on the donation register.

Having been made aware at the end of last year of the payment to the individuals, it is clear to me that the value of the labour should also have been declared in my election expenses form. Therefore, on Sunday, my election expenses statement was amended to reflect the additional spend for the 2016 campaign of €1,057, reflecting the equivalent commercial value of a vehicle and payment for labour. This amended statement was submitted to SIPO at the weekend, both by email and in hard copy.

The payment to the individuals who provided the labour and the corresponding value of the use of the company van were a donation to Fine Gael Dublin Central within the legal donation limits. Neither I nor any of my campaign team intentionally misinformed SIPO or knew that a form was incorrectly submitted to it at that time. In light of the information that has now been made available to me, I have taken the steps to address the issue as fully as I can.

I also wish to provide as much additional information as I can to the House. Mr. Stone has made no donations to me personally. However, in 2020 and 2021, he made a donation to Fine Gael by the purchase of Superdraw tickets which were sold by me. The donation was to the Fine Gael Party centrally and was within the legal limits. It is not required to be disclosed. However, as stated, I wish to be fully transparent with the House. In 2020, it was five tickets with a donation value of €334 and in 2021, it was 22 tickets with a donation value of €1,382.

Mr. Stone is a man of the very highest standards. He has spent much of his life giving back to the community from which he came and which I am obviously so proud to represent. Mr. Stone has done so much for the north-east inner city and I am very sorry he has become involved in this matter of public interest. I accept responsibility for making all supporters, the vast majority of whom are volunteers, aware of their obligations at election time.

As Minister with responsibility for public expenditure, national plan development, NDP, delivery and reform, SIPO falls under my remit. To ensure there is full transparency and independence in this matter, any responsibility for ethics legislation and SIPO will be transferred to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael McGrath. I am conscious there is a complaint to that commission which will decide what steps, if any, need to be taken. I will engage and co-operate fully with any process that SIPO undertakes in this matter. To avoid any undue influence in that process following today's questions, I will not be commenting further.

I have worked tirelessly in any public office that I have held. I have always been committed to the public interest and the common good. Honesty and integrity matter above all in public life and I am very sorry this has happened. I sincerely regret this situation and the role I played in it. I thank the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and my Government colleagues for their support.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister has been caught. He tried to cover this up when the allegations were put to him in 2017. Last year, he again tried to cover this up when the media made inquiries with specific detail on all of this with regard to the political donation. The Minister claimed at the time that he reviewed this issue, there was nothing to see here and everything was in order. Now he has concocted a story that does not stack up.

The charge is that during the 2016 general election campaign, the Minister received a political donation from his friend, Michael Stone, CEO of Designer Group and then president of the Construction Industry Federation, who was later appointed by Fine Gael to the powerful Land Development Agency, LDA, outside of the normal process. The Minister failed to disclose this donation, which was required of him under law. The donation accepted by the Minister was above the legal limit.

In the past five years, the Minister has dodged this issue and concocted stories to make it go away. He said the individuals did the work for him over a number of nights, so the work was carried out outside normal working hours. We now know that is not true.

We now know that the work was carried out in broad daylight, in the middle of the working day, by men in hard hats with a company van marked Designer Group. The Minister claims that this was a donation to the party rather than himself. That is laughable. He should know this because he is the Minister who oversees this legislation. The rules are clear. I will quote them to the Minister. They state: "Where expenses are incurred on a candidate's behalf by an individual or body other than a political party ... and the expenses are borne by the individual/body, the expenses may be regarded as a donation to the candidate." It is a donation to Deputy Paschal Donohoe, not to Dublin Central Fine Gael. It is crystal clear and the Minister should stop trying to dodge that issue.

The Minister tried to reverse engineer the value of the political donation to make sure it was below the allowable amount. He said the donation was worth €1,100, but the problem for him is that the rules are crystal clear. They state: "Donations in kind ... are to be valued at the usual commercial price charged for the purchase, use or acquisition of the property or goods or the supply of any service donated." It is not about how much Michael Stone paid the individuals to do the work but the commercial value on the open market. How does the Minister's claim of €1,100 square with somebody who was contesting the same election in the same constituency, Senator Mary Fitzpatrick, who had to pay nearly €5,000 to get her posters put up and taken down? Many of the Minister's colleagues, sitting behind him, paid €2,500 to just get posters put up. That is the reality of the amount of the donation that the Minister failed to disclose. It was an unlawful donation that the Minister is still trying to cover up.

In an attempt to make the numbers add up, the Minister claimed that these people were only putting up 150 posters over three nights. As we can see from the photographs, they were putting up posters two to a pole. The Minister is good with numbers. That would be 75 poles, which would mean they were putting posters up on two poles per hour. Who is seriously going to believe that? The Minister and I should grab a ladder and a stopwatch to see how many posters we can put up. What the Minister is trying to do is laughable. He is trying to take us for fools with regard to these concocted stories. He refused to come clean in 2016 and again when it was pointed out to him in 2017. When the media went after him about this in November last year, he said there was nothing to see here. It is only now that SIPO has started to inquire about this that the Minister is concocting a story.

The Minister should be answering questions but he voted earlier not to answer direct questions. They are serious questions. Who did Michael Stone offer this service to? He is the Minister's friend. The Minister was at his wedding in November. He is a close confidant of the Minister. It is natural for him to offer the Minister this donation. In 2017, who brought it to the Minister's attention that the company van was used in 2016? Who made that allegation? What action did the Minister take? How did he value the use of the van? How many days was the van used for and for how many hours each day?

In 2021, when a number of journalists made specific, detailed inquiries of the Minister regarding the issue which is now in the public domain, the Minister said he carried out a review and that all was in order. Who carried out the review? How did the Minister satisfy himself of that? How does that square with the fact that he knew in 2017 that, at the very least, a van was used in this process? How could the Minister say that everything was in order when this was the case? When did he speak with Michael Stone about this? He told the media at a press conference on Sunday that he took a number of weeks to make sure that all of the detail was accurate and that they were out putting up posters on four nights. Unfortunately for the Minister, there are photographs showing them out in the middle of the working day, wearing hard hats and high-visibility clothing, right off the building site with the company van parked nearby. When did the Minister contact Michael Stone to find out how much he paid, how it was acquired and whether they were Designer Group employees? Were they paid in cash? The Minister was Minister for Finance.

6:05 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Deputy's time is up.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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I will finish on this. I ask the Minister to answer this question very carefully. Did Michael Stone pay people to put up posters for the Minister in the 2020 general election campaign? I ask the Minister to answer that question now because it is crucial.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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The Minister is selling us a narrative that suits his own ends, but what are the facts? Is it not a fact that there has been a breach of both the donation and expenditure rules that everyone in this House is bound by? The Act insists that no expenditure can be incurred at an election except by the agent or his or her nominee. The SIPO guidelines point out that it is an offence for a candidate or anybody else, including, for example, "a local branch of a political party", to incur expenses or make payments in connection with a candidate's campaign if this was not authorised by the agent. Was this unauthorised expenditure incurred during the Minister's 2016 election campaign and, if so, will the Minister notify SIPO of this breach of the Act?

This service was provided by six company employees in a company van but it was, in fact, provided by the shareholder, the company owner. The distinction is relevant because the law imposes a lower legal limit on corporate donations than on donations from individuals. This is the net point which goes to the heart of this whole farrago. Let us stop the pretence that this was not a corporate donation. One might think there was an effort going on to retrospectively regularise a highly irregular situation.

Third, the Minister said the two separate donations, which were an individual donation of the services of six company employees and a corporate donation of the use of a company van, were not made to him at all but to the Fine Gael constituency party in Dublin Central. This distinction is significant because there are higher limits for permissible donations to parties than donations to candidates. It is again an attempt to present the situation in a particular light. Is there any reality to this? Constituency parties have no role whatsoever in law in incurring expenditure during elections. Candidates incur expenditure and the agents of candidates account for and authorise that expenditure. It would be an offence for the constituency party to incur this expenditure. Is trying to drag the constituency party into the picture not just a red herring?

How about the estimate of the cost of the service? We know that the usual price charged for erecting and removing election posters in 2016 was about €5 per poster, with it costing €3 to put one up and €2 to take it down. If 1,000 posters were involved, which would be normal in a campaign, then the commercial value is closer to €5,000. The Minister might go some way to addressing the points about how many posters this organisation put up.

The guidelines are explicit that where a price charged for a service is less than the usual commercial price, then the difference between the usual commercial price and the lower price is a political donation. Whether provided by an individual or by a company, the true value of this service seems to be way in excess of the donation limits. If that is so, does it not follow that what was received was a prohibited donation in excess of the donation limits? If so, should the Minister's amended declaration not also state that he received a prohibited donation, the value of which he has so far not returned to the donor?

Finally, if this expenditure was revalued at its full commercial price, would the Minister be in breach of the candidate expenditure limit for the 2016 general election? That is an important point. We are being told that an individual, his company and its staff provided a service during the Minister's election campaign which ended up being free of charge to him. The company's owner then decided to pay the staff himself. It was later decided that this payment of wages should be treated as a donation to the Fine Gael constituency party but not as a donation to the Minister, even though it is his face on the posters.

The long and the short of it, as far as donations are concerned, is that the Minister ended up as the recipient of a free service, which was a political donation. As far as expenditure is concerned, expenditure was incurred by a third party which was not authorised by the Minister's agent. These are the facts. I am pleased that the Minister has recused himself from having responsibility for the development of long-awaited ethics legislation, which the Labour Party has been campaigning for for eight long years.

From his previous time as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, which was when this issue first came to his attention, the Minister will be familiar with Deputy Brendan Howlin's Public Sector Standards Bill 2015. The Bill would have given the Standards in Public Office Commission sufficient teeth and robustness to deal with the situations we are dealing with all the time that impact on trust and confidence in politics in this country. The Governments in which the Minister has served have waited for far too long. We are expecting the publication of draft legislation this year. We need to see that now. The situation in which the Minister finds himself and the transfer of functions to the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, should not be used to further delay the publication of critical legislation to help to restore trust in politics in this country.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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Here we are again with another Fine Gael Minister who seems to have problems with filling out statutory forms. First, we have the revelation that Deputy Damien English submitted a planning application which included a barefaced lie. Now we have a Minister for Finance who cannot keep track of his election donations and expenses. I will first remark on this process.

Facilitating Opposition Deputies in making statements but declining to answer their questions in real time is designed for just one thing, namely, to give a veneer of accountability. It is nothing more than that. What is the Minister's reluctance to answer legitimate questions from the Opposition in real time? It was notable that when he opted to hold a press conference at short notice on Sunday afternoon, he responded to questions from the media. Perhaps he just felt it a necessary evil, as the optics of giving a statement and running away without answering questions would have been appalling. The optics today are equally bad. There is nothing procedural stopping the Minster from answering questions from the Opposition as we ask them. It seems he just does not want to do so. People can draw their own conclusions from that.

There are a number of aspects to this controversy that raise serious concerns. For a start, it is extremely difficult to understand why the Minister did not rectify his returns in 2017 when he says he first became aware that a cost applied to the van that was used. It should be remembered that in 2017, the Minister had responsibility for SIPO, so one would have hoped he was completely familiar with our electoral laws at that time. Having ignored the matter for five years, he also tried to stonewall the Irish Independent in November when it questioned him about the matter. The Minister is an experienced politician and he was an experienced politician back in 2016. It seems extraordinary then that he thought private individuals with no connection to Fine Gael were putting up posters for free. How naive can the Minister have been? He tells us he only recently became aware that the team of six people were actually paid for the work they were doing. He seems to have forgotten that the rules that applied to him were the same rules that applied to everybody else and that donations, whether they were monetary donations in services or otherwise, had to be declared.

The Minister seems to have got the deal of the century. The six individuals working in three teams of two were paid a grand total of €1,100 for their efforts over four days. That is approximately €180 each. Is there an invoice or a payslip that can be produced to demonstrate this was the actual amount that was paid or is the Minister relying on Mr. Stone's memory? Of the total cost of €1,100, the Minister further says just €917 was incurred as an election expense as the remainder arose after the election. This appears terribly convenient, given the limit for personal donations is set at €1,000. Of course, the serendipity does not end there. The purported cost of the van was €140, which is also below the €200 limit for a donation from a commercial company. The Electoral Act is clear that the value attributed to services must be equivalent to the commercial rates. The Minister cannot rely on mates' rates for the purpose of his returns. Is he really telling the House that the real commercial cost of employing six people and hiring a van over four days was just €1,240? If that is right, I can only imagine there will be a stampede of Deputies to the Designer Group to request that it put up their posters come the next election.

6:15 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The group is very slow though.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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All the signs are clear. We see all the signs of reverse engineering of the figures in order to fit within the spending and donations limits. I am sure the Minister will agree with me when I say it is important our electoral laws and spending limits are strictly adhered to. I just hope he shows more respect for and engagement with SIPO if it opens an investigation than he has shown this House.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Earlier on the Taoiseach told us "I believe [the Minister, Deputy Donohoe] is somebody we can trust, and somebody who I believe. I think, deep down, everyone in this House knows that ...". I looked deep down, a Cheann Comhairle, and I must say I do not know that. I do not trust the Minister. I do not trust the fact the Government has blocked a real question-and-answer session here and I do not believe the story that has been concocted after the fact to try to avoid as many rule breaches as the Minister can. The Taoiseach also told us the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, was happy to answer questions but earlier the Minister said he was not going to make any further comments after this to avoid prejudicing SIPO, so it is a theoretical commitment to answer questions.

I will ask some questions and I want answers. Were the workers who were putting up the Minister's election posters being paid by the Designer Group at the time they were putting up the posters? If not, how were they being paid? How can workers working for the Designer Group putting up posters during the day not be a corporate donation from the Designer Group? How can someone paying to get posters of the Minister put up for his election campaign not be a donation to his election campaign? If the Designer Group put up only 150 posters at a snail's pace, how many other posters did the Minister get put up and how did he get them up?

Does the Minister accept he is an extraordinarily fortunate man? I wonder if that good luck transfers into other aspects of his life because there are series of very happy coincidences with the values placed on various donations he got here. The value of the van donation was €140, which is an amount below the €200 requirement for corporate donors. The value of the work of putting the posters up was €917 and from an individual, so it also did not trigger the need for a corporate donor to be registered and reported. The fact that both these donations, together amounting to €1,057, were donations to the Fine Gael branch rather than the Minister's personal election campaign is again very fortunate because if they were to his campaign, they would be an illegal donation above the €1,000 limit. As it was to the party and was less than €1,500, it does not even need to be declared. Is the Minister normally that lucky? Will he resign if SIPO finds he breached the rules here or does he think it is credible for him to continue as the Minister with responsibility for SIPO when it has made a finding against him?

Anybody who follows what has gone on here can see what happened. This is an "I scratch your back, you scratch my back" situation. A friend who is a private developer and head of the Construction Industry Federation, CIF, helps the Minister out with postering, which is an illegal corporate donation. He gets the chair of the north east inner city initiative, gets appointed to the board of the LDA and continues to get large State contracts. This is a tight golden circle of establishment politicians and big business looking out for one another. The Minister is caught out and questions are asked. He denies it, it is published and he concocts a story after the fact with entirely implausible elements. I do not think this is the only example of that. I know of one case where a People Before Profit councillor was asked by a developer to vote for the rezoning of land and was told if they voted for it, the developer would get all their election posters up for them. Of course, we did not have anything to do with that but I suspect other Deputies in the House have had posters put up as a donation and have not declared it.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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Like getting free legal aid.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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The Land Development Agency is one of the most important State agencies in the State's history. This is because it was set up in the middle of the greatest housing crisis in the history of the State and has the wherewithal to make a real difference in that crisis. However, instead or pursuing an aggressive policy of building public houses on public land, it is instead tending to organise a major programme of land privatisation. Who is steering the ship? The LDA has a five-person board. One of the board members is Michael Stone, who was appointed in 2019 by Fine Gael Minister, Eoghan Murphy. Michael Stone is a member of the ruling class. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, is a representative of the ruling class. This is how ruling class power works - there are a thousand threads between big business and its political representatives. In this case, the big employer picks up the tab for the Minister's posters, the Government, of which Fine Gael is a part, appoints Michael Stone to the LDA, the agency steers a course towards privatisation, the housing crisis continues and working class people suffer. Time will tell whether the Minister will have to resign but that is how the system works and the system is rotten.

6:25 pm

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for his opening statement. We all appreciate that standards in public office are hugely important in order to maintain public trust and public confidence in our democratic system and, indeed, in democracy itself. It has been generally acknowledged that standards have been improving in recent years and it is very important that we keep that trend going, that we do not allow standards to slip and that we do not return to the bad old days from which we are still trying to recover. We believe these standards should be applied consistently and fairly in this House, for both the Opposition and the Government and in the Independent benches as well because the very first person we should all hold to account is ourself. It is on that basis that I and my colleagues in the Regional Group are very keen to strengthen, upgrade and modernise the ethics Act, in particular in relation to SIPO. Any dealings I have had with SIPO have been very professional and very proper. It has consistently been looking for three things, namely, greater powers to audit, greater powers to investigate and powers to actually sanction. The audit function in particular is very important in order that we get ahead of these issues. We would certainly be supportive of any proposals to strengthen SIPO in that regard.

I have three questions for the Minister and it would be very helpful to the House if he could enlighten us, if he feels it appropriate. The first relates to the SIPO letter he received on Friday. I am always very conscious of the autonomy and the operational independence of SIPO but it would be useful if the Minister could indicate if SIPO suggested it will make a decision by a particular date on whether to dismiss the complaint or progress it to a preliminary inquiry. If the Minister could divulge that it would be very helpful. Regarding the businessman who is caught up in this inquiry - I do not want to mention his name because there is no allegation of wrongdoing about him at all - could the Minister just confirm again that he was entitled to be remunerated for the two State jobs but waived that entitlement? Is that still the case? Finally, there are questions to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform scheduled for 10.30 a.m. tomorrow. I will be here asking a question myself. Which Minister will be attending?

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I ask the Minister to come clean on this. He said on Sunday, and I heard him myself, that this was all done under darkness. I have photographs supplied to me showing that it was broad daylight, thankfully, with six men well clad in jackets. All they are missing is a "Paschal Donohoe No. 1" label on them. They did not have that in the photographs, so obviously they were hiding something. The Minister must surely have been aware that the Designer Group was working on substantial Government contracts for the Department of Social Protection at the time it was engaged in erecting election posters for him. Did he not question whether the crew that rigged and derigged the posters over several weeks may have been contracted to work on Government contracts at the same time, instead of jogging around putting up and taking down posters? It could quite easily happen. I think there were three vans mentioned. Two men and a van is fine but not six men and a van. First, they would not have the capacity to travel in it and second, they would have needed a van for each two. It stretches credulity that we are expected to believe this cock-and-bull story that they were around there just taking photographs and hanging around.

Will the Minister accept that he was a member of the Government that appointed a certain Mr. Stone to the Land Development Agency board and to the north inner city task force? It has been said that the said gentleman does not take a fee for his LDA role, and we appreciate that. Nonetheless, as a property developer sitting on the board of a semi-State agency with an annual budget of €2.5 billion, it is nice to be in the know and to be in the golden circle. This is what I see the problems as being. There are huge issues here. Deputy Donohoe was the Minister in charge of SIPO. He had a chance in November. I have had this information since a week before the Taoiseach changed office. Did the Minister inform the now Taoiseach, then Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, of this ongoing issue and the complaint against him to SIPO before he reappointed him as Minister during the revolving chairs swap-over? There are a number of questions like that. From a political judgment it is the least you would expect he would have done and the least, I am sure, he would expect or demand from the Minister. There are so many questions and it is a pity they are not answered. The Minister will not have time to answer them here. I deliberately did not do anything with the information because there was a complaint being investigated by SIPO and that could be made against any of us at any time. It is there to do its job and we must give it all the powers and assistance it needs.

It stretches the imagination that the Minister is going to answer questions in the morning regarding SIPO. He has recused himself from dealing with issues while the investigation is going on but it is absolutely farcical in the extreme that he is taking questions in the morning. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael McGrath, is otherwise engaged in Davos, coming and going from that great big party. Deputy Donohoe will miss out on it this year but will hopefully get there next year with his well-heeled friends. This is very serious. It reminds us of the cheques from Ben Dunne - the big fella - to build houses or build whatever. We thought we had moved on from that. We should have moved on from that and we must move on from that.

We saw figures from other Deputies in the same constituency and their costs for posters were furnished to SIPO in the complaint. They do not come anywhere near the value for money the Minister got. It must be magic erection and taking down of posters because we all know how much it costs. Some of us have had to do them ourselves and with our family and friends and whatever. We all know you cannot have companies doing them for you, especially if they are not declared, because those are the simple rules of engagement. We all know the Minister had so many posters in that election. Most people struggled because it was a sudden election but the Minister was all ready to go. It is great to have friends in good places. Then he had teams of men out by day. He said on Sunday that it was night-time but my photographs show a nice sunny sky over Dublin Central. That is the first thing the Minister can correct the record on. It was happening during the day. They were obviously being engaged by their employer. If they were not working for their employer, who were they working for? I have nothing against the men. They were doing what they were told as employees but you never know when some of them might start singing. They do not want to be the stool pigeons here. They are people we have to respect too and in their jobs fulfilling their roles and their orders. Often we say to break your boss before you break his orders but this one has a long way to run if the Minister does not answer these questions and answer them honestly.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I would like to use my time to make a statement rather than ask questions, as has been outlined as a possibility, because it would be futile to ask questions at this stage. What this is all about is the Minister's inaction in relation to his SIPO declaration and the issues over the non-disclosure of postering carried out by a supporter using his business staff and vehicles. I note the Irish Independenthas reported:

The work was carried out over four days/nights over the course of the campaign; three days/nights up to polling day for a total of 10 hours and one day/night after polling day,” Mr Donohoe’s spokesperson explained.

[...]

His admission came after the Irish Independent obtained photos showing workmen using a Designer Group van putting up posters before lunchtime in early February 2016. Mr Donohoe’s office last night claimed that a review had found that around 150 posters were hung by the men ...

That is shocking bad value for the amount of money the Minister spent. The Government is trying to make light of this situation, and the Taoiseach's response today during Leaders' Questions tried to do this as well, saying it was so long ago and so on, and then trying to shut it down by saying it was up to SIPO to investigate and we should not be commenting on the matter at all. The problem is that SIPO does not have the power to deal fully with these matters. The fact that SIPO even has to wait for a complaint to be raised before it can investigate something signals the ridiculousness of the situation. That situation is the problem of the Minister and should be rectified as a matter of urgency so these matters can be dealt with properly. SIPO has raised these issues with the relevant authorities and it seems the Department with responsibility and the political system do not want to deal with it, which in itself is noteworthy. The system is great at pretending it is dealing with a situation but in reality it does nothing. That will be the big outcome from this debate and row in the Dáil today; nothing will change. That is something the Minister, because he is responsible for it in government, will be responsible for. Hopefully, when the time comes, he will be answerable for it as well.

6:35 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Anybody can make a mistake. I have certainly made mistakes. It is about how one handles those mistakes. If we are looking for perfection in politicians, we are not going to get anyone to put themselves forward. However, how we deal with mistakes when they are made and the consequences of those mistakes are what is important so that trust is restored. I say that conscious of tribunals in the past that have cost the taxpayer an absolute fortune. The most recent estimate for the costs of the Flood and Mahon tribunals was €143 million. The Moriarty tribunal, with the clue of "payments to politicians" in the title, cost almost €70 million. I also say this in the context of SIPO which has begged us repeatedly, year after year, to change the legislation to give it more powers and to make it totally independent. SIPO does not have its own budget and in that sense does not have independence. My comments are in that context and the successive failures of governments to take heed of what we should have learned from the tribunals in respect of payments to politicians and the endemic corruption identified by the Mahon and Flood tribunals. SIPO has been ignored year after year. The Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, announced in December that a report in respect of the review of the ethics legislation was to hand. A press release acknowledged the review was there and ready for publication but its last line included gobbledegook. It stated, "The Review report is being prepared for publication. It is expected to be published shortly." In his speech tonight, the Minister made no reference to the absolute urgency for the review to be published. Why was it not published today? Why was it not published before now? In 2009, SIPO recommended that the Department of Finance should draft new legislation. In 2021, and time precludes but I could pick any year, SIPO stated "for a number of years, the Commission has called for a comprehensive review of the...ethics framework" legislation. It has not happened. When some sort of review was eventually carried out, gobbledegook was used to tell us it is being prepared for publication. It is in that context that I stand up here tonight, not to point a finger: I will leave it to SIPO to carry out an investigation in respect of the complaint that has been made. However, SIPO could not carry out an investigation before that, which in itself tells a story. If we want to restore faith to politics and public discourse, we must be honest and make language mean something. We are not perfect. We all make mistakes but it is about how we deal with those mistakes, what we do about them and more importantly how we resource and empower the independent bodies to keep us in line.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The House decided earlier that this debate would be conducted in the context of Standing Order 55. I will now use my further discretion. In light of the questions posed, and the strong commonality in the questions posed, other than perhaps in the case of Deputies Berry and Connolly, I would say, Minister, that five minutes should be sufficient to address the questions.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to respond to the different points Deputies have made this evening. I begin by acknowledging that a wide variety of questions have been put to me. First, in my response, I want to give the best answers I can to many of those questions. Second, I emphasise my apology for what has happened and my awareness of the issues that this conveys regarding integrity in public life and issues that really matter to me. Third, I will also respond to the issues that have been raised regarding my role as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform with regard to SIPO and, fourth, how the work of my Department will continue in the time ahead.

Many different and detailed questions have been raised regarding how many posters were put up, at what cost and at what time. I have done my best to provide the information I can for an election that happened nearly seven years ago. I reiterate my apology and acknowledge my recognition of the mistake that I made. What I should have done at election time and in the aftermath of the election when I became aware of payments being made to the individuals who were involved in postering and when I became aware of the use of a commercial van, was reviewed and renewed my electoral submission. That is my responsibility. I should have taken that action. When I became aware of an allegation in 2017 and when I became aware of the questions that came in to me at the end of last year, the mistake I made, for which I take responsibility, was that, due to my understanding at that time that those individuals had not been paid for by my campaign organisation, and my lack of awareness that they had been paid at all, at no point did I feel there was a need to review the submission I had made to SIPO. I got that wrong and I apologise for getting that wrong.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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Why did the Minister think they were doing it?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I should have recognised that. In the context of what was a very difficult and very complex election campaign, I should have been more aware of all that was under way during that campaign and in the years that have elapsed since then, I should have taken action to review my electoral submission.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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How many posters did the Minister have printed? He will have the invoices for that.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Please, Deputy.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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Second, what I want to emphasise-----

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The idea we are not going to get any answers is a joke.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister needs to answer questions.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Paul Murphy got free legal aid.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The Minister is supposed to answer the questions. He just said he is not going to answer the questions.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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This is not a question-and-answer session.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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Free legal aid man.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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What is wrong with legal aid?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I will suspend the House. Deputy Murphy should allow the Minister the courtesy of a response. Nobody interrupted the Deputy or anybody else.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The Minister is not doing us the courtesy of providing any response. He is not answering the questions.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Does the Deputy want me to suspend the House and we will hear no more?

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I do not. I would like some answers. Let us give the Minister as much time as we need to.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Well then hold your whisht, please.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I reiterate my recognition that because I did not know that payments had been made to those individuals, due to that I did not review my election submission form. That was my mistake and I accept responsibility for it. I reiterate my apology again for it.

Many, many other questions have been put to me this evening beyond that, on real points of detail which I have done my best to answer in the submission that has now been provided to SIPO. It is now up to SIPO to engage on this. I will engage with SIPO-----

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Is the Minister going to answer any questions at all?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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-----in a full way on any matters it wants to raise with me.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister is not answering questions.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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The suggestion has been made here this evening that I am in some way making light of what has happened or am in some way looking to dismiss it or to be evasive in relation to it.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The Minister is being evasive right now.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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This is an abuse of the time the Minister has been given by the Ceann Comhairle.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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Far from it, a Cheann Comhairle. I recognise the seriousness of what has happened here. I have offered my apology for what has happened and my explanation.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister has not answered one question. This is ridiculous.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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There are many, many issues of detail that are for SIPO to form an evaluation on. It is to them that I am accountable in relation to it, in relation to this electoral Act.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Deputy Donohoe is a Minister.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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He is the Minister overseeing SIPO. Breaches of the law have happened. This is ridiculous. It is ridiculous. The Minister is refusing to answer questions because he has been caught out.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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You are not going to shout down the House. Please behave with a bit of patience and a bit of decorum.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Patience. The Minister has had five minutes and has not answered a single question.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputies are wasting the time.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister is wasting the time. He should be answering questions. He has not done so. He has not answered one question.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I am emphasising my recognition of what has happened here and reiterating my apology for it. But there is a whole set of very, very detailed questions that have been put to me by Deputies this evening about events that happened a number of years ago the answers to which I have put forward in my submission to SIPO.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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What about two years ago? Did Michael Stone pay for the posters that the Minister put up in his election campaign?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I have laid out-----

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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What about two years ago?

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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-----how many hours the activity happened for. I have laid out the cost we have inferred to it. I have laid out very, very clearly the money I understand was made available to those individuals. It is all laid out in my response.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Did Michael Stone pay for election posters to be put up during the Minister's campaign two years ago?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We are not talking about that.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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We are. That question was put. It has not been answered.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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It is a "Yes" or "No" question.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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In terms of dealing with this issue as we move forward, I want to make clear that a recusal is now under way. I will be answering questions in the House tomorrow on behalf of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The recusal with regard to the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, will be taking effect shortly.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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This is unbelievable.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Why will the Minister not say that Michael Stone did not pay to put up election posters two years ago? Why will he not say that he did not? Did Michael Stone pay to put up election posters two years ago?

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Doherty is angry.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister should answer the question.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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It is a simple question.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister did not say "No".

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Do I have to suspend the House?

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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This is an utter embarrassment to democracy. I think the Ceann Comhairle should. This is an utter disgrace.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Deputy wants me to suspend the House.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister had five minutes and did not answer a single question. Does the Ceann Comhairle think he answered one question? Does the Ceann Comhairle seriously think any questions were answered?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I ask the Deputy to take his ease.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister was given time to answer questions and not one question was answered.

6:45 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The next business was scheduled for 6 p.m. and we will suspend until then.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 5.51 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 6 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 5.51 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.