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The strong centre

Paschal Donohoe is a decent man: modest, cultured, the cleverest man in the room, according to a senior Fianna Fáil figure who spoke to Fiach Kelly in the Irish Times recently: the man other politicians envy, and a safe pair of hands.

At 43, he has graduated with first-class honours from Trinity college, lived abroad, pursued a career in the private sector and risen without obstacle from local politics in Dublin city council to the heights of government, and the Ministry of Finance. Unlike his even younger boss Leo Varadkar he doesn’t have the sheen of a cultivated image. he has never attracted any suspicion of impropriety, never been excoriated, even in the unpleasant role of frugal Minister for Public expenditure (which he sure-footedly merged with the Finance brief when he took it over).

When Village interviewed him he was open, generous with his time, eloquent. He reads progressive Irish fiction, has some quirky tastes, knows what is going on in his constituency about whose substandard welfare he remains committed. He even says he reads Village.

Village’s agenda is equality, sustainability, accountability and it is wide and all-embracing enough that any political force, as Mr Donohoe certainly is, can be assessed against its imperatives.

He is certainly in relative terms a model of accountability and openness. But what of equality and sustainability?

Paschal Donohoe serves the politics of Fine Gael faithfully. He implies that Fianna Fáil is economically fickle, not always pro-european or outward looking and, increasingly implausibly now, that its attitude to ethics is demonstrably inferior to that of Fine Gael. He believes in Europe, the Open Society of Declan Costello, in an embracing attitude to outsiders. He believes in a balance between the markets and the state and, creditably from the perspective of this magazine, thinks the momentum has moved too far to the markets and needs to move back to the state, globally at least. He takes a robust attitude, as did his hero Declan Costello, to the obligations of the state. It will intervene to incentivise or nudge those who do the right thing, it will not perpetrate evil itself. He was passionate in defending the coherence of this attitude, in his interview.

Mr Donohoe believes in the rights of property but will interfere at the edges, as with site-value and sugary drinks taxes. The state needs to plan systematically for development of its own lands.

On national planning he was reluctant to stay how he would stop unsustainable development – such as the sprawl of Dublin into counties Meath, Wicklow, Kildare and beyond, as opposed to merely incentivise and encourage sustainable development – for example of cities and towns outside Leinster.

He does not seem engaged by the environmental and climate-change agendas, though he knows its rhetoric. He rarely acknowledges, in policy, that Ireland is the laggard in Europe on climate, plastic waste and many other environmental performances. He does not seem zealous to revive the across-the-board indicators of social and environmental success, not just economics, that even the Fianna Fáil and Fianna Fáil-Green governments toyed with a decade ago. Failing them, it is likely we will continue to be a model of unsustainable, joyless growth, a paradigm of how to nearly get it right.

As to equality, Mr Donohoe is exercised by the plight of those who cannot put themselves in a position to benefit from the equality of opportunity that those with strength crave. He knows from his Dublin central constituency that intergenerational inequality is difficult to mitigate. But his credo is equality of opportunity and he and his party are never going to be forces for radical redistribution, for equality of outcome.

He is a decent man of the “strong centre”. He and his party have done some service bringing back elusive economic success to this country bankrupted by the now shiny principal opposition party.

It has been argued that Fine Gael, with its visceral fetish for the rights of property, so well-enjoyed by its protagonists and indeed its voters, is ill-equipped to deal with the crises of housing and homelessness that do much to undermine the fabric of society in 2018. It is ideologically too wedded to the private sector to provide homes on the scale required on public lands. Mr Donohoe, in fairness, claims that he has far-reaching proposals to do just that. We’ll see.

Ireland is lucky to have such an open, decent, youthful and thoughtful politician in the Department of Finance as the risen fiscal pendulum suggests we can once again explore a national Vision. But it is impossible to be radical from the centre, however strong, and – for Village, Mr Donohoe would do well to address the social and environmental agendas as stringently and competently as he continues to promote and foster the purely economic agenda.