Friday 17 January 2020

John Downing: 'Varadkar hopes that jobs and prosperity can trump housing and health bugbears'

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD following his interview on
An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD following his interview on "This Week" at RTE Headquarters in Donnybrook, Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney, Collins
John Downing

John Downing

Leo Varadkar has come out swinging - even before he formally names that election date. His blunt message to the voters - implicitly and explicitly - will be: The other crowd wrecked the economy; we got things back on track. Do you really believe Fianna Fáil will not - yet again - squander the boom just as it spectacularly did last time?

The Fine Gael leader follows on with some "damage-limitation arguments" on those big bugbears of health and housing. It looks like a straight hands-up on both fronts, speaking of frustration at slow progress - but quickly pivots towards a "things are not as bad as they are painted" and "we can speed up the improvements".

Yes, February, more usually our unkindest weather month, is rapidly becoming Ireland's general election month. We face our third consecutive February poll due more to conspiring circumstances than any choice by our leading politicians. Smart money is on February 7 being named as polling day.

The Taoiseach's landmark interview with David McCullagh on RTÉ Radio 1 confirmed the trend of his battle-plan that many keen followers of politics will have observed in recent weeks. And he does come across as a man with an election plan, which is far from saying it will work.

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True, he and his colleagues have made big errors of both substance and style. The biggest allegations they will face from adversaries is that they appear out of touch with the people and complacent if not downright arrogant.

Fianna Fáil believes it can for many reasons inflict a nice bit of damage on its main adversaries and gain the keys to Government Buildings. Some in Fianna Fáil mutter quietly about hopes of taking quite a few seats and securing pole position for coalition-making.

Leo Varadkar knows he will be playing uphill and into a gale because his party will have led government for nine solid years come March 9 next. Getting to lead government for three consecutive terms is a tall order for any party and needs a deal of luck apart from anything else.

But he is not to be underestimated and expect he and his colleagues to repeat the messages cited above until the polls close. Whether he will be successful is the question on which this intriguing campaign will turn. Fianna Fáil's dark past will be juxtaposed with a lack of "cabinet material" on its current first team. Question is, will these scares carry any weight with voters?

Fine Gael believes it is still all about the economy - and that ultimately the core issues of jobs and growth might trump undoubted public anger at shortcomings about health and more especially housing. The political defeatism that surrounds fixing health is an ally for the outgoing Government here, as is the complexity of the system, and the realpolitik that many potential voters are cushioned by health insurance and queue-jumping access to private care.

Housing problems are by now hitting every corner of society: young people priced out of renting, frustrated first-time buyers, and parents fretful about their 30-something offspring ever getting a home of their own. And people believe that we used to be able to build houses.

So, does the Taoiseach have a half-way credible rabbit on housing to pull from his election campaign bag?

But the core economic arguments listed thus far are only the corner stones for this election campaign house. Fine Gael will deploy all sorts in quest of every vote.

Yesterday's 'Sunday Independent' reported on Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty's pledge of a €5 weekly pension increase for each year of a new government term. The fiver increase would not automatically extend to other welfare categories as she gave a tip of the cap to "people who get up early" with a comment on the unemployment figures.

Ms Doherty said half the 140,000 people currently getting unemployment payments were between jobs.

But a section of the other 70,000 are actually working and signing. Surely a message to the core Fine Gael base.

Watch for some pretty blatant reminders of the Government's Brexit record over the last three years as the EU-UK divorce becomes reality on January 31, a week before polling. We expect EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on a flying visit to Dublin this Wednesday. Don't be too surprised if other Brexit people like Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk get involved on the Taoiseach's side with a visit or visits here.

There will be doubts about how "politically bankable" the Brexit achievements remain. But it is certain any mishandling would have cost Fine Gael, and the election timing around January 31 will help give it relevance.

The eventual return of the North's power-sharing parliament and government in Belfast is no big political bonanza. But it does reduce political noise and reflects well on the diligence and growing skills of Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney. Opponents will do their best to harness the travesty of the RIC-DMP commemorations against the Government. Their message is Mr Varadkar and Co are out of touch with the people. Thus, we turn full circle with the risk voters may not listen.

Irish Independent

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