Friday 18 October 2019

Philip Ryan: 'After all his recent largesse, the Taoiseach must be left scratching his head over this latest setback'

Election campaign: Fine Gael candidate Frances Fitzgerald with party colleagues Simon Harris, Kate O’Connell and Alan Farrell at the count centre in the RDS, Dublin, yesterday. Photo: PA
Election campaign: Fine Gael candidate Frances Fitzgerald with party colleagues Simon Harris, Kate O’Connell and Alan Farrell at the count centre in the RDS, Dublin, yesterday. Photo: PA
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar must be wondering how much it costs to eventually buy an election which Fine Gael will be able to claim as a success. It's not that he's not trying.

He dug deep into the taxpayers' pockets to buy last Friday's election and you would have to think he didn't get much of a return.

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He was throwing our money around like wedding confetti in the weeks leading up to polling and only for a handful of extra seats.

With the election in mind, he announced a €3bn rural broadband project, €100m bailout for farmers and €21m rural transport scheme. There's also the nearly €2bn being spent on a new children's hospital and don't forget the €350m in tax cuts and €360m in welfare hikes in the Budget.

Then there is all the money for new roads, hospitals and schools promised under the Project Ireland 2040 national development plan.

Yet after all that, Fianna Fáil is still the biggest party in local government and Micheál Martin's party made significant gains in the capital. And they didn't have to spend a penny. Well, they did have to sign off on Fine Gael's spending excesses.

Either way, Varadkar's attempts to sweeten voters ahead of an election has not paid off. As of last night, Fine Gael held 24.7pc of local authority seats while Fianna Fáil had 26.9pc.

By any value-for-money analysis, that's not a great return for the Taoiseach's largesse.

They did pick up some new seats but also lost a few sitting councillors. Fine Gael did not have an easy ride in the run-up to the elections but most of it was self-inflicted.

Very little progress has been made on health and housing. They're both a mess.

However, Health Minister Simon Harris is able to reduce personal criticism by being able to at least feign compassion and empathy for those affected.

It doesn't completely take away from the troubles in the health service but it allows people convince themselves he's doing a decent job in a bad situation.

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy does not do empathy or compassion very well. In fact, he doesn't even seem to try.

In the week of the election, he made a speech, not off-the-cuff comments, in which he told young people they should be excited about living together in small bedsit-like accommodation.

When he was criticised widely by the public and Opposition politicians, he doubled down on the comments. He doesn't get it and doesn't even try to pretend he does.

The Taoiseach also doesn't seem to understand the frustrations of young people seeking city centre housing either because he insists on standing loyally by the man who helped him oust Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

So Murphy remains a protected species within Fine Gael. Murphy's allies say he's not the issue and insist no one else could do a better job. Perhaps, but it's surely worth taking a shot on someone else at this stage.

The Taoiseach's inner circle would rather blame Maria Bailey and her personal injury case for their below-par election result.

Ms Bailey's legal action over falling off a swing in a hotel certainly did not help the party's electoral chances and she should have withdrawn the case before rather than after the vote.

But it would be wholly unfair to make her a scapegoat for the entire campaign while wrapping Eoghan Murphy in cotton wool and telling him he's doing a great job.

Meanwhile, Fine Gael's handling of the figures surrounding the National Broadband Plan and the National Children's Hospital have made Fianna Fáil - the party that destroyed the economy - look like Nasa mathematicians.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe's image of being a steady hand on the tiller is gone. His mantra about balancing the books seems laughable now in the wake of the many expert warnings he has ignored about his spending.

Enda Kenny's departure was supposed to pave the way for a new dawn of electoral success for Fine Gael. Varadkar was supposed to be the vote-grabbing messiah that Kenny could never be. So far that hasn't happened.

The early warning sign about his popularity was his failure to win the support of the Fine Gael grassroots members during the leadership campaign.

Last week's election was his second test and he has come up short. The next test will be far more important and right now the momentum is not behind Mr Varadkar.

Irish Independent

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