Monday 22 July 2019

Cult of Varadkar: ministers in fear of angry backlash

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Philip Ryan and Jody Corcoran

Government ministers are increasingly concerned that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's focus on public relations "spin" will backfire at a time when the housing crisis has escalated, claiming the life of a third homeless person in a week.

Several Independent ministers were yesterday angry at Mr Varadkar, claiming he was putting too much emphasis on his "personal image" rather than on dealing with the housing and health crises.

Fine Gael ministers are also anxious that the Taoiseach intends to develop a "cult of Leo" leadership style that may not be favoured by the public.

Yesterday, Fianna Fail said the crisis in homelessness had "gone beyond party politics" and had become a "fundamental issue for Irish society".

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy expressed regret at the recent deaths. "Sometimes, no matter what we do, it won't be enough. But people shouldn't be dying on the streets. People deserve more dignity than that," he said.

Independent Government ministers have become annoyed at Mr Varadkar's strong emphasis on communications and public relations ahead of the announcement of policies to deal with the crises.

Yesterday, an Independent Alliance source said: "We have a crisis in housing and a crisis in health and all Leo seems to be doing is getting photographed at festivals or swimming in the Liffey." Another Independent source said he had "had enough of the Taoiseach in Lycra" and said Mr Varadkar should step back from the limelight to concentrate on the work of Government.

In an interview with the Sunday Independent, meanwhile, Health Minister Simon Harris admits that he may not be able to solve the hospital trolley crisis this winter.

"I will commit that we will do everything we possibly can to put in place measures but I will not mislead people or create a false impression. The pressure in our emergency departments is going to continue unless we do things differently," he said.

Mr Harris also defended the Taoiseach's new public relations strategy, stating that Mr Varadkar had "substance coming out his ears"; he denied an Independent Alliance source claim that the Taoiseach was "obsessed with photograph opportunities of him swimming and jogging".

The Health Minister said: "The fact we have a Taoiseach out promoting healthy living, as Minister for Health is something I'm very happy with."

But there is growing concern among Fine Gael ministers at what one referred to as the burgeoning of the "cult of Leo" which is being linked to the new PR strategy.

Fine Gael ministers fear the strategy could backfire badly on Mr Varadkar and Fine Gael unless the Government deals with issues which are of deepening public concern.

Yesterday, a source close to Mr Varadkar said: "He understands the wariness from ministers, as this is something new - proper communications with the public."

Some Cabinet ministers are also somewhat irked that the Taoiseach had adopted what ministers said was a "hands-on" role across several Government departments. Mr Varadkar is also being accused of "hogging the limelight" through his frequent use of social and traditional media.

Yesterday, a source close to Mr Varadkar said: "Part of what he wants to do is get away from ministers clamouring over each other to take credit for stuff. It's silly. He wants a whole-of-Government message to the public that isn't about individuals or parties. The Budget will be the first real test of that. It should not be about what ministers got or failed to get. It should be about what's being done for the folks."

Last week, a new Strategic Communications Unit set up by Mr Varadkar spearheaded a Government public relations initiative to coincide with the return to school.

The Taoiseach attended an event at Stanhope Primary School in Dublin with Education Minister Richard Bruton and Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty, at which increased Government spending on back-to-school costs was highlighted.

Independent Alliance Junior Education Minister John Halligan, who was dealing with the controversy over the shortage of school bus seats, was not at the PR event. He is said to be not unduly concerned he was not invited.

Last week, the St Vincent de Paul said a record number of 5,000 families sought its help to cover the cost of sending their children back to school. The back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance has been increased this year but it is still significantly below what it was in 2011.

In the Sunday Independent this week, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin lashes out at the unprecedented level of Government 'spin' and writes: "There is now in Government Buildings an absolute focus on positioning for the election" ahead of issues such as housing, homelessness and health.

It has also been confirmed that Mr Varadkar's new public relations team has ordered each Government department to outline initiatives which can be implemented in three-, six-, nine- and 12-month periods with a view to an election.

A senior Government source said: "We're not planning an election, but we do have to be ready for one. It's also about managing the programme. The Taoiseach felt the last six years of Government were often ad hoc. It needs organisation, co-ordination and strategic management. That's the job of the Department of Taoiseach and we're going to do it."

Yesterday, Labour leader Brendan Howlin said: "The new Government is obsessed with style over substance, summed up in the creation of a new Strategic Communications Unit. Ireland faces many challenges in housing, health and Brexit, yet we have a Government that is focused on improving their message rather than solutions to the problems people face."

It also emerged yesterday that the Government will hold an open competition to replace the former head of Creative Ireland John Concannon, who leads the Strategic Communications Unit. This raises a question over the Taoiseach's claim that the new unit will not result in any additional costs.

Last week a young mother-of-two died tragically in emergency accommodation in Kildare, while a man who was found unconscious in Dublin later died in hospital. Yesterday it emerged that another homeless woman had died.

Fianna Fail Housing spokesman Barry Cowen said that the crisis in homelessness had gone beyond party politics and had become a "fundamental issue for Irish society".

He said: "The death of three people who were homeless is a symbol of the terrifying, distressing implications of an unacceptable and ever-escalating crisis that has become the most major challenge of our time. Whether there are other factors at play in these deaths or not, these are Irish citizens that deserved better and at the very least, a basic standard of living."

The Government has adopted a low-profile position in relation to the three deaths. Last Thursday, the Housing Minister issued a statement in which he said he had "learned with regret yesterday" of the deaths. He also outlined a series of Government initiatives to deal with homelessness and referred to an Emergency Homeless Summit he will hold this week.

Mr Murphy's statement followed criticism of Mr Varadkar last Thursday night, when he posted a tweet in relation to the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, but did not refer to the deaths of the two homeless people in Dublin.

On Friday night, Mr Varadkar posted a social media video in which he referred to the Government's "struggle" to "get ahead" of the homeless issue, before announcing that he was going to Co Kerry to attend a Fine Gael event.

Mr Varadkar is also expected to come under pressure for using Government staff to record Fine Gael video messages. Fine Gael staff did not record a video of the Taoiseach standing in front of a Defence Forces helicopter when he attended flood damage in Donegal. The video was later sent by Fine Gael HQ to party members and the media. A Government spokesman said the recording of the video involved "no real or significant cost".

Sunday Independent

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