Monday 18 November 2019

For Leo, the 'coping classes' aren't defined just by their incomes

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Picture: Conor McCabe Photography
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Picture: Conor McCabe Photography
John Downing

John Downing

On January 15, 1999, Ireland's then-EU commissioner, Pádraig 'Pee' Flynn, went into the national confession box - otherwise known as the 'Late Late Show' - and proceeded to make an utter hames of himself.

His patronising references to property developer Tom Gilmartin were to cause him a heap of tribunal woe soon after. But at the time he mainly enraged the Irish nation by appealing for public understanding over the problems of maintaining three homes, in Brussels, Dublin and Castlebar.

Reality is that, if he were saying such things even five years later, he may have got a far better hearing. By then, many Irish people would have been thinking about the flat in Turkey, and the seaside chalet in Kilkee, along with the main gaff.

Yes, we're talking about the Irish middle classes, the squeezed middle, the coping classes. This is a group of people which to varying degrees lost the run of themselves in the boom, suffered in the recession, and are now fretfully hoping to get their legs under them again.

While battling to get the top job, our newly-minted Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, made it clear he wanted to court their support. He wants to help them, arguing that ultimately they are the engine of the Irish economy. They are the ones who pay the most in taxes and make things happen in the provision of all public services, including welfare.

For daring to say something straight, and speak for a society who have had few champions since the demise of the Progressive Democrats in 2008, Mr Varadkar has taken a deal of stick. Some critics have tried to caricature what he is saying as some hard-right, neo-conservative position.

It might eventually turn out so. But it does not have to be that. Let's give the Taoiseach some time and space and wait and see.

But such talk inevitably leads on to the need to identify who comprises this grouping. Mr Varadkar has spoken of "people who get up early in the morning".

On TV3 on Wednesday night, in conversation with Vincent Browne, he signalled that his main target audience is a deal larger than we might at first have thought. The Taoiseach reflected that 70pc of people feel themselves to be "middle class" - and he would not exclude people on the minimum wage from the middle classes.

Let's be very clear about one thing: class does exist in Ireland. We may be less conscious of it and the growing informality of our culture continues to downplay it. But it continues to be with us.

There was a time when you had to wear a suit to work in an office, have lunch instead of dinner, and draw a salary rather than a wage, before you could be "middle class". Things are not so rigid now; income is by no means the only determinant; and self-perception is a very big part of the dynamic.

This will soon enough come down to a political pitch - not a sociological dichotomy. Let's recall again one of Mr Varadkar's key messages at the first leadership hustings' debate on May 25 last.

He warned his party members that in trying to stand for everyone, the party risked standing for nothing. "Fine Gael will stand for things, and we will know what they are. Everyone might not agree with us, but I will give Fine Gael definition, and with it something to vote for, something to believe in, and with that success at the ballot box."

He said Fine Gael must stand for "middle Ireland, the coping class, the squeezed middle". Those voters "should be our priority".

That was the basis on which he presented as "the best candidate to widen Fine Gael's appeal and to broaden the base of our support".

In what looked like a hint about an upcoming election campaign, Mr Varadkar also said that Fine Gael should leave being all things to all people to Fianna Fáil. "Do that and we end up being nothing to anyone."

In fairness to the man, he was wearing his "political party hat" when he uttered those words. As Taoiseach, he has responsibilities to citizens who would never, ever, vote for him.

It does not have to mean that he will ignore or exclude other groups as government head.

But we are entitled to take his statements as a strong indicator of his approach to government.

Irish Independent

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