Wednesday 17 July 2019

Varadkar: Not much done, more to spoof

While the homeless die, an image-obsessed Taoiseach continues to spin and allows the casino-market run riot, writes Gene Kerrigan

‎Illustration by Tom Halliday
‎Illustration by Tom Halliday

Here's a political truth: Mediocre politicians measure each social problem primarily by the extent to which it affects their careers and reputations.

The bigger the potential damage, the bigger the effort that goes into the media spin.

As the homeless scandal festers, politicians are getting frantic about the damage it's doing... to their image.

They refuse to change housing policy, so they enhance the media spin.

Leo Varadkar, of course, does not have "spin doctors". He has a new Strategic Communications Unit.

You might imagine that the job of StratComm is to spew propaganda on the people. Not at all.

The Irish Times says that StratComm was set up to "prepare a coherent message from government and convey that to the general public".

It appears that the 15 highly-paid ministers of that Government, and the 19 highly-paid junior ministers, lack the ability to tell us what their policies are and how they mean to implement them.

It also seems that the Government Information Service isn't up to putting out a "coherent" message.

And the specialists who run the individual press offices attached to each Government department must be similarly dim.

There are also ministerial "advisers", who take selected journalists aside to whisper coherent messages into their ears, but all that's off the record.

And let's not mention the Fine Gael press office.

So, it seems the small army of professionals paid to "prepare a coherent message" and to convey it to the people are bugger all use.

There are, of course, lots of media supporters who are delighted to speak flattery to power, but fewer people take them seriously these days.

So, StratComm has been born.

Mr Varadkar has so far refused to say how many people will work for StratComm, or what they will be paid. He has, though, appointed the outfit's Top Gun: a marketing expert.

Fine Gael is now in government for six and a half years, propped up first by Labour and now by Fianna Fail. And homelessness has multiplied, to almost 8,000.

In July of 2013, there were 18 families made homeless.

A year later, dynamic minister Alan Kelly was in charge of housing, setting targets and deadlines, announcing a homelessness "summit" and showing off "modular" homes that were about to be magicked into every vacant space.

Minister Kelly was so good at mouthing off that he convinced many he was more than a bag of wind.

We've had two equally "dynamic" ministers since Alan Kelly, windbags both of them.

Yet, this July, four years and three windbags later, no fewer than 99 families were made homeless - five and a half times the rate at which families were being made homeless in July 2013.

Why?

Increasing homelessness is just one consequence of turning the property market into a casino. Apart from the homeless, there are the families that want to move to other areas, people with growing families who need more room, people living with relatives - many of whom have given up trying to buy or rent.

All of these, as well as the homeless, have been screwed by the property casino.

Far more important to the political establishment than any of these people are the builders, land hoarders, estate agents, gambler/investors, vultures, "reit" landlords and, of course, Nama.

All have their own ambitions - to make fortunes and/or reputations, all of them have much more clout that anyone who just wants a home.

In such circumstances, being housing minister is a position no one is anxious to have. Get in, get your picture taken wearing rolled-up sleeves and a concerned expression - and get out quick.

In the good old days, John Gormley and Phil Hogan each had the housing job for more than three years. Alan Kelly lasted 22 months, Simon Coveney moved on after 13 months. Eoghan Murphy's been at it two and a half months, and he already has that haunted look.

And, hey, guess what? Next week Eoghan is hosting another "summit".

Well, it gives him something to do while he's waiting to move on to greener pastures.

In the absence of positive policies, each minister seeks little tweaks they can apply, to "incentivise" the market to reduce homelessness. The people who work the casino, of course, do what they always do - whatever will maximise their profit.

It's not just the dogs in the street that know what needs to be done - the lampposts in the street that the dogs are piddling against know what needs to be done. The State needs to generate municipal housing, to house the workforce without which the long-term prosperity of any society is crocked.

It's what we did in decades past when we had slums to clear, when we had a vast workforce to house and very little money. It's what will work.

Mind you, the casino won't like it.

The scandal needs a bold initiative - radical and disruptive of the profiteering by the wealthy. But demanding that such ideological right-wingers as Varadkar, Coveney and Murphy engage in a game-changing state intervention is akin to demanding of Fr Peter McVerry that he evict someone - his whole nature would revolt against it.

Thus with our mediocre politicians - the market is inviolate. Their policy is to continue to look for novel ways to tweak the market, knowing this will fail.

But, before long, there'll be a reshuffle and some new windbag will be announcing new tweaks on the old tweaks, and new spin doctors will be upgrading the communications "message".

Mind you, Varadkar is handicapped by a lack of Fine Gael talent. He's had to appoint some, well... let's not go there.

In such circumstances, the likes of Patrick O'Donovan, a clean-cut articulate chap who hasn't caused any scandals, is a blessing.

Last week, though, Minister O'Donovan ascribed the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, which killed 33 people, to the IRA.

Just a mistake? Apparently not. He "doesn't discriminate between atrocities", he said. So, if he wants to believe the IRA did it, so be it.

So, we can, if we wish, claim the IRA murdered 14 people in Derry on Bloody Sunday; and claim British soldiers exploded bombs in Birmingham and Guildford.

Mr O'Donovan is a member of a Government required by Judge Henry Barron to engage in further inquiries into the involvement of British security forces in the murder by bombing of dozens of citizens in Dublin and Monaghan. But O'Donovan rejects the Judge's findings and claims the Provos did it. The level of sheer foolishness involved in this is staggering.

So, with mounting serious problems, not over-burdened with political talent to appoint, and obsessed by image, Mr Varadkar soldiers on.

He's plainly delighted just to be Taoiseach, and if he can get anything done, it will be a bonus. And, if not, sure he can throw some more shapes at the camera.

Yesterday he launched his latest video-message-of-the-week, to ensure that we miss none of the good news he has for us.

Upbeat as ever, he found time to mention housing and admit that his government is "struggling to get ahead of the problem". Not to worry, at the rate they're building social housing, they should be "ahead of the problem" in time for the 200th anniversary of 1916.

And, no, he didn't bother to mention the homeless people who died last week.

Sunday Independent

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