Friday 6 December 2019

Colette Browne: 'A homeless boy in court over €1 drink while TD picks up €51,600 expenses - no wonder FG is on the ropes'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Speaking in the Dáil back in April 2017, Fine Gael TD Dara Murphy had a go at Sinn Féin for failing to adequately represent its supporters in Northern Ireland.

"Sinn Féin should do its job, form the Assembly and the Executive and get into the talks on behalf of the people that Sinn Féin is meant to represent - as the rest of us are doing for the people of Ireland," he sniffed.

A politician's imperative to represent voters, in a democratically elected parliament or assembly, was important to Mr Murphy. Or at least it was until he was sacked as junior minister on June 20, 2017, at which point his interest began to wane.

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After he was relieved from duty as Europe minister, Mr Murphy made two contributions to a committee on October 11, 2017, two further contributions to a committee on November 22, 2017, before making his final Dáil contribution on December 7, 2017.

Throughout the entirety of 2018, Mr Murphy submitted two written questions and made one comment in a committee about the pressing issue of national orchestras.

This year, he has managed to submit five written questions, but failed to contribute to any debate anywhere in Leinster House.

This ignominious record is not reflected in Mr Murphy's Dáil pay, with the Cork TD collecting his full salary, €94,535, and expenses, €51,600.

Questioned about this last week, Leo Varadkar said the lesser-spotted Fine Gael TD was busy with a more important job for the past two years.

"He's been very busy over the past two years. Not just as a TD representing his constituency locally, he has been present for key votes. But his main job has been a European job in the past two years and he's done that extremely well," the Taoiseach said.

While most of us assumed it was a privilege to be one of only 158 people in the country to be elected to the Dáil, with the ability to shape the future of the country by passing legislation, this is apparently not the case.

According to Mr Varadkar, the job of TD in the busy constituency of Cork North Central, which has areas of severe deprivation, is a mere nixer - something that can be done on the side. Mr Murphy's really important work was the stuff he was doing for the European People's Party, the political grouping Fine Gael is associated with in Europe.

When political scientists attempt to explain cynicism about the political system among the electorate, a good place to start would be Mr Murphy and Mr Varadkar.

The Cork TD released a statement at the weekend which stated that he was in full compliance with the rules governing expenses, because he clocked into the Dáil for the requisite 120 days.

He failed to mention that most of those days were ones on which the Dáil was not sitting.

Mr Murphy may be in technical compliance with the rules, but his abysmal record of attendance and contributions suggests he has been completely disengaged from political life in Ireland.

Instead of acknowledging this obvious fact, Mr Varadkar robustly defended his colleague's appalling record, intimating the job of a TD can be something of a hobby horse for those who are busy with more meaningful work elsewhere.

This attitude, that the people can be well served by a TD whose main focus is elsewhere, doesn't bode well for Fine Gael's electoral fortunes in the next election.

If I were running campaigns for other political parties, I would remind the people of Cork North Central, and every other constituency, of Mr Varadkar's remarks at every opportunity.

While Mr Murphy and Mr Varadkar may be completely out of touch with the public they are supposed to serve, a harsh dose of reality was delivered by Fr Peter McVerry yesterday.

In a letter to 'The Irish Times', he outlined the divergent treatment that is meted out to the haves and the have-nots in this country.

"I attended court with a young homeless boy who had been charged with theft of a bottle of orange, value €1. Another homeless man was charged with theft of four bars of chocolate, value €3… A TD, on his way to, or from, his full-time, very well paid job in Brussels stops by at Dáil Éireann to sign in, so that he can collect his full €51,600 expenses," he wrote. Can anyone in Government comprehend being so poor they cannot afford a €1 drink?

Do they understand the disgust of people who read about the misery endured by homeless people and then learn of a TD's bumper expense payment for a job the Taoiseach says is not his "main" one?

Yesterday, on RTÉ's 'Liveline', the mother of a young woman who tragically died in homeless accommodation last year spoke of her grandchildren's favourite game: "move outs" - they load all of their toys into a wheelbarrow and walk down the road with it.

The children had been homeless from September 2015 until their mother's death in April 2018 and moved around so much during that time that they turned it into a game as a coping mechanism.

They have a permanent home with their grandparents now, but are still playing that game. The experience has not left them.

Today, there are nearly 4,000 children all over the country who are homeless. Nobody knows the true extent of the damage that is being done to them by the State's failure to provide housing. We only know that the number of homeless keeps getting larger.

Any party that remains in power for too long becomes arrogant and complacent, and there are now many signs that the rot has set in among Fine Gael in office.

Its TDs crow about the party's reputation for fiscal probity, yet large capital projects, like the Children's Hospital and the National Broadband Plan, go billions over budget.

The country has been in the grip of a housing crisis since 2014, but the best its TDs can do is patronise the electorate, by telling them it takes a long time to build houses.

Not in other countries, it doesn't, where social housing schemes can be built quite efficiently and relatively cheaply.

Meanwhile, a study published yesterday gave Dublin the dubious honour of being the worst city in the world to move to for housing. It's unlikely Fine Gael will be putting that accolade on an election poster next May.

Politicians who are out of touch with the lives of ordinary people - the struggle to pay rent, meet childcare costs or find a home - cannot effectively represent them.

If the party is to have any hope of retaining power after the next general election, Fine Gael will have to convince voters that it understands these challenges and has credible policies to address them. The electorate will need some convincing.

Irish Independent

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