Friday 24 January 2020

Colette Browne: 'FG can't rewrite history - its best hope is to ditch the spin and be honest over failures'

Centre stage: Leo Varadkar posters are put up in Dublin yesterday as the election gets under way. Picture; Gerry Mooney
Centre stage: Leo Varadkar posters are put up in Dublin yesterday as the election gets under way. Picture; Gerry Mooney
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

The biggest obstacle for Fine Gael in the forthcoming election will be to battle people's perception of the party as having become out of touch after nearly a decade in power.

Leo Varadkar attempted to strike a humble tone on Twitter yesterday as he tweeted a link to the party's new campaign video, which heavily features the Taoiseach - placing him centre stage of its election strategy.

"We've made some good progress since I've become Taoiseach. But I know it's not enough and we want to do much more," he said, an acknowledgement the party's performance in health and housing have left it vulnerable to attack.

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An opinion poll in November saw Mr Varadkar's approval rating jump significantly, with 51pc of voters satisfied with his performance - nearly 10 points higher than those who expressed satisfaction with the Government. For Fine Gael, then, Mr Varadkar is deemed an asset and early indications are it will heavily rely on Mr Varadkar to sell the party.

But personalising campaigns carries with it an implicit danger. If the face of a campaign loses the support and trust of the people, it could spell disaster for the party. In recent months, a normally surefooted Mr Varadkar seemed to lose his mojo with a series of party gaffes and missteps being badly handled by him.

Having won plaudits for the manner in which the Government handled Brexit, Mr Varadkar failed to show the same decisive leadership when it came to domestic controversies which were allowed to fester and damage the party's image.

In May, when this newspaper revealed Maria Bailey had taken a personal injuries action against a Dublin hotel after she fell from a swing, Mr Varadkar was slow to act despite public anger. Having issued a damning statement, saying there had been "inconsistencies in Deputy Bailey's account of events to me and the media that I cannot reconcile", Mr Varadkar inexplicably did not remove the whip from her.

Obviously happy to live with those inconsistencies, he instead opted to ask her to step down as chair of the housing committee - a mere slap on the wrist in the context of the reputational damage that was done to the party.

In October, Mr Varadkar was still staunchly defending Ms Bailey from her critics, saying he had confidence in her as a general election candidate - a confidence which was not shared by her local Fine Gael branch, which removed her from the ticket in November.

If Mr Varadkar had taken more decisive action against Ms Bailey earlier, the story would not have dominated news coverage for months, making a mockery of claims by Fine Gael that it is the party most concerned with tackling the country's so-called compo culture. Mr Varadkar seemed incapable of gauging the level of anger that existed and miscalculated the longevity of the story, which remained front-page news for much of the year.

The Taoiseach was similarly out-of-step with public opinion when it came to the Dara Murphy expenses controversy, preferring to defend the Cork TD's behaviour rather than acknowledge the obvious.

According to Mr Varadkar, Mr Murphy's "main job" was not a TD but rather his work for a political grouping in the European Parliament - so it was perfectly fine for him to jet in and out of Dublin, stopping by the Dáil to fob in for the requisite 120 days and collect his expenses en route.

Mr Murphy may not have broken any rules but the Taoiseach's refusal to acknowledge a self-evident truth - a TD's "main job" should be representing their constituents in the Dáil - resulted in him appearing utterly divorced from reality.

It also provided the Opposition with lots of ammunition, which will no doubt be deployed in the coming weeks, to depict Fine Gael as having developed a bloated sense of entitlement in office.

That Pavlovian urge to defend the indefensible, and deflect blame, has also been a feature of Simon Harris's stock responses to persistent increases in the numbers on trolleys. Late last year, when a 90-year-old woman spent 48 hours on a chair in the A&E unit at University Hospital Limerick, Mr Harris launched an attack on doctors in the hospital.

He said consultants at UHL were too busy treating their private patients and were not "getting in their cars" and going to smaller hospitals where they could see more patients. In response, consultants accused the minister of "breathtaking political cowardice" for criticising doctors working in Dickensian conditions.

Given that 760 people were languishing on trolleys all over the country last week, is it still the minister's contention that greedy consultants are to blame? Or, will he now concede that the extent and depth of the crisis is indicative of capacity problems within the health service - for which he, not consultants, is responsible.

Framing overcrowding in hospitals as being the fault of medics was an asinine attempt to wriggle out of the firing line.

Mr Harris is clearly frustrated that despite record spending on health - €17bn last year, an overspend of €334m - access problems in emergency departments are continuing to deteriorate. But, if he is to seriously address people's outrage about the appalling treatment being meted out to vulnerable patients, he will need to convincingly explain why the problem is recurrent and what he can credibly do to address it. Throwing medics under the bus will not cut it.

When it comes to housing, the electorate will also need more than pictures of Eoghan Murphy wearing a hard hat to assure them that Fine Gael is up to the task of solving the crisis.

Speaking to RTÉ radio on Sunday, Mr Varadkar insisted Fine Gael, despite being in office for nine years, has really only had two years to invest in housing and health. If this is the best the party can come up with to defend its underperformance in key departments, it is in serious trouble.

The first housing plan under a Fine Gael government was launched in 2014. Mr Varadkar may not be very good at maths, but that's more than five years ago. If Mr Murphy believes his housing plan is working, then he will have to explain why it has resulted in record rents and record numbers of homeless people.

If Fine Gael wants to enjoy a record three terms in government, then it needs to ditch the lazy spin, the defensive attitude and the desire to lay the blame for its failure at the feet of others. It needs to be honest and open about the party's errors as well as its successes.

Any attempt to rewrite history will be given short shrift by the electorate.

Irish Independent

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