Friday 14 December 2018

I won't take a lecture from you, Leo

Varadkar's histrionics in the Dail cannot hide the fact that he is failing to tackle inequality, writes Willie O'Dea

Leo Varadkar. Photo: INM
Leo Varadkar. Photo: INM

Willie O'Dea

Where Aesop created the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the Taoiseach has conjured up the story of 'the boy who cried wolf in sheep's clothing', but with him in both roles.

The Taoiseach's histrionics in the Dail chamber and in the Fine Gael parliamentary party room were extremely ill-advised. In one move, he undid the efforts of his Strat Comms to portray him as a modern philosopher king bestriding the pages of Time and Newsweek alongside Trudeau and Macron.

But he did more. A lot more. To hear the Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, who set up a special €5m a year personal spin unit, warning others that he is "keeping a record of all the promises [Fianna Fail] spokespersons are making" stretches irony beyond all limits.

Varadkar's advisers need to tell him that he of all people is not in a position to ever use the word "record". Not as a former Social Welfare Minister. Not as a former Health Minister, and certainly now when you look at his Government's hollow record in delivering on the solemn commitments made to voters in both 2011 and 2016.

Over two years have passed since he was declaring that Fine Gael "will abolish USC over the lifetime of the next government". That one item, the biggest single election promise ever in Irish political history, has been costed at €4bn.

But there is another reason why the Taoiseach and his Fine Gael colleagues have no right to lecture anyone outside their own ranks on anything: that is Fine Gael's abysmal record on tackling poverty and societal inequality.

If we apply Gandhi's standard that "a nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members", then this Government's record is not great. It is very far from it.

On almost every test, this Government, led by a man who had previously served as Social Protection minister, has failed dramatically.

This fail grade is based on the marking scale it set for itself. Back in 2012, the Government agreed a national social target for poverty reduction. That was a laudable aim. Its targets were also clear, if not overly ambitious. They were to reduce the number of people in consistent poverty, and this includes children, from 6.3pc in 2010 to 4pc by 2016, and to 2pc or less by 2020.

Last month, Taoiseach Varadkar's immediate successor as Social Protection Minister told me in the Dail, by way of a reply to a Parliamentary Question that, and I quote directly from the Dail Report: "Data from the CSO Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC) indicate that consistent poverty rose sharply after 2010, to a peak of 9.1pc in 2013. The latest SILC 2016 data, released by the CSO in December 2017, indicate that this had reduced to 8.3pc. A reduction of six percentage points would now be required to meet the 2020 poverty target."

So, in 2016, at almost the exact same time that the then Minister Varadkar was telling voters that he would end USC, the State's own statistics were showing that his Fine Gael government was missing its own targets for reducing the levels of consistent poverty by 100pc: 8.3pc real compared with 4pc target.

This is to leave aside the fact that no sooner had they set the reduction targets in 2012 than the situation worsened. This all happened not despite government action, but because of it. And these are no mere statistics. This means families not effectively able to take an active and real part in society. It means another generation seeing nothing in store for them than dependency. It means more people feeling despair and hopelessness.

These are not the welfare cheats the then-aspiring Taoiseach tried to target and vilify this time last year as he set his own eyes on the big prize; these are people who are being cheated by the system.

It is an undeniable fact, and one acknowledged by the current minister, that lone-parent households and those of working people with a disability continue to experience much higher deprivation and consistent poverty rates than others.

An ESRI study of 11 European countries found a significant gap in the rate of persistent deprivation experienced by lone parents and adults with a disability, as opposed to the rate suffered by other adults.

The gap in regard to lone parents is 26pc in Ireland, which is the worst of the 11 countries. The gap in regard to adults with disability is 14pc here compared with 5pc to 11pc elsewhere. In 2015, there were 132,000 people with disabilities across Ireland living in consistent poverty. That figure is reducing, but not quickly enough. We need the levels of investment and political commitment that we saw in the 1990s to tackle the problem and to ensure that the economic growth that is returning is deployed to increase social cohesion, not reduce it.

And if the Taoiseach wants to scribble down that commitment from me on to his little list of Fianna Fail promises - then I am happy to spell it out to him any day.

Willie O'Dea is the Fianna Fail TD for Limerick City

Sunday Independent

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