Tuesday 22 October 2019

Ivan Yates: 'Hat-trick of election wins looks a long shot for Leo'

Common touch?: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the IFA Annual General Meeting this week. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Common touch?: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the IFA Annual General Meeting this week. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

With all the focus on Brexit, it's easy to overlook growing evidence that Leo Varadkar's leadership is beginning to look a little unsteady.

Both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have understandably been absorbed with protecting Ireland's vital national interests, on the backstop and preserving EU solidarity.

Historic and important as Brexit is, it's not likely to be the main dynamic in deciding the next general election.

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There are two reasons for this. Opposition parties (especially FF) have backed the FG minority Government's stances. In fact, there has been a green jersey consensus right across the Dáil spectrum. Also, the earliest an election is likely to be is in the autumn, and by then Brexit withdrawal terms should be finalised.

When it comes to the election, the bare-knuckle fighting is likely to be on bread-and-butter issues affecting voters, such as: sound management of the economy, job prospects, net disposable incomes, access and affordability of housing and health care. Other domestic factors, such as the development of infrastructure for a population growing by 60,000 a year, will also be to the fore.

Winning credibility and showing competence on these issues will decide whether Leo Varadkar or Micheál Martin becomes Taoiseach.

Inevitably, controversies such as the National Children's Hospital cost overruns, delays in housing schemes, homelessness statistics, hospital waiting lists and trolley counts are currently dwarfed by Brexit. But they will return to haunt Government ministers and TDs at the hustings.

One unconsidered, but vital, context to predicting the public mood and in generating momentum will be the 'hat-trick' factor. Just like the Dubs' campaign to retain the Sam Maguire and build on the "drive for five", Fine Gael has been in power since 2011 and is chasing three in a row.

There was a predictable pattern to Irish election results between 1969 and 2004. On each subsequent occasion voters rejected the incumbent administration. FF and FG-led coalitions and minority governments alternated through each successive decade. Turn and turnabout.

Bertie Ahern broke this mould by achieving a hat-trick of victories in 1997, 2004 and 2007. He defied the electorate's default appetite to tiring of the same old faces, seeking change almost for change's sake.

Enda Kenny almost availed of memories of the historic implosion of Fianna Fáil to win a second term in 2016 - FG only retained a minority tenure on power, at the behest of a generous, compliant FF.

This year and beyond, Varadkar cannot escape the cumulative legacy effect of hat-trick considerations.

Unlike previously, FG ministers can no longer credibly blame FF for past errors. They have no alibi when it comes to certain departments, like health, justice and housing - where FG ministers have held the reins of power consistently. There's no hiding place to plead a lack of time to implement policies. There are no excuses available from a lack of resources, given the record post-austerity economic growth of last six years.

FG's legacy dilemma is most acute when it comes to health and housing. It was Dr James Reilly who committed to the St James's Hospital site for the National Children's Hospital, at an estimated cost of €650m. It was Leo Varadkar who in 2017 signed the contract for €983m. And it was on Simon Harris's watch that costs escalated to €1.7bn and beyond. Neither the Brits, FF, Labour nor anyone else can take political accountability for that scandalous cost overrun.

There has been a total lack of credible explanations to date for this mismanagement and inept oversight.

With 473 beds, the cost per bed is €4m, compared with international norms of €1.4m. A 300pc overrun cannot be explained by electrical cables, sprinkler systems and Vat. Comparisons with the other 'most expensive hospital in the world' relate to Stockholm's 1,300 beds.

Such indiscipline and lack of capital expenditure control augers poorly for taxpayers obtaining value for money across the entire €140bn National Development Plan, especially new hospital projects such as the imminent National Maternity Hospital and national broadband contracts.

The latest report which recorded how 27pc of primary school principals have encountered severe pupil problems from homeless children is truly shocking.

Paralysis in housing supply caused by delays and obstacles in the planning system are endemic. TDs express their frustration, yet consistently lodge planning permission objections locally.

Density rules outside of Dublin insist on apartment construction only - yet the building costs (excluding site costs) of €250,000 per unit can't match the realisable sales price of €180,000-€240,000. No viability means no development.

The recent FG parliamentary think-in focused on climate change, with Mr Varadkar purporting to present FG as the greenest party of the future. He personally espoused to eat less meat, to the chagrin of farmers.

Yet the most effective measure FG in government could do to reduce Ireland's carbon emissions is to commit to 70pc electricity generation from renewables, raising wind energy output from 4,000MW to 7,000MW by 2030.

No decision to grow this green 36pc success story of wind turbines over two decades is planned.

Post-Brexit, the electoral landscape will be vastly different to the past two elections, which were overshadowed by the recession and recovery.

The issues will include the cost of accommodation; a health system creaking under the strain of elderly grandparents' growing requirements; childcare cost pressures on young parents; and absent broadband coverage worsening rural isolation.

Several consecutive years of ministerial office creates a bubble. It creates a false impression, insulated from harsher conditions of living.

After two terms of power, is Leo Varadkar's Government becoming out of touch with ordinary people, and especially rural Ireland?

Does he have the common touch to relate to the basic struggles of families?

Evidence emerges that many of Leo's line ministers, and he himself, lack the necessary experience to be managerially effective.

They don't seem to sweat the small stuff sufficiently to seriously entertain hopes of an election hat-trick.

Irish Independent

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