Sunday 21 July 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'Brexit, children's hospital and the nurses' strike: it's time to act your metabolic age, Mr Varadkar'

The Taoiseach's refusal to compromise is a sign of weakness not strength, writes Jody Corcoran

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

While it is necessary to have a strong government, not one that bends or breaks to each public whim, it is also important to have a government attuned to the deeper public need, not one wedded to centuries-old ideology, or as in the case of this Government, determined to show strength for strength's sake and which seems to perceive compromise as weakness when, in fact, the opposite is the case.

The Government is fighting three significant battles: Brexit, and the case of a ''backstop''; the National Children's Hospital cost overrun and the future of Health Minister, Simon Harris; and the nurses' strike. In the case of all three, it has adopted a hardline attitude. But it is becoming more difficult to know where the rights and wrongs of it begin and end on all three. This Government has started to confuse strength with tilting at windmills.

There are wheels within wheels within the machinations around Brexit which, whenever it stops spinning, will end up, right now, nobody knows where, only that the risk of a no-deal Brexit is more likely with each passing day. You would imagine Leo Varadkar knows this. Yet he shows no outward sign of compromise. The opposite is the case, in fact. Young of mind, if not of metabolic body, Mr Varadkar, not for the first time, shows himself to believe that to compromise is to betray a weakness, and that such weakness would reflect badly on him.

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His defence of Simon Harris in the shocking level of overspend on the children's hospital is another case in point. Mr Varadkar's primary concern does not seem to be about the overspend, although due words of concern are always expressed in that general direction; it does not even seem to be that the hospital must be built at all costs, although that would seem to be a motivating factor for him. It is that he must defend his minister when it is becoming more and more evident that Mr Harris has been overwhelmed by the running of the Department of Health. He is not the first minister, nor will he be the last to be so overwhelmed, until that department is itself restructured into some orderly function.

It seems increasingly evident that Simon Harris should be removed from the department, if not necessarily the Cabinet. He is still a reasonably capable politician. It is just that he has become swamped by his current job. A reshuffle is necessary, but Leo Varadkar seems to regard the removal of Mr Harris from a job which has crucified him as a sign of his own weakness. It is not. It would, rather, be a sign of strength, or at least maturity.

We can extend this argument to the nurses' strike. It is not that the public is, willynilly, in support of the nurses because they are our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, although that is the case too, but it is that the public is keenly aware of the terrible conditions and, yes, relatively poor terms under which these (mostly) women work.

These are conditions which would drain the life spirit of most ordinary people, to work day after day, with patients, people like themselves, families like their own, who are beaten down by the most appalling interface with society that our emergency departments have been allowed to become.

It should not be beyond the wit of the Government to meet the nurses at least half way, because that is where they will find the nurses are prepared to meet them. It would not be a sign of weakness, Mr Varadkar, to do the decent thing here.

Neither is it a sign of strength of strut off to Brussels to stand alongside that man Donald Tusk, who posted a stupid, pre-emptive tweet in December 2017 during a key moment in the Brexit negotiations, wondering why he did or did not like Mondays - I can't remember which - thereby almost single-handedly wrecking a tentative agreement that had been reached back then. He was at it again last week, referring (presumably) to Dante's fires of hell, for no reason other than he is not a particularly bright man in my view, another of those European elites who have come to disbelieve their own inabilities.

Europe's elites are betraying an arrogance right now, which we should recognise from before, but have chosen to quietly ignore here for some greater, ill-defined good. Arrogance is nothing if not weakness delayed. It does no good to place on the rack the walking question mark that is Theresa May, other than to satisfy some visceral collective weakness. It would be strength, not a weakness to meet her with understanding. At the very least it would be the gentlemanly thing to do. The machismo of Europe is unbecoming, and our Taoiseach is at the heart of it, looking strangely both in and out of place at the same time, turning his head both ways for approval.

If a border comes, Mr Varadkar, tell Donald Tusk he can man it himself, or is it that he will run away instead, like those before him with a fat pension in his pocket?

In all of these matters, I am increasingly coming to believe, the Taoiseach is on the wrong side of history on the hoof, determined to be seen as outwardly strong, but showing fallowness, a weakness more compatible with his actual than his metabolic age. It's time to grow up, Mr Varadkar.

Sunday Independent

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