Saturday 21 September 2019

Leo dishes it out but still emerges squeaky clean

The Taoiseach has managed to keep Ireland on his side - despite a tough weekthat was largely of his own making writes Kevin Doyle

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar loads a dishwasher in a picture he shared on social media.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar loads a dishwasher in a picture he shared on social media.
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Political events are moving so fast now that the ground beneath Leo Varadkar is wearing thin.

Flash your mind back to the previous week when the most controversial episode involving the Taoiseach was his temerity to boast about filling the dishwasher in Government Buildings.

Now in the space of a few days, he has found himself fighting fires on such a multitude of fronts that it's hard to keep up.

The past few days have brought a sexism scandal, a proper debate over homelessness, fresh conspiracy theories in An Garda Siochana and it seems we are now battle hardened for Brexit.

It hasn't been an easy week for the Taoiseach but observers will have little sympathy for his woes.

As a 'straight talker', he is used to landing himself in the middle of a storm - but as Clare Daly pointed out, in the old days that was usually a means to an end.

His 'calling it as it is' attitude on the Garda whistleblowers gained him kudos in the wider world and added to the notion that Enda Kenny was losing his authority in the parliamentary party.

There was also the suspicion among government colleagues that when he said something provocative about events in another department, it took attention away from health which always was, and still is, in crisis.

But now when Varadkar says things, it opens the door to debate and personal scrutiny rather than shifting the focus in a different direction.

He must have known this when he decided to pick a fight on homelessness. It's a battle the Government can't win unless the figures start to drop dramatically.

Even if Ireland has "one of the lowest levels of homelessness" in the world, there's nothing to be gained from pointing that out at a time when people are dying on the streets.

All Varadkar achieved was to highlight the lack of progress on housing. When people talk about homelessness, they talk in terms of the number of adults and children without a home. Government representatives talk in billions of euro. If you are countering human interest stories with accountancy jargon, you are on a hiding to nothing.

The Government also found itself on the back foot as the Labour Party suggested that Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald might have known about Noirin O'Sullivan's plan to discredit Maurice McCabe at the O'Higgins inquiry.

There was no smoking gun but it took days before Leo Varadkar stood up in the Dail to declare: "At this stage, if the Labour Party has an allegation to make, it should make it clearly here so we can respond to it."

Step forward Kate O'Connell at a Fine Gael meeting last Wednesday night to distribute screen grabs of tweets by a member of the party's national executive.

The evidence was clear cut. Barry Walsh called Sabina Higgins a "vile woman", Tara Flynn was effectively labelled a killer, and Mary Lou McDonald and Roisin Shortall were "bitches".

Yet Varadkar initially chose to allow due process to take its course. A full news cycle had passed before he called on Barry Walsh to step aside. This at a time when the Taoiseach was accusing Opposition TDs of displaying a "terror and fear of modern media".

Behind the scenes sources say things weren't so simple. In fact, Varadkar had sent an 'emissary' to talk to Walsh and ask him to resign. He didn't want to make the call through the newspapers. It may be the case that he was showing some basic humanity - but in the public mind, it looked like stalling.

By the time that mini-row reached its conclusion, the Taoiseach was in Gothenburg discussing Brexit with British Prime Minister Theresa May. "Nothing has changed," he mused and perhaps liberated by being away from home, he went back to calling it like it is: "Sometimes it doesn't feel like they have thought all of this through."

And just like the old days, telling it straight paid off - because the UK edition of The Sun called him a "Brexit Buffoon" who should "grow up" and "shut his gob".

"He is too busy disrespecting 17.4 million voters of a country whose billions stopped Ireland going bust as recently as 2010," it said.

And suddenly the whole of Ireland is back on his side. If the Brits are that annoyed, he must be doing something right. Not even €5m could buy you that type of publicity.

Even Labour's Brendan Howlin sent out a press release saying the Taoiseach needed to pursue his tough Brexit stance, "and while he continues to do so he will have the support of all the Irish people".

And so at the end of a troubled PR week, the Taoiseach hasn't lost that much ground at all.

Sunday Independent

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