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Michael Kelly: 'Tone-deaf Fine Gael needs to quickly find a sense of empathy for those who get up early'

Michael Kelly


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Failure: ‘The biggest own goals in this campaign are down to a basic lack of compassion and empathy. Both are at the heart of the crisis around healthcare and housing.’ Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Failure: ‘The biggest own goals in this campaign are down to a basic lack of compassion and empathy. Both are at the heart of the crisis around healthcare and housing.’ Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Failure: ‘The biggest own goals in this campaign are down to a basic lack of compassion and empathy. Both are at the heart of the crisis around healthcare and housing.’ Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Any therapist worth spending the money to see will tell you that the first step in addressing an issue is to admit that there is a problem in the first place. Maybe that's what Leo Varadkar had in mind during the television debate on Wednesday evening when he admitted that he finds it hard to show empathy towards the plight of the many people suffering in our country.

On the other hand, it is more likely a public relations strategy devised by spin doctors to soften the Taoiseach's image as someone who appears to lack compassion for those who are struggling.

I can picture the scene as Mr Varadkar's handlers readied him for the debate. "Show a bit of vulnerability… let the people know you find it hard to express emotion," or some such shtick.

Hollywood dramatics in politics is nothing new. Nor is playing the sympathy card. People are human after all, and that includes politicians.

One thinks back to Bertie Ahern discussing the break-up of his marriage live on the 'Six One News' during the 2007 General Election.

But, Leo Varadkar's problems run deeper. He has led a government that often appears indifferent to the plight of ordinary people.

He has presided over an administration where unthinkable things like children being raised in cramped hotel rooms become the new ordinary.

Whether it is Eoghan Murphy in housing or Simon Harris in health, this government has a compassion deficit.

As homelessness figures continue to remain shamefully high, Mr Murphy often gives off the appearance of being a disinterested bystander rather than the man charged with tackling the crisis.

In health, hundreds of thousands of people are languishing on hospital waiting lists. People are making the long journey from Kerry to Belfast to get cataracts treated because in the Republic it's not uncommon to wait for years in virtual blindness for such an operation.

What is the reaction from Simon Harris? Well, it ranges from throwing his arms in the air as if shouting "it was broken when I got here", to hammering his critics on social media.

This attitude also infects the backbenches. Kate O'Connell, the self-consciously liberal representative from Dublin Bay South, left me speechless recently after describing the scenes of chaos when she had occasion to bring her child to an accident and emergency unit.

How Ms O'Connell could be so out of touch from a crisis that is reported in the newspapers on a daily basis is quite simply staggering.

Fine Gael started out the campaign blaming Fianna Fáil for everything - and there is much to lay the blame for at the feet of that party - but now the strategy seems to have switched to admitting crises in housing and health and pleading for more time to fix the issues.

The problem with this approach is that the party has been in office for nine years and people are impatient with pleas for more time. In the last general election, the party got a hammering for the woefully out of touch 'keep the recovery going' slogan. This time round, it still appears deaf to the real challenges that people experience.

On the face of it, the economy is in good health. But most people expected that to happen anyway and don't particularly credit Fine Gael with anything akin to rocket science in this sphere, particularly given the seemingly out of control spend on the new national children's hospital.

And it's not just the crises in health and homelessness that are affecting sentiment towards this government.

Families earning good salaries in Dublin have very little prospect of ever owning a home in the capital with the current neoliberal commodification of homes. A rising tide does not lift all boats, it makes homes more and more out of reach of ordinary families; and Leo thinking that the election campaign was the time to talk about his satisfaction at buying a home in his early 20s was, to put it politely, absolutely tone deaf.

The attitude on display from the current government on a whole range of issues appears to be a shrug of the shoulders and a stoic assumption that such real world scenarios are 'just one of those things'.

Fine Gael will also struggle to overcome the incumbency factor. Fresh ideas in the heat of an election campaign beg the obvious questions that if the party knew how to fix things over the last nine years, why didn't it? And if it didn't, why get another chance?

In public relations, they say that people may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.

Few voters put much research into voting, fewer still parse manifestos and policy documents.

They vote for the people who they feel can understand where they're coming from, can walk a little bit in their shoes and can empathise with their struggles and triumphs.

So far, Fine Gael is being found wanting on this crucial measure. The biggest own goals in this campaign, so far, are down to the display of a basic lack of compassion and empathy.

Both are at the heart of the crisis around healthcare and housing and evident in thinking that it's OK to tell people who have worked all their lives to sign on the dole for a year.

Fine Gael used to style itself as a Christian Democratic party in the mould of its European counterparts. In recent years, social democracy has been the trend.

If the party wants another chance at government then it would do well to re-find the basic Christian principles of treating people with a bit of dignity and fairness.

As things stand, the big winner in this election will be the party that convinces people that it cares about them and wants to be in government to treat the rest of us with a bit of fairness and decency.

The Taoiseach takes an uncomfortable pause when asked if he has ever taken illegal drugs, on Virgin Media Television's leaders' debate for Election 2020.

Irish Independent