Tuesday 22 October 2019

Olivia O'Leary: 'Varadkar doesn't seem to know what it takes to lead a country'

People expect more from their Taoiseach than a party leader looking always to take political advantage, writes Olivia O'Leary

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

There's a difference between being a party leader and being Taoiseach. Sometimes I wonder whether Leo Varadkar understands that. Someone who is just a party leader will look to party advantage. Someone who is Taoiseach must look to the good of the whole nation. She or he should remember that they are responsible for us all.

It struck me when I was in the Dail recently watching Leader's questions - the sessions where party leaders get to question the Taoiseach.

Fianna Fail and opposition leader Micheal Martin was asking the Taoiseach about the long delays in women getting results from their cervical smear tests. He pointed out that the whole screening system had been put under further pressure because of the Government's promise last year to offer an extra, out of cycle smear test to every woman who wanted one.

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He said that the Department of Health had been warned by Grainne Flannelly, then head of CervicalCheck, that the system didn't have the capacity to deal with this. But he said the Minister for Health had told the Dail that neither he nor his officials were so advised. He wanted the Minister for Health to be told to come in to the Dail and set the record straight.

The Taoiseach didn't really deal with the issue. What he did do was to point out more than once that last year, in the middle of the cervical smear test non-disclosure scandal, Michael Martin had been critical of the same officials who had warned that extra testing would overwhelm the screening system, that he had called them cold and calculating, that he had suggested they might have behaved illegally.

Like the proverbial political football, these same officials were kicked across the floor of the house, not once but twice. To continue the football analogy, Leo, the great deflector, was using them as a handy way to avoid the questions as to whether the house had been misled.

But the opposition, you might argue, were quick enough to attack the same officials when it suited them. Yes, but Leo is the Taoiseach, and it used to be the case that the Taoiseach and ministers did not drag officials into controversy in parliament on the basis that they could not speak up for themselves. It was an old-fashioned courtesy, perhaps, and as we know old- fashioned is not a cherished word in Leo's vocabulary.

However, one would expect that someone who becomes the leader of the country would have graduated from the smart-aleck-ry of a schoolboy debater. One would have hoped that the 'Just William' young TD who criticised Garret FitzGerald's economic performance and his "boring articles in The Irish Times" might have learned a little balance. Instead, the style of Leo's Fine Gael is attack dog: attack first and look at the facts later.

Look at his approach to the mortuary in Waterford Hospital. Four consultant pathologists at the hospital had criticised the poor condition of the mortuary facilities, saying dead bodies had been left lying on trolleys at the hospital, leaking bodily fluids on to corridors and making closed-coffin funerals unavoidable in some cases.

Last week, the Taoiseach said he had no evidence to support these claims. Now, even if he wanted to indicate that he doesn't automatically accept the word of the senior doctors most familiar with the mortuary, what about the two families who contacted the hospital group about the mortuary?

Was there not a way to accept that concerns had been raised which needed to be looked into? Or is such gentle language regarded as weakness in attack dog world?

Nothing Leo does is off the cuff. It's all carefully worked out. His performances at Leader's Questions are prepared for meticulously. He stops cabinet on Tuesdays in good time to get ready for the afternoon session in the Dail.

As well as prepared aides-memoire on the questions likely to come up, there will be his own meticulous notes on what he might say - including any insults to be thrown at his critics, and the opposition on which his Government depends.

Same for the troops. "It's like they've all been sent on a media course," said one political opponent: "Get your attack in first, apologise later."

Maybe it will work for him electorally, but the Waterford mortuary debacle would indicate otherwise.

Why do I think that somehow, people expect more from their Taoiseach?

This column was first broadcast on RTE's Radio One's 'Drivetime' programme last week

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