Monday 19 August 2019

Philip Ryan: 'Varadkar goes it alone as he takes the heat'

The Taoiseach has to tread a delicate path between confidence and smugness when he tries to pull his party out of the doldrums, writes Philip Ryan

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Enda Kenny could always rely on Michael Noonan to come to the rescue in his times of need. A few soothing words from Noonan would calm the waters when Kenny was coming under pressure.

Even when inflicting severe austerity measures on the citizens of Ireland, Noonan seemed to be able to reassure the country.

Leo Varadkar does not have the luxury of relying on his Minister of Finance to take the heat out of situation, as more often than not, Paschal Donohoe is fanning the flames.

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Slowly but surely, confidence in Donohoe has been chipped away and all you're really left with is a modern Fine Gael version of Charlie McCreevy.

"When I have it, I spend it on overpriced state infrastructure projects which could ultimately cripple the economy," Donohoe might say.

So the Taoiseach has to rely on himself when it's time to pull the party out of the doldrums.

And so he took to the airwaves yesterday to try to undo some of the damage done to the party over recent controversies.

The Saturday morning radio slot is a favourite of the Taoiseach, who believes he doesn't get enough time in the Dail to respond to questions during needlessly confrontational debates.

Over the course of an hour, Brendan O'Connor skilfully grilled Varadkar on everything from Maria Bailey's fall from a swing in a Dublin hotel to the decline in confidence in Fine Gael's party of economic prudence. Without being jeered by left-wing TDs or Fianna Fail backbenchers, the Taoiseach sought to reassure an electorate becoming increasingly concerned by his party's management of the economy.

One of the more reflective moments came early in the interview when Varadkar was discussing the local and European election results.

Varadkar conceded Fine Gael did not perform as well as he hoped in the local elections, before noting a lot of people voted for Fianna Fail. He was hoping for another 15 or 20 seats.

He said it was "strange" that people were going back to a party responsible for record unemployment, the USC tax and FEMPI legislation which resulted in pay cuts for public sector workers.

O'Connor put it to him that, despite all that, voters still choose to support Fianna Fail over Varadkar's Fine Gael.

"Does it not say something about you?" he said.

Varadkar sheepishly responded: "Potentially, yeah."

This is the question for Varadkar and his colleagues. If everything is going so well under his leadership of the country, why do people still want to see him turfed out of office and replaced by Micheal Martin?

The main section of the interview focused on what could be the core concern of voters when they stand in the ballot box. Can Fine Gael be trusted with the economy?

Much of the country is still suffering from the devastation of the recession and those who have bounced back still have austerity PTSD.

Fine Gael's pledge of ''not repeating the mistakes of past'' seems hollow at best given their management of major capital projects while also opening the state coffers to every union who knocks on the door.

Meanwhile, private sector workers have little disposable income thanks to the cost of living in Ireland.

Then there's all the unheeded warnings from our economic watchdogs such as the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. However, Varadkar insisted there are lots of reasons to be positive about the economy.

He noted there is a budget surplus, the national debt has been cut, we have near full employment, income levels are rising and poverty levels are falling. All good news and not to be dismissed given the state of the country ten years ago, or even five years ago.

Varadkar also insisted that when watchdogs bark he listens - which is all very well and good but perhaps more is required than merely listening.

As has been his mantra of late, he said he gets lots of advice from different people before he makes decisions. But, as we saw with the national broadband plan, he seems to dismiss it if it does not suit his agenda.

All that said, there was a reassuring tone to Varadkar's interview. Well, perhaps not when he insisted Eoghan Murphy was doing a "very good" job in the Department of Housing before adding: "I honestly don't believe there is anyone who would be doing a better job".

He may be alone on that one.

It's not that the Taoiseach is opposed to the occasional gaffe when speaking publicly. You don't have to think back too far to remember his comments about a mortuary in Waterford University Hospital.

But he can handle an interview better than his predecessor, who tended to fluff his lines, and possibly better than Micheal Martin, who becomes agitated by difficult questions.

However, confidence can often be seen as smugness and that certainly won't help win over reluctant voters.

Sunday Independent

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