Friday 26 April 2019

Wanted: A Taoiseach who earns our respect rather than yearns for our love

There's more to running the country than competing in a triathlon or setting up a vainglorious communications unit, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar poses with Eoghan Murphy before the Dublin City Triathlon 2017 in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. Photo Gareth Chaney.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar poses with Eoghan Murphy before the Dublin City Triathlon 2017 in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. Photo Gareth Chaney.

Eilis O'Hanlon

Leo Varadkar spent 25 minutes on the phone to the Egyptian President last week, discussing the case of Ibrahim Halawa, the young man who's now spent four years in prison after being arrested at a protest in Cairo in support of the Muslim Brotherhood leader.

What the Taoiseach did with the other 10,055 minutes in the week is anybody's guess.

He did take part in the Dublin City Triathlon last Sunday, before making his way to Croke Park for the All-Ireland semi final.

Why not? He's as much entitled to spend his free time showing off his athletic side as his predecessor, Enda Kenny, was to clutch a pint and sing along to Bruce Springsteen. He also met representatives of the Catholic church, as well as tweeting about Princess Diana from his official Twitter account (still called @campaignforleo; you do know you can change that, right, Taoiseach?) "Hard to believe it's 20 years," he noted, insightfully.

Indeed. Doesn't time fly when you're having fun, scrambling to the top of Irish politics?

He also marked back-to-school week by making an important announcement that he has "lots of memories" of his own first days at school. (More details to follow as we get them. Stay tuned). Apart from that, information is sketchy.

The Taoiseach and his press adviser Nick Miller on the lawn of Government Buildings filming his weekly video message. Photo John Dardis
The Taoiseach and his press adviser Nick Miller on the lawn of Government Buildings filming his weekly video message. Photo John Dardis

Leo Varadkar is the Taoiseach, so he's bound to have been busy doing… something.

There will have been meetings. More phone calls. Reports to read. Stuff like that. Otherwise, your guess is as good as mine.

It caps a summer in which the most significant thing he's done is go on a gay rights march in Canada, alongside his fellow premier Justin Trudeau, possibly the most vacuous Canadian since his namesake, Justin Bieber, and even he's not as dull these days as he used to be.

Trudeau's main appeal seems to be that he's not Donald Trump, which, to be fair, isn't hard. This is enough to elevate him to the pantheon of young, vaguely trendy, liberal, good(ish)-looking male politicians, of whom French president Emmanuel Macron is the unchallenged leader. Leo wants to join the club so hard it hurts.

If anything, he appears to believe that it is his duty to hitch Ireland to this neo-progressive bandwagon, though it's unclear as yet whether the Taoiseach was as vocal in his support for gay rights in that call to the Egyptian president, a moderniser in many ways, but whose country still brands homosexuality as "sexual deviance" and "debauchery". (Though only if you're doing it right, to borrow an old joke from Woody Allen).

Still, one thing at a time, eh?

What's worrying is not that the Fine Gael leader likes to attach himself to easy liberal causes that might increase his profile and popularity amongst younger voters. That's par for the course these days. Every fiscal conservative on the block wants the cachet of presenting as a social liberal.

The worry is that, far from seeing these as nice adjuncts to the day job, Leo might be under the mistaken impression that this is the day job. He's always been desperate for popularity, flirting with celebrity by posting selfie videos in his gym gear, or moonlighting as a DJ on radio. "Ah, chill," the so-called "minister for cool" urged critics who complained about the latter move in his career.

No doubt he'll say the same to anyone who objects to his new Strategic Communications Unit, which the Opposition has questioned as too expensive; but the fear there also has to be that it's been wished into existence not to explain Government policy to the public, but to sell them endless images of Varadkar being modern.

To "campaign for Leo", as that Twitter handle goes. Why else has it been set up within his own department, given that there is already a Government Press Office and that each department has full- time officials to push its message?

The Taoiseach simply defends the unit as follows: "I believe in good communication."

As a statement, that's right up there with "I like puppies" and "doesn't chocolate taste nice?" Everyone believes in effective communication. That good intention goes wrong when communicating messages becomes an end in itself, regardless of their worth.

Two public servants have been transferred to the unit so far. The most senior of them is John Concannon, the highly regarded marketing expert behind such enterprises as the Wild Atlantic Way, The Gathering, the 1916 Centenary and Creative Ireland.

All huge successes, to be fair. But what do they have in common? They were all festive, happy, celebratory events. They were all about bringing people together. They all had generous budgets to splurge too. Government isn't all about the positives. It also involves explaining why money isn't being made available for certain projects, or why this or that policy has failed to deliver on its promises, or why some minister has cocked up. It's about crisis management, and managing expectations. The incoming fire never ceases.

It may well be that John Concannon, and whatever team is assembled around him, will be as brilliant at handling the negative side of communications as he's proved at promoting the positives.

The centenary in 2016 did have potential pitfalls, and they were smartly avoided. That's a good sign.

But they still require different skill sets, and the concern must linger that Leo is approaching the task of being Taoiseach as if the country was in prodigal, rather than challenging, times.

Even the name of the new unit is slightly suspicious. Strategy normally precedes communication, so what does the "strategic" part of the title actually mean?

Is its role to coordinate and direct Government policy as well as explain and promote it? Because that could raise certain questions about who's in charge. Ministers may resent being strategically managed in this way. Or is it just a meaningless word, chosen to sound vaguely impressive on a letterhead? It must have been chosen for a reason. Tell us what it is.

Get it wrong, and Leo's trendy posturing could look in retrospect as hokey and shallow as Tony Blair's flirtation with the whole "Cool Britannia" label. If the economy is going well, as it was for Britain's new Labour government in the early days, then that seeps out into the public mood, and everyone's happy. If it isn't, then you risk looking like a dilettante who's more concerned with image than substance. Ireland's recovery is certainly not assured enough to throw everything into promoting a post-recovery mood of celebration, but it seems as if this is where Leo sees himself - as a Taoiseach for the good times. The life and soul of the economic party. Fingers crossed he gets his wish, but people are not ready yet for a coasting Taoiseach.

They're still hurting. The trauma of recession lingers, even for those who've escaped its clutches. They want a Taoiseach with the shoulder to the wheel, who rolls up his sleeves not so that he can stroll in the sunshine with Trudeau, but to get to work.

That's what they need to see from Leo Varadkar.

They want a Taoiseach who earns their respect rather than yearns for their love, and who makes hard decisions as well as populist gestures. Definitely not one whose craving for approval makes Enda Kenny's own media management look quaintly self-effacing by comparison. You can't all be Barack Obama, lads. Get over it.

It was summer. He became Taoiseach shortly before the Dail recess, so didn't have a chance to impose himself on the national consciousness in a sustained way; he still feels more like a minister than a Taoiseach, But that's what made it all the more important that he set the right tone from the start. The fear again is that this is exactly what he thinks he's doing, by engaging in this PR blitz. That, given a blank slate on which to paint his image, this is the one which he wishes to take precedence.

Whatever the truth, the summer is now over, and he has to tackle the shortage and excessive cost of housing as a matter of urgency.

Some of the criticisms of the Government on that score may be unfair, and the Opposition's proposed solutions look no more likely to succeed than the current make and mend approach; but that doesn't make it any less of a crisis.

"It's something the Government is really committed to sorting out," was Varadkar's weak pledge last week. It was hardly reassuring.

In his introduction to the fourth National Risk Assessment report, also published last week, the Taoiseach warns against complacency. Complacency, though, generally comes from the top down.

The report lists the various risks facing the country, from global competitiveness to changing demographics to terrorism; but on the two most significant, Brexit and the worsening stalemate in Northern Ireland, it remains unclear whether Varadkar's interventions have helped or hindered.

In the North, he's given Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney a free hand to side with nationalists against the DUP.

On Brexit, he's sided squarely with Europe in its increasingly fractious negotiations with the UK, when he could have hedged his bets and waited to see how things turned out before betting the farm. It remains to be seen how those calls work out.

His time as Taoiseach will be overshadowed by them either way, and neither problem will be solved by photo opportunities, or by jogging round the park with insipid Canadians.

US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had the whole of progressive celebritydom behind her too. Spoiler alert: she lost.

Sunday Independent

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