Pity the hapless, misunderstood Taoiseach

Under pressure over homelessness, Varadkar had to lash out at the weakest in society

Illustration by Tom Halliday

Gene Kerrigan

In May 1921, with the State not yet formed, WT Cosgrave, Minister for Local Government, 1916 veteran, future head of Government and one of the founders of Fine Gael, wrote about the poorest of our nation: "They have no ideas whatsoever of civic responsibilities. As a rule their highest aim is to live at the expense of the ratepayers. Consequently, it would be a decided gain if they all took it into their heads to emigrate."

Down through the decades, some mourned the loss of our emigrants. To others, emigration wasn't a problem, it was a solution.

Cosgrave wasn't a singularly cruel man, his views were very common then and are still common today.

The comfortable classes of Cosgrave's day (he was the son of a publican) believed in their own rectitude. They were never short of food, because they were better people, who got up early in the morning and worked hard.

In today's right-wing lingo, they "paid for everything", and they were leeched on by lesser breeds who "want to pay for nothing".

It didn't matter that many - poor or squeezed middle (or whatever comfort label you prefer) - are hard done by because they work harder and longer, for less money.

And they've no inheritance worth speaking of, they don't get tip-offs on lucrative deals, they can't get loans because they can't earn enough to pay them back, they can't put their money to work because they need it to feed their children.

It doesn't matter that the vast majority of those on social welfare are pensioners, who spent decades working, or workers getting their own money back when occasionally unemployed and looking for work.

Because, from Cosgrave to Leo Varadkar, the modern conservative is haunted by the phantom of the work-shy hustler, ever ready to pick the pockets of the man of character.

This unashamed class hatred - a fantasy world of good, rich people and bad, poor people, of wealth and poverty, reflected in strong character versus sly weakness - has determined the shape of this country. Cosgrave himself led Fine Gael into the mid-1940s.

The class hatred partly accounts for what was done to the disposables who inhabited the industrial schools, the orphanages, the laundries, the crowded slums, the back lanes and the gutter.

Across the aisle, in Fianna Fail, the emphasis has been less on class - they venerate the chancer and the opportunist, the wallet fat with untaxed income, tip-offs about those lucrative deals.

FG: good versus bad. FF: winners versus losers.

Cosgrave's words came back to me on hearing Varadkar's comments on the homeless, last Friday.

There was an interruption to the class hatred in the Garret FitzGerald era, when he sought to modernise the party - a mild liberalisation, more a change of mood than substance.

Yet, FitzGerald was despised by the old crowd, and Varadkar himself denounced his predecessor as having "destroyed the country".

WT Cosgrave's spirit is alive and well in today's Fine Gael, dominated as it is by young, articulate, right-wingers - Varadkar, Eoghan Murphy, Simon Harris, Simon Coveney and their followers.

As performers, they don't have much of a record. Varadkar was a failure in Health; had he applied for a senior private sector post on the basis of his record, he wouldn't have got a second interview.

In the same job, Harris is all mouth.

Coveney was as capable in Housing as was that loud chap from Labour, Alan Something - which is to say, damn all use.

Yet, these people speak as though they're the best and the brightest.

Last Friday, Murphy promised some direct building of social housing - welcome, but limited.

The Fine Gael policies on housing have been so bad, so strangled by ideology, that failure followed failure. Eight-thousand homeless and rising, kids raised in single-room emergency accommodation - and now, the corpses are turning up with regularity.

And that's so, so embarrassing. If it keeps up like this, Lord knows, it could cast a pall over Christmas.

So, they'd little option but to try something new.

Across the aisle, Fianna Fail couldn't help themselves. They knee-jerked their way to a demand that the Government give their mates in the building business a €240m subsidy, via a VAT cut - a mad notion that not even Fine Gael is desperate enough to buy.

Varadkar's party will continue to try to bribe private builders to construct social housing, but there will be - it seems - at least some gesture towards municipal building.

Eoghan Murphy had a housing "summit" last week. (These people can't have mere meetings, they must have a summit, if not a think-in, a seminar, a forum, a workshop or a colloquium.) Given the horrors surrounding homelessness, the summit was always going to get media attention, so Murphy couldn't be left to do the job, Varadkar had to stand beside him for the photo op.

Asked about the recent horrors, people living on the edge, dying on the edge, Varadkar adopted a victim posture.

It's something he's been raging about for some time - unfortunate politicians, being criticised by people who only have half the story.

"You'll be aware of a number of cases in the past few weeks where the full facts haven't been given by the media, where people have refused housing for example and other issues like that."

This said when two of those fresh in their graves are there by their own hands.

What kind of man is this?

He's talking about people living extremes he can't dream of.

People who cannot buy houses, cannot rent, because profiteers whose only function on this earth is to make more and more money have driven up prices, while other hard-nosed money-grubbers push down wages - where there's no affordable childcare and where politicians see such people as a regrettable burden who should bugger off out of the country.

People sometimes refuse local authority houses - and are perfectly right to do so - because what they're offered is so far away they can't travel to their work, because the houses are in disgusting condition, they're in dangerous locations or for other valid reasons.

No whims involved.

And that phrase, "other issues like that" - must remember that one when I want to smear someone.

I can see Varadkar, an overpaid, underperforming blowhard, standing on Calvary, watching a sweaty Christ drag the heavy cross up the hill. He might have been moved to give Jesus a taste of water. But he would then have his Strategic Communications Unit go to work.

Because this Christ character might tug at our heartstrings, but there's another side to his story.

And "the public have a right" to these other facts.

We must remember that this self-described "saviour" had been lawfully arrested and convicted of a crime, with due process.

And people should know that when he was arrested a criminal associate of his had assaulted an officer of the law.

Varadkar would insist on telling everyone this because it's important that people have "the full story".

We opened with one quote, let's close with a better one.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith: "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."