Tuesday September 22, 2020

Comment: Varadkar’s failure was his refusal to sack Harris and Murphy

Voters might agree that Fine Gael did a good job over Brexit, but that doesn’t mean they voted for them, especially when they were perceived to have performed so poorly in more immediate matters, such as housing and health

9th February, 2020
Varadkar has not been well served by some of his senior cabinet colleagues

As the ballot boxes are opened and the votes counted today, the outcome of this general election to the 33rd Dáil is less predictable than any of the preceding 32 in our state. On the face of it, things are good in Ireland. When this is the case voters usually opt for continuity.

We have recovered from the economic Armageddon visited on us just ten short years ago. The economy is growing faster than any other in the European Union. We have more people working than ever before. Incomes are rising and surveys have shown Irish people are more optimistic about their futures than almost anyone else across the continent.

Yet, when the votes are counted, it is likely that the governing party will be unceremoniously thrown out of office, while an untested and somewhat untrusted opposition party is set to have its best election ever.

The international media coverage of the Irish election has been characterised by some degree of disbelief. At a press conference, a visiting Swedish journalist questioned whether the Irish electorate were “ungrateful” considering the diplomatic tightrope which the government successfully walked over Brexit.

Yet the international accolades are worthless in what is in reality a domestic dogfight. This basic premise to the campaign appears to have been entirely disregarded by the party strategists in Fine Gael who, from the outset, seemed to believe that fighting an election campaign based on a Brexit deal which was concluded last November would be a good idea. Unfortunately for the government party, Brexit was simply never going to be a sufficiently immediate and impactful issue to inspire people to vote for them.

It is beyond doubt that Irish people give credit to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney for doing a very good job in negotiating on behalf of the country throughout the past three years. The government’s efforts and painstaking preparations are acknowledged and understood by the electorate to have been diligent and effective. However, the Fine Gael leadership miscalculated entirely by believing that people would proactively vote to give the government their retrospective seal of approval. This is not how politics works.

People generally vote on the basis of two things – how they feel about their lot today, and how they feel about their future. In this regard, the party has been tone deaf. While the economy has recovered impressively in the past few years, this is not enough for people living in modern Ireland. They no longer feel satisfied because they have a job. They expect to have a job, but they also want more.

They want to be able to afford to buy a house or at the very least rent a decent home. They want to be able to afford childcare so they can pursue their careers. They expect to be able to get to work without sitting in traffic for hours while they commute. They expect their family members to be treated with dignity when they need access to healthcare. They expect that their children should look forward to a future which is filled with opportunity too.

By attempting to make the election about Brexit, Fine Gael missed the point. Yes Brexit has been a significant issue in the minds of Irish people, but they also believe that it has been, for the most part, dealt with. Fine Gael failed to focus on the burning domestic issues, especially health and housing.

This was not just a short-term failing for the duration of this campaign. These flashpoint problems have been brewing since the last election. The problems of hospital trolleys and waiting lists go back even further, but there is now a sense of paralysis. A critical lack of housing supply, the insatiable growth in demand (again a symptom of economic success) and the glacial response from government, has caused frustration and fear among voters that rents will remain unaffordable and the dream of owning a home will remain just that.

Varadkar has not been well served by some of his senior cabinet colleagues. While Coveney and his Paschal Donohoe, the Minister for Finance, have been consistent assets, demonstrating competence and authority across their portfolios, others have either performed poorly or simply been invisible.

Varadkar missed two critical opportunities to project a fresh and hungry team to tackle the biggest issues facing the country. The first was when he became Taoiseach and had a chance to bring in new talent to the cabinet. Instead he left most of Enda Kenny’s ministers in place, and promoted one or two people to jobs they were simply not capable of executing. Loyalty should never trump ability in such key decisions.

A second opportunity presented last May after a poor performance in the local elections. It was blindingly obvious that some of his ministers were proving the Achilles’ heel of the government. At that point he should have moved Simon Harris out of the Department of Health and Eoghan Murphy out of the Department of Housing.

A total reshuffle would have allowed him to line out a new team for the inevitable battle ahead. Instead, the government began to look as though it was simply incapable of ever finding solutions to the biggest policy challenges in the country. People lost hope.

There is a broader question too about the scramble of all parties in Ireland to the crowded left of centre political space. Fine Gael was always a party that advocated for the hardworking taxpayers of Ireland, the people who Varadkar described three years ago as those who “get up early in the morning”. Yet the government has done little for them in those three years, and instead the party committed in its manifesto to a public spending spree that would make socialists blush.

Varadkar has also made some questionable remarks about anyone who has chosen not to jump on the left/liberal woke bandwagon so recently beloved of the party. His use of the word “backwoodsmen” seemed a strange and unnecessary insult to many Fine Gael-leaning voters – the type who might identify with the more conservative Cosgrave/Bruton tradition in the party. Fine Gael has always fared better electorally when personal values are respected rather than derided.

Fine Gael seems destined for the opposition benches for now. There will be much soul searching, but at some stage the party must decide whether to continue on the path of trying to mimic or outflank all of the other left-wing parties in the state, or whether it chooses a more distinctive path that might set it apart.

Lucinda Creighton is a former Fine Gael minister and chief executive of Vulcan Consulting

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