Why the ‘little people’ are such a big headache for the Government

Why the ‘little people’ are such a big headache for the Government
An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, in John Arnold’s milking parlour during An Taoiseach’s visit to John and Mary Arnold's Farm in Garryantaggart, Bartlemy, Co. Cork, as part of his trip to the Cork East constituency. Picture: John Hennessy

There seems no end to the trouble being caused to Fine Gael by what we might term, for the purposes of this column, the “little people”.

They are the ones who trip the Government party up, cause them no end of difficulty, and leave them scratching their heads in confusion at how they could possibly be perceived to have gotten something so wrong.

They wouldn’t be the first party to be so afflicted; it is the sort of thinking that can come after a long time in office. But the Fine Gael party, with its Blueshirt superiority complex, is particularly partial to this ailment.

The latest little people controversy concluded painfully this week when the Government reversed engines on the immediate closing of the scheme for improving the energy efficiency of houses.This affected just 300 homes, though with serious financial implications for the owners involved. It dominated the airwaves for a week.

Also, rural students are being encouraged to avoid colleges in the big cities because of accommodation shortages and increasing rents. Then, the Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, had to stand up to the Government on behalf of the people.

She found that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection had behaved illegally in insisting the public services card be used for driving licence, passport, or student grant applications.

Bubbling away in the background is the low pay of soldiers and naval personnel, who are so tight for cash they are sleeping in cars or on ships, even when the vessels are tied up at home base. This feeds into the bigger picture of the poor state of our Defence Forces.

At the beginning of the summer, retired Comdt Cathal Berry, the former head of the elite Army Ranger Wing, said the Defence Forces were being “dismantled and demoralised”; the sense of betrayal was palpable and poor pay was driving out members.

The Government has a lot on its plate with Brexit, and the increasing likelihood of the UK departing the EU without a deal. Because of this, it has never been more important for us to have a Cabinetdetermined to keep a tight rein on expenditure.

And there would be knock-on financial consequences if Defence Force wages were increased. But the political problem is that the Government has made a bad situation far worse. Even people who wouldn’t usually give a second thought to soldiers and sailors feel they have been treated badly, and over many years.

Equally, few would not sympathise with the 300 homeowners who were expecting generous grants to retrofit their homes, only to have the financial rug pulled from under them at the last minute.

We all know how hard it is to get a plumber or an electrician out to the house for a simple job, let alone line up retrofit experts for a specific build at a specific time, while also trying to align the timing of a grant. It is true they had not gotten the official go-ahead for the money, but we might all have found ourselves in that circumstance.

So, after a week of awful damage to the Government, there was a major climbdown, when Communications and Environment Minister Richard Bruton said people who had applied for the scheme by the July deadline would have theirapplications evaluated after all and, if approved, would receive their grants in 2020.

Again, there are financial implications, at this time of great Brexit uncertainty. But what an own goal. It was painful to listen to politicians sent out to bat for the Government repeat this ridiculous line of defence, “This was always intended to be a pilot scheme, with a view to setting up a full-time scheme in this area”, and how a taskforce would now be created. We didn’t see the briefing note they had each been given, but it clearly included the line: “when pressed, keep repeating the above”.

Elsewhere, Education Minister Joe McHugh, a Donegal man,suggested that families struggling to afford to send their children to universities, because of the increasing cost of student accommodation, should consider attending a regional college.

Super junior education minister, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, did not help when she said the Susi grant could be used by students to pay for accommodation. That drew theinevitable response that the grant was already too little for most student accommodation and Mitchell O’Connor’s comment ignored the cost of books and food.

For his part, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has expended a lot of energy during the seasonal lull going around the country meeting people. It’s what my colleague Elaine Loughlin recently described as “Varadkar’s grand summer tour of Ireland”.

It was a good idea, and no better way to build political capital with local communities and party organisations. He is also holding his nerve well on Brexit and retaining the critical support of our EU counterparts on the backstop.

BUT all the while, his party appears oblivious to its own propensity to get things wrong, and when it does cotton on to how poorly something has been received by the public, it then takes far too long to rectify it.

It was an interesting contrast to hear Fianna Fail’s housing spokesman, Darragh O’Brien, talk this week about the party’s proposal to earmark up to 30% of development land for first-time buyers and prevent so-called cuckoo funds — big institutional investors — from block-buying estates.

“What we don’t want in Fianna Fail is a generation condemned to a rip-off rental market,” he told Radio One’s Drivetime. His subsequent contribution was peppered with phrases such as “try and level the playing pitch” and “the dream of home ownership… a basic decent and honest aspiration to have and one that should be supported.” It’s always easier to be in opposition than in government, even if Fianna Fail is in this one leg in, one leg out arrangement.

Regardless, what O’Brien said was more grounded in the life of ordinary people.

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