Leo Varadkar faces some tight squeezes as shine wears off a year after ascent

One year on from becoming Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar’s popularity has increased, but several major issues threaten his reign, writes Political Correspondent Elaine Loughlin.

This time last year the world looked on as an openly gay man of Indian heritage became leader of a small country on the edge of Europe.

While the international media made much of Leo Varadkar’s backstory, it was almost a footnote to the Irish public. However, it did send out a clear message that this country had shed its conservative Catholic image.

Over the past 12 months, messaging has been very important to the health conscious, gym-going early riser Taoiseach whose choice of socks has often set the tone of meetings with international counterparts.

However, detractors have used this against him, claiming Mr Varadkar is a Taoiseach who values spin over substance.

His first move was to establish the controversial €5m Strategic Communications Union (SCU), dubbed the ‘spin unit’ by opposition.

The unit orchestrated an all-singing, all-dancing launch of the Government’s Project Ireland 2040 development plan in Sligo.

However, all further stage productions were halted after sustained criticism from the opposition.

The abandonment of his pet project must have been a personal blow for the young-gun Taoiseach.

However, the failure of the spin unit appears to have had little of no impact on how the public view him. Varadkar has only seen his satisfaction rating go in one direction since taking up office and that is steadily upwards.

That no-doubt will have been boosted with the passing of the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Dealing with this thorny issue was one of the key priorities that Mr Varadkar identified when he appointed his Cabinet last year. 

At the time it was seen as the passing of a poisoned chalice onto Simon Harris, who had backed Mr Varadkar’s rival Simon Coveney in the Fine Gael leadership race.

Mr Coveney was also rehabilitated and made Tánaiste, albeit after the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald amid much controversy which almost took down the Government before Christmas.

The scandal became the first major test for the Dublin West TD, but after a weekend of tense talks with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, a general election was averted and the debacle even managed to strengthen their relationship.

But Mr Martin is not the only person who the Taoiseach has managed to cement a working relationship with.

He entrusted rival Mr Coveney with one of the largest issues coming down the line for Ireland — Brexit. The Taoiseach has also been praised for his immediate adoption of a hard-line stance on Brexit and for securing the backstop agreement finalised in March.

However, his lasting legacy may not be the repeal of the Eighth or successes around Brexit, and instead could be the failure to tackle the housing and homeless crisis which continues to dog his Government.

Appointing his Cabinet, Mr Varadkar said he was asking Eoghan Murphy to review Rebuilding Ireland to consider more building social housing, introducing a vacant home tax and measures to encourage landlords to stay in or enter the rental market. 

While the Rebuilding Ireland plan was tinkered with, there have been little inroads made to tackle the number of homeless people in this country which now is tipping 10,000.

In his maiden speech as Taoiseach, Varadkar looked over to then Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams who just moments before had given an anecdote on how the pair had attended the gym together.

In a witty retort, Mr Varadkar said: “I’d also like to thank Deputy Adams for revealing our little secret, that we did in fact attend the same pilates class on a number of occasions. I do think that he was much better at it than I was. Perhaps he has greater experience of being in a tight squeeze.”

Looking to the next 12 months as the shine wears off the new leader, Mr Varadkar will likely find himself in a few tight squeezes which will really test his leadership skills.

1. HEALTHCARE

Stephen McMahon — Irish Patients Association 

During the Fine Gael leadership hustings, Leo Varadkar said he was promising “leadership from the Taoiseach’s office” on health and said he understood the health service. 

He oversaw an increase of €685m in 2018 Budget for Health, of this €200m was for salary increases arising from a new pay agreement, €55m to the National Treatment Purchase Fund to tackle waiting lists, recruitment of 1,800 frontline staff, and €40m to secure various home care packages.

However, despite this investment, serious challenges exist.

Patients on trolleys are up 17.4%. According to experts, this overcrowding creates serious patient safety issues. Inequity of access to healthcare is illuminated by the numbers of people who do not have private health insurance and are languishing on waiting lists for their first consultant-led appointment, 507,707 of them at the end of April. They have faces and names and stories to tell.

The only good performance is elective surgeries, which are down overall by 5% in April and down 16.7% for those who waited more than 12 months for their operation.

The Taoiseach and his Government enjoy cross party support for the implementation of Sláinte Care. Implementation of various major reforms in the past have been fallers on many an outing, this plan needs to be produced now.

The seismic effects of the cervical smear scandal will reverberate both nationally and internationally; The faces, names, and stories have electrified/shocked the establishment into action, for example statutory open disclosure, and statutory accountability for managers within the Department of Health and HSE.

“The patient is forgotten in the maze of bureaucracy to deliver timely care at such a tragic time” - A sobering comment made to me at the weekend by the partner of a terminally ill patient who is waiting for home care and palliative support. One may be forgiven, thinking this would have been in place prior discharge from the hospital?

2. AGRICULTURE

Joe Healy — IFA president

Leo Varadkar has been sure-footed on farming issues since he took over as Taoiseach 12 months ago. His address to our AGM in January displayed a grasp of farmers’ concerns and what they expect our Government to do for the sector.

From IFA’s perspective, his second year in office will be much more significant for farmers because of what is looming on the horizon.

The Brexit talks will ramp up in the coming months with the withdrawal agreement to be finalised by October. Our position remains: No border on the island of Ireland, no border in the Irish Sea, and no scope for the UK to pursue a cheap food policy.

The task for the Taoiseach is to hold the EU to their position and guarantee that Irish farmers are not exposed in the final outcome. The UK is our best market and we do not want to see trade disrupted, either by value or volume.

A related issue is the next CAP budget. The initial proposal from the commission would see farmers take a cut in their direct payments. The Taoiseach has to reject this outright.

We want to see Leo Varadkar taking a lead across member states to increase national contributions so that a larger CAP budget is in place after 2020. 

The shortfall from the UK leaving has to be made up to deliver a strong CAP that recognises the standards that farmers meet. Anything less will not wash.

Farmers will also expect vigilance on trade deals. The Taoiseach must face down attempts to bring food into the EU that doesn’t meet our standards.

The national budget in October may well be the last for this Government. There is scope for additional funding to be made available to the farming sector as part of a much-improved economic outlook for the country. 

Our pre-budget submission will identify our priorities, which will include support for suckler farming and other vulnerable sectors.

By year end, farmers will be in a much better position to mark the Taoiseach’s scorecard.

3. POST OFFICES

Seán Fogarty — Postmaster, Ballymore Eustace, Co Kildare.

This time last year, postmasters pulled out of negotiations with An Post — and it was very difficult to see a way whereby An Post or the Government would meaningfully invest in post offices.

However, against the odds, An Post and postmasters sat down in the new year and by April agreed a €50m plan. In May a ballot of the IPU’s almost 900 members returned an 80% approval for what had been agreed.

The bulk of postmasters’ discussions this year have been directly with An Post. Independent Minister Denis Naughten holds the post office brief and there has been a small degree of contact with him. The Taoiseach has not directly been involved with postmasters — and the IPU has not met with him.

While postmasters are pleased that progress has been made, it is difficult to quantify what role An Taoiseach has played other than rubber stamping finalised plans which would have been presented to Cabinet.

Postmasters are highly committed to their part. For example, in my own post office in Ballymore Eustace, I have at my own initiative developed an onsite ‘Hub Service’ which offers a consultation via video link with a medical doctor from 8am to 10pm, a monthly visit by a chiropodist, hearing tests monthly and office services have also been added. These services are enjoying good usage from the community and are greatly appreciated.

In the new plan, An Post has committed itself to continuing and growing important services in the Post Office such as insurance, financial services, Postmobile, foreign exchange, parcel services and BillPay services.

Leo Varadkar’s leadership now has a clear opportunity to ensure that the third pillar of the plan is supported — this is additional Government services.

Leo Varadkar will have to ensure that in all Cabinet decisions, and delivery of Government services, that use of the post office is maximised.

By doing this he can help to keep services in communities, support social connectivity, and maintain cash in local economies.

4. RURAL IRELAND

Seamus Boland — Rural Link

 Since the foundation of the state there’s been a few Taoisigh who could boast some sort of rural pedigree. A few have not and so when Leo Varadkar assumed the office, the rural reaction was one of a cautious wait and see.

In his first year as Taoiseach, he has given his strong support to the Rural Action plan announced in April 2017 by his predecessor Enda Kenny. In a symbolic gesture to the regions, he launched the 2040 plan in Sligo and in May, vowed that 75% of economic growth would be outside Dublin.

His rural-minded ministers are passionate in their desire to stimulate rural development. And it would be churlish, not to acknowledge their efforts; whether it is on broadband under Denis Naughten, job promotion by Heather Humphries, the rural action plan under Michael Ring, the follow through on flooding with Boxer Moran, and the recent announcement by Shane Ross of a pilot evening transport programme.

There is the other perception, which materialised at the last general election campaign, the national recovery or in rural areas the lack of it. 

For many the recovery passed many rural areas by. It left many rural areas without services and their young people, instead losing them to Australia, the USA, Canada, and to other foreign parts. Thankfully, they are beginning to come back, but not quite home yet. Instead it’s Dublin or nothing.

The voters let them know that the recovery missed their area and will do so again.

In doing better for rural Ireland, he will need to resolve some thorny issues, which include policing, introduction of alternative public banking, the final part of broadband delivery, a complete upgrading of rural transport and a root and branch design of regional development.

In his first year as Taoiseach, he has by and large been in a listening mode. While we are not sure of what he has heard in rural terms, his second year will need to demonstrate that rural Ireland is part of the recovery.

5. EDUCATION

Sarah Prendeville — Primary school teacher in Monagea NS, Newcastle West, Co Limerick

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar comes across as positive, professional, and enthusiastic and his first year as leader has gone quite well. The fact that he is young makes me hopeful that he has an awareness of the issues that are relevant to young professionals.

The increased number of Special Education Teacher posts that the Government put in place last September made it easier to get full-time work and I’m very grateful to have had continuous work since qualifying as a teacher.

The last budget saw class sizes reduced too, which brings us closer to the European average and makes it easier to give every pupil the attention and support they need.

But the “elephant in the staffroom” still remains and there is now no way of avoiding the unequal pay scales that exist in teaching.

We teach children about fairness and equality, yet it seems very unfair that two teachers, in classrooms next to each other, can be on two different pay scales, with vastly different earnings over a career.

I get on well with my colleagues, but the inequality definitely affects staff morale. I’m disappointed that this hasn’t been addressed to date and I hope that pay equality will be a priority for Mr Varadkar as he goes into year two as Taoiseach.

Housing is another area that I hope will be high on the agenda for Mr Varadkar and his Government.

I’d really love to own my own home but it’s a challenge — both to get a deposit together and then to find an affordable home. I don’t know how teachers in the bigger cities can afford to save anything with the high rent they’re paying. 

A lot of my teacher friends have gone abroad to get money together for a deposit and I can understand why. I think it’s definitely something our Taoiseach and our Government will have to look at going forward.



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