Serve bread ‘n butter Leo, or you’re toast

Will the real Leo Varadkar please stand up? Or at least, will he decide who he is when he gets up early in the morning?

Serve bread ‘n butter Leo, or you’re toast

In the last few weeks, the Taoiseach has been putting his skates on after the summer break and, in doing so, has given a flavour of what he is about.

One element of his stewardship that has come to the fore is the importance he places on spin.

This capacity has made itself known in many of his pronouncements. Last week’s news that the electorate will be facing into seven referendums over the next two years is a case in point. Is there really a need for all of these? Is there really a need to announce them in one shovelful?

Or is it a case of giving the impression of being fierce busy with a whole range of issues which, unlike the meaty stuff, has little prospect of impacting negatively on his electoral appeal?

The meaty stuff, on the other hand, is full of danger. If he is true to his creed, he must promote tax cuts for his early risers. At the same time, he has to meet the demand for a whole range of services, most prominently housing, which are rightfully expected in a relatively wealthy state. Herein, the sums just don’t add up.

Anybody remember Bertie’s wild years of tax cutting?

If the State is to fully meet its obligations it would appear taxes will have to be raised in some capacity.

Despite the scars of recession, this remains a low tax country. There is a case to be made that further taxes will have to be raised to properly provide required services.

Any contemplation of that course of action must take account of the fallout from the deep recession. Just this week, we learned that AIB, a prime mover in bringing the country to the precipice of disaster, will not have to pay tax on profits for up to the next 20 years.

Such an appalling vista can be attributed to Michael Noonan’s wish to make AIB appear more attractive to buyers, thus achieving a short-term political goal at the expense of the long-term interests of the country.

Now Varadkar must take into account the anger generated by ruses like this if he is to go to the people looking for money.

So how is he dealing with the dilemma? Spinning wildly if the last week or so is anything to go by.

On Tuesday, the Taoiseach said that he will fight “might and main” to avoid the imposition of pain on taxpayers. This was in reference to the local property tax (LPT) and the prospect of a steep increase in 2019, when properties are due to be revalued.

It is unclear whom exactly Mr Varadkar sees himself engaging in battle. Will he throw a few punches at a mirror? Or does he contemplate having to put on the gloves and box his Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe? Why not just fire him instead, if Donohoe won’t do as he’s told?

The reality is that the Taoiseach is spinning to put off the evil day. The LPT is one of the few progressive developments to emerge from the recession.

It is not perfect in design, but in concept it at least widens the tax base in a progressive manner.

In the great tradition of kicking the evil day down the road, Noonan ensured that there would be no rise in the tax until 2019 when properties would be revalued. Now, in a demented property market, those values have gone through the roof.

Homes in areas such as south Dublin – the heart of Fine Gael’s constituency – have shot up in value.

The Taoiseach can either put the re-evaluation off for another few years, effectively undermining the tax’s progressive element, or he can redesign it to prevent a sudden rise. His attitude seems to be to simply do nothing for the time being until he gets past the next general election.

Another issue that arose during the week was the future of third-level funding. Attending an event in his alma mater, Trinity College, the Taoiseach touched on the issue which he described as “one of our greatest challenges”.

That it is. Third-level funding is at a crisis point.

A high-level group set up to examine the problem reported last year that €1bn will be required over the next 15 years. One of the three options canvassed in the report was a student loan system, which operates with mixed results in places like Australia.

In Trinity College on Tuesday, Mr Varadkar appeared to rule that out. Or did he?

“I think it is appropriate that students, as they do now, should make a contribution to the cost of the course that they study from which they derive so much benefit, [but] I certainly could not stand over an outcome that left Irish students graduating with the kind of debts that American or English students do,” he said.

That’s as clear as mud. Is he eliminating student loans or an increase in fees?

If so, then the bulk of the required investment will have to be found in that apparent endless money pit called “general


So where is the money to come from? Certainly not the corporate sector, according to Mr Varadkar. On Friday, he told his fellow European leaders that taxing tech firms would drive them away.

These are the kind of bread and butter issues that our new, young, vibrant leader appears to be avoiding like the plague. Instead, we are treated to a ballooning emphasis on spin.

The focus is not on any kind of vision for the future but how to get to the next general election without setting off controversies or discommoding anybody.

At least Mr Varadkar is keeping us informed on his musings by dispatching a weekly video to the great unwashed.

When this week’s offering dropped in my email inbox on Friday I immediately clicked on it, full sure that he would at least address some of the pressing issues he touched on during the week.

Instead, the video begins with an introduction by the prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, who says hello to the folks back in Ireland from an EU summit in Estonia, while his new buddy Leo looks on.

“Leo this is great talking. I’m looking forward to our discussions and I hope to visit you later this year.”

When Leo gets a word in, he says: “I think Ireland and the Netherlands are very similar countries.”

Are they? Really?

There was nothing in the dispatch about the bread and butter issues, but at least Leo is making friends with fellow world leaders across the globe.

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