Alison O'Connor: Why Leo’s round of Christmas publicity didn’t make a splash

Here’s a new year wish: May our politicians remain clothed while there are cameras around.

Alison O'Connor: Why Leo’s round of Christmas publicity didn’t make a splash

Here’s a new year wish: May our politicians remain clothed while there are cameras around.

Just when I was silently congratulating Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin for his reserve, a photo popped up on social media on Wednesday of him emerging from the sea in Courtmacsherry, Co Cork.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan appeared in a similar pose the day before on a beach somewhere in Sligo, on a sunny New Year’s Eve. But my powers of recovery have been most stretched by the Christmas Day appearance of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Forty Foot in south Co Dublin.

Alongside him were his partner Matt and two of Fine Gael’s general election candidates from theDún Laoghaire constituency, Barry Ward and Jennifer Carroll MacNeill.

Perhaps the aspirant TDs were thrilled to dive into the freezing water, but were more likely prompted by Leo’s people to join him on this guaranteed-coverage publicity stunt.

Crying off would simply not have been an option. Cruel and unusual punishment for people whose only crime is to have put themselves forward for the Dáil.

I imagine that many Fine Gael TDs and party candidates around the country had exactly the same reaction to the photos that I did.

As they sat down to their Christmas dinner, I further imagined silent prayers of thanks being uttered by them all that they were not in a Dublin constituency where there was a large body of water and a famous swimming spot.

I’m conscious of my age when gauging my reaction to these things and, in this instance, my repressed Irish nature, but it all just came across as fake publicity.

It’s easier to imagine it garnering far more eye rolls that votes. But, hey, the young people might well disagree. But for us older people, who are more inclined to go out and vote, how much more of this sort of fur-coat canvassing are we going to witness from Leo in the general election?

The attempt of politicians to get positive publicity, especially of the kind that makes them look young and energetic, has been with us through the ages.

But the political failures elsewhere — children having their chemotherapy treatments delayed, the collective and never ending misery of hospital emergency departments, and the failures on housing and homelessness, amongst other subjects — mean that the tolerance for stunts and gimmicks is low.

Micheal Martin also did the swim thing, in the company of Cork South West TD Margaret Murphy O’Mahony. In this case it was for a very worthy cause, being an annual fundraiser for the lifeboat in Courtmacsherry.

The thing is that it is easy to imagine Micheál continuing to do it long after he leaves politics.

Up in the North-West, Justice Minister Flanagan walked out of the Sligo sea smiling, with his arms raised, looking like he’d had a bit of craic and would murder a hot whiskey, after the shock of the Atlantic cold.

Leo did tell waiting journalists that this was his third year doing a sea swim on Christmas Day.

Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Leo never again subjected himself to the numbingly frigid Irish Sea in December — unless there was an election around the corner.

Leo’s judgement of how best to portray himself in the general election is a key concern of his party colleagues. In his favour, he did other things on Christmas Day in Dún Laoghaire. Former Fine Gael fundraiser Anne Strain tweeted a photo of Matt and himself visiting the Dún Laoghaire Christmas Day lunch.

For over 30 years, local woman Margaret Brown, with the help of volunteers, has been organising a special lunch for people who live on their own, but she also includes others, such as the homeless. Local TD and junior minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor was also there.

On Christmas Eve, the Taoiseach visited staff in Connolly Hospital on the outskirts of Dublin, where he once worked as a doctor. He tweeted his thanks to staff there for all that they do for the community on Christmas Day and every day.

Actually, as you would expect, the Taoiseach’s social media was busy over the Yuletide period. Over the course of a few days in the run-up to Christmas Day, and afterwards, there was a snapshot of what we will be hearing from Fine Gael on why exactly we should re-elect their representatives in sufficient numbers to form the next government. There was a series of tweets and retweets, mainly of members of his Cabinet, from the Taoiseach.

There was reference to the minimum wage rise to €10.10 an hour in February, to the Government approval to publicy fund infertility services, to chief whip Sean Kyne’s enactment of 54 bills in the Oireachtas (with an accompanying video), to the appointment of a new clinical lead for Irish abortion services (as the first anniversary of its introduction approached), and reference to the Government’s targeting of plastic waste.

There was the video (in imitation of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s) in which Leo summed up, rapid fire, “what we’ve managed to get done since I’ve been Taoiseach.” (That was two and a half years encapsulated in two and a half minutes. He managed to carry it off well.)

His new-year video, outlining the Varadkar priorities for 2020, began with what he knows is a strength, “steering Ireland through the next phase of Brexit”, and goes on to promise loads of extra jobs, houses, action on climate, investment in public transport, and new hospitals. You get the picture.

Later in the day, he highlighted some of the small increases from the Budget, such as the €5 a week for pensioners.

“I know it’s not enough,” he adds.

“Which is why, with certainty with Brexit, a well-managed economy, and the public finances back in surplus, we can do much better in the next budget.”

You don’t have to concentrate too hard to get the message here. In between it all, we had the photographs of the visit of the entire Varadkar family to Leo’s Dad’s homeplace in India.

It’s the sort of thing that usually gets me going, eager to see all the photos, to discern who looks like whom, if everyone look happy, and what the weather is like. This time, it just didn’t.

A much-loved aunt of mine had a phrase she liked repeating to us when we were teenagers, when we used to keep asking to go out socialising. She used to say, to our annoyance: “Seldom seen, more admired.”

I’m not even sure exactly why, but it feels like Leo could have applied that maxim this Christmas.

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