Fine Gael leadership contest a PR masterstroke for do-nothing Dáil

INTENTIONAL or not, the Fine Gael leadership contest has been a PR masterstroke, writes, Political Reporter Elaine Loughlin.

But while the spotlight has glared down on both Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney over the past two weeks, the wheels of discontent have kept turning and will be hurtling towards the new Taoiseach when he enters office.

A landmark court ruling on asylum seekers, deadlock on public sector pay, a housing crisis which has seen homeless families pointed to Garda cells for shelter, another gangland murder, and an ailing health sector are among the issues that have been almost buried in the wall-to-wall Fine Gael election coverage over the past 16 days.

That mounting heap and a list of other headaches will be piled high, gathering dust, on Leo Varadkar’s desk when he enters the Department of the Taoiseach.

Of course, the media are partly to blame for light coverage of other, arguably more important, issues.

But Fine Gael’s members have been dazzled by the political version of the X-Factor to say the least.

In fact, many TDs were so distracted they forgot to vote in a Labour Party Dáil motion against the sale of AIB, which coincided with the first day of the leadership campaign.

From the first flurry when Mr Varadkar cranked up his conveyor belt of senators and TDs, who enthusiastically came out to publicly support the Social Protection Minister, to the travelling Fine Gael caravan that followed both candidates around the country for town-hall rallies and the four live-streamed hustings, there has been little interest in actually getting things done in the Dáil.

Fine Gael leadership contest a PR masterstroke for do-nothing Dáil

But then again, it has been a do- nothing Dáil for quite some time now.

Meanwhile, many in opposition also saw the leadership race as a chance to sit back and relax.

While shoving issues under the carpet has appeared to work over the past fortnight, the new leader will have to do a full clear-out when he takes up the mantle of Taoiseach.

The new head of Government would have more cramming to do than the current crop of Leaving Cert students.

In the event of successful negotiations with the Independents in Government, and Fianna Fáil, Mr Varadkar’s likely ascendancy is earmarked for June 13.

While the much-anticipated Report on the Future of Healthcare was published on Tuesday, two days later the former minister for health admitted he had yet to read it.

Mr Varadkar said he would try to examine the report over the weekend but, as Taoiseach, he will have a challenge to implement many of the recommendations from the cross-party committee, which included the introduction of free GP for all, free public hospital care, and the demand to remove all private work from public hospitals.

It will be a lot for the young-gun Taoiseach to implement given his short and shaky history in the health portfolio, during which he managed to axe James Reilly’s plans for universal health insurance, failed to put even a dent in waiting lists, and instead constantly moved the goalposts.

One saving grace is the fact that he managed finally push through the free under-fives GP care instigated by Mr Reilly.

With universal backing, Mr Varadkar’s government will now be under pressure to fulfil the recommendations of the Future of Healthcare report.

Another pressure point on Government is, undoubtedly, Brexit, and the general election in the UK add an extra dimension.

While Enda Kenny managed to steer Ireland through the initial talks around Britain’s exit of the European Union, the real negotiations will begin in just a few short weeks when EU leaders meet in Brussels.

Earlier this week, a spokesman for the Taoiseach indicated Mr Kenny does not intend to attend the EU Brexit negotiations in Brussels on June 22/23.

Again more swotting for the new leader, who will be thrown into a room full of European heads of government to thrash it out on our behalf.

And, given the complexity of Brexit and the widespread impact it will undoubtedly have on our little island nation, the route Ireland takes in negotiations will be critical if we are to come out on the right side and obtain the best resolution to what will be a messy process.

Mr Varadkar has already stated that agriculture and food must be top of the Brexit negotiations agenda — at least the Castleknock native is aware of the importance of protecting the farmers of Ireland, with 43% of all Irish agri-food exports still shipped across the Irish Sea.

The scourge of scandals within the gardaí, which led to the resignation of then Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan and the departure of the Justice Minister, has lingered on into this Government.

After the penalty points scandal, the allegations of smear campaigns against whistleblowers, exaggerated drink driving statistics, and the latest controversies around the Garda training college in Templemore, the public has become almost immune to a series of shocking disclosures.

The embattled Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan is due to appear again before the Public Accounts Committee in the coming weeks, just as Mr Varadkar will be trying to forge a strong Cabinet.

Nóirín O’Sullivan
Nóirín O’Sullivan

Whether he decides to retain Frances Fitzgerald as Justice Minister or brings in fresh blood will be significant. Mr Varadkar has already indicated that “heads must roll” across all public bodies if scandals and wrongdoing are uncovered.

In a thinly veiled threat to Ms O’Sullivan in particular, he stressed: “There isn’t enough individual accountability.”

“What we need a little bit more of in this country is individual accountability,” he said earlier this week. “And, you know, politicians are held to account, ministers do lose their jobs, and politicians lose their seats. It happens, and it needs to happen a little bit more in the public sector.”

However, while eliminating Ms O’Sullivan might appease the public, the wider issue of a Garda force that has been tainted from the top down won’t end with the resignation of one person and will linger on for Government.

Meanwhile, as both Fine Gael candidates were continuing their campaigns throughout the week to make it into the political history books, another groundbreaking decision was emanating from the Supreme Court.

It was left to the minister of state for justice, David Stanton, to pledge in the Dáil to move as quickly as possible to introduce legislation in response to the Supreme Court ruling which found a ban on asylum seekers looking for work was unconstitutional.

This will be a delicate piece of work for the Government, but addressing the issue of the Eighth Amendment will be even more difficult.

Then, of course, there is the AIB sale, public sector pay, a budget to pass, and Housing Minister Simon Coveney’s promise that no families will be in hotel accommodation by July.

With the chores piling up, the first thing Mr Varadkar will have to do, as leader, is to get the mop out.

But it will take some amount of elbow grease to clear away the issues for Government and shine up the image of the ‘do-nothing Dáil’.

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