ALISON O'CONNOR: Mind your language: Words really matter in the world of politics

Alison O’Connor argues that Simon Coveney, through his words, is pointing the blame for homelessness not towards him or his Cabinet colleagues but to ‘the State’ — to all of us.

LANGUAGE in politics is important. The Government was keen to tell us that the details contained in Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe’s speech on Tuesday represented a “caring and responsible budget for a modern Ireland”.

Donohoe maintained his deliberately low key, steady, firm, imperturbable presence on budget day. A few weeks ago, at The Collins Institute, a Fine Gael thinktank, he laid out the reasons for that signature approach in a keynote speech, with the rather racy title of “Renewing the Centre”.

The event was a haven for political anoraks, but in truth we do too little of this sort of stuff — the standing back and giving consideration to an overall approach or philosophy on which direction we want to go in. To be fair the recession years didn’t leave much time for that sort of thing, but even before that it wasn’t too popular.

Anyway Paschal Donohoe does not shy away from this fray, and if you were involved in a drinking game for each time he referenced a renowned author or scholar in his lengthy speech you might have been in danger of being carried out by the end. But what that proves is he is not only well read, but gives considerable thought to the matter of where we should be headed, and how that might be explained to the voters. It was all about weaning us off the boom and bust cycle and remaining in the political centre with a “steady state”.

In his thought-provoking speech he laid out how a necessary pre-condition for progress is a consistency of approach; one where you decide on the appropriate economic and social model and have the political commitment and consensus to stick with it, across political and economic cycles.

You’d go the road with him quite a distance on all of this, especially given the political turmoil happening either side of us in the UK and the US. There is much to recommend his offering. The problem is that it gets tarnished with party politics, with the efforts, through deliberate use of language, to shift the blame away from Government for its own shortcomings.

I mentioned here a few weeks ago the response of Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, appearing on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland when asked, yet again, to defend the homelessness figures, then approaching 10,000 people.

“The number in emergency accommodation do keep going up, because people keep presenting in emergency accommodation,” he responded.

Just over a week later, and on the same programme, former housing minister Simon Coveney, sang from the same hymn sheet: “… there are many new families coming into homelessness all the time, that’s the problem”. His interview came after the heartbreaking plea for a home from the secondary schoolgirl know as Amanda who remains living in a hotel as she faces into her Leaving Certificate.

Mr Coveney was asked if he accepted he had failed Amanda, through the failure of “Rebuilding Ireland”, the plan he had introduced as minister for housing two years ago. His answer was intriguing. He said he accepted “the State” is currently failing the schoolgirl.

Oh there was also lots of emollient language from the now Tánaiste and foreign affairs minister about how tough it was for Amanda and her family, and how many more families had been taken out of homelessness so far this year and how this process was due to accelerate next year.

But you don’t have to be a political strategist to see the thrust of the Fine Gael thinking on how to spin this ever spiralling crisis. Even the active language they use, about people “coming” or “presenting”. Is that a whisper of a suggestion somehow of choice being involved by those who are “coming into homelessness”, “people keep presenting in emergency accommodation”.

Where does the blame lie? Simon Coveney, through his words, is pointing us not towards him or the rest of his Cabinet colleagues but to “the State” — to all of us.

It brings to mind a half finished sentence from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the Dáil, a few weeks ago, when, housing again, was under discussion. It would appear he hadn’t gotten that new ministerial circular on how to speak about the housing crisis — or indeed had not yet written it — or just perhaps slipped into showing some true colours. He spoke of those “who pay for everything and who don’t qualify for anything, and those who ...” before he filtered off mumbling.

Last week he was picked up on that unfinished utterance by People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith. She gave the context that the Taoiseach had been involved in an exchange with Solidarity TD Mick Barry at the time.

“You seemed unable to finish a statement in response to my colleague,” she remarked. “You said that you believed this side of the House divides people. We create walls between those, you said, ‘who pay for everything and who don’t qualify for anything, and those who ...’. But you couldn’t finish the statement. You got a bit flustered and you sat down. And that was good spin and good drama training that made you sit down because I’m going to tell you, what you were going to say is ‘those who pay for nothing and expect everything for free’ and you were referring to people who live in social housing.”

Needless to say the Taoiseach rejected outright her assertions saying it was “an attempt to put words in other people’s mouths” and what he’d been talking about was the sort of politics operated by Deputies Barry and Smyth and their colleagues, which is to divide people.

THE take-away from all of this? Well it shows you don’t have to scratch the surface too far to reach that Fine Gael sense of superiority, that annoyance that the peasants, I meant the people in need, don’t properly appreciate their efforts, or indeed may not even deserve them in the first place. It’s what got them into such trouble in the 2016 general election campaign.

Going back to that speech by Donohoe. During it he took umbrage at those who treat stability, positive social change and national wealth as “incidental to national politics and the State — as opposed to their core achievements”, listing job creation, income redistribution policies, the dramatic improvement in so many health outcomes and exit from a bailout programme, which many predicted to be impossible.

Elsewhere in the speech he did mention homelessness, along with the health service as issues the Government needed to address.

But if he wants this centrism message, and it’s apparent benefits, to really take hold he might brief his colleagues that people recognise when political philosophy is no more than skin deep.

More on this topic

349% increase in families in emergency accommodation over five-year period349% increase in families in emergency accommodation over five-year period

Dublin city records lowest number of families in emergency accommodation since 2016Dublin city records lowest number of families in emergency accommodation since 2016

Charity sees highest number of rough sleepers since Covid-19 beganCharity sees highest number of rough sleepers since Covid-19 began

Homelessness numbers fall below 10,000 but charity anxious about Covid-19 measuresHomelessness numbers fall below 10,000 but charity anxious about Covid-19 measures


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