Leo Varadkar’s first visit to London as Taoiseach was an occasion on which to show authority, writes Michael Clifford
LET’S hope that Leo Varadkar spotted more than just a movie prop from Love Actually on his visit to Downing St last Monday. The new Taoiseach’s starstruck comment about descending the stairs at No 10 in the footsteps of Hugh Grant was misjudged.
Varadkar’s first visit to London as Taoiseach was an occasion on which to show authority. It was a time to show battered Old Blighty that this young, confident country, led by its young, confident Taoiseach would be no pushover. Or at least throw a few shapes in that direction, even if nobody really believes it.
Instead of Hugh Grant, Leo could have invoked the ghost of Michael Collins in Number 10 to point out that while the Big Fella signed his death warrant between these walls, at least his sacrifice meant his countrymen and women were now freed from the shackles of chaos engulfing the British body politic.
If the Taoiseach didn’t notice what a royal hames the Brits have made of running their country, he should have, and thanked his lucky stars that things haven’t got that bad in this State. Yet.
Here, it would seem, political shifts are like the weather — benign, watery, subject to the odd burst of brilliant sunshine, but for the most part dull and grey and full of soft days. Perhaps it is the weather that has ensured a largely benign response to the upheavals of the last eight or nine years. But what became obvious last week is that the Government, and body politic, is taking it all for granted.
They can look across the Irish Sea or the Atlantic and observe how the winds of change have swept through the politics-as-usual since the dawn of the economic collapse of 2008. Yet they appear to be entirely oblivious to the fate that befell their kindred spirits in both countries.
Look at the tenor of the politics-as-usual we were subjected to over the last week. The Máire Whelan affair was tawdry. It now looks like a vacancy was held open for her in the Court of Appeal since last March, despite three High Court judges expressing an interest.
She was not asked to recuse herself from the cabinet decision on her nomination. Her appointment was rushed through last Monday, early in the day, to give Leo time to cross the pond and pay homage to Hugh Grant.
Then there was the petty row between Varadkar and Micheál Martin over which judicial appointments by their respective parties were the best.
Varadkar pointed out that Frank Clarke and the late Adrian Hardiman were both appointed directly to the Supreme Court.
Martin replied that: “Máire Whelan is no Frank Clarke, no Adrian Hardiman.”
And on it went, party leaders squabbling over who’s pulled more strokes, who has brainier pet lawyers, who cares less about diminishing the separation of powers between executive and judiciary. Who is out of touch?
Meanwhile, back in the real world, there was more politics-as-usual. Last July, then minister for the environment and housing, Simon Coveney, launched his Rebuilding Ireland blueprint. The document’s main shortcoming is an over-reliance on the market, but one immediate target outlined was the evacuation of all homeless people from hotels by June 30. Coveney repeated that commitment a number of times. His junior minister, Damien English, did likewise. This was a simple target on which the minister could be held to account. If met, it could demonstrate how serious he was about the job.
Since last summer, the numbers of homeless increased, although there was a fall in those consigned to hotels. As late as March 15 last at a function in Dublin, Coveney was asked whether he still believed it would be met.
“I think so, I think so. I mean it’s putting a lot of pressure on people, but I think so.”
Coveney, to be fair to him, appeared to have a genuine commitment to ending homelessness, but few believed his target would be met. How was he going to get out of this one?
We now know that following his defeat to Varadkar for the leadership of their party he was given the choice of portfolios. He chose the glamour of the skies in Foreign Affairs to getting down and dirty in the most pressing problem in the State. At least he got him off the hook over the hotel issue.
But what of Varadkar? Here was a chance for him to show how committed he was to effecting a real Republic. He could have told Coveney that he wanted him to remain where he was, for the sake of continuity, for the sake of the apparent passion with which Coveney had approached his task, for the sake of the country. Naw, that’s not the way things are done. Jobs is jobs, plums is plums, politics is about much more than attempting to effect change at a time of crisis.
On Thursday, Coveney’s successor in the portfolio confirmed that the target would not be met: “The important thing about the target was that we got the work done, we brought the resources to bear.”
This was a reference to the provision of 15 family “hubs” in Dublin over the last year, which have accommodated some of those who came from hotels.
Ultimately, there is no political accountability for setting a target and thereafter using it as an expression of the extent of commitment to ending homelessness. Instead, the baton is passed to the new guy who can claim it’s nothing to do with him.
That is the most worrying feature of the events of last week. There still appears to be no realisation at the highest level in politics of how things have changed for so many since the great fall and recovery. Large numbers of people are now disenfranchised in a manner that they weren’t heretofore. Whether it be through a failure to secure meaningful employment, security of employment, the capacity to own a home, or the cost of renting. These and other issues are affecting large swathes here, just as globalisation and associated phenomenon have people in the likes of Britain and the USA.
Right now in Britain, they continue to fail to address the underlying cause of the vote to exit the EU, as they are consumed with the consequences of doing so.
In the USA, the Democrats concentrate their power on dislodging Trump, rather than dealing with why a dangerous buffoon could be elected to office.
Back here at home, the big mistake that the main political parties can make is to take the benign response for granted. That would be a major mistake, but one they appear intent on making.
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