When he first got into politics Leo Varadkar was seen as a maverick, he was candid, but he quickly became regarded as prioritising spin over substance, writes Michael Clifford.
‘WORDS matter,” Michael D Higgins said on the night of his re-election as president. “Words can hurt. Words can heal. Words can empower. Words can divide.”
Most observers believe that what Mr Higgins had in mind were some of the words used by Peter Casey, who had contested the election. Mr Casey, as everybody this side of Mars is now aware, created a splash by lashing out at Travellers and social welfare recipients.
His comments propelled him from last to second place in a field of six. He corralled 23% of the vote, with the other four runners-up all coming in at under 7%. A few days before he made his comments Casey was languishing on 2%. As it turned out, he was the only contender — apart from the winner — eligible to be reimbursed his election expenses.
One constant theme that emerged in the excavation of reasons for Casey’s inflated vote is that he spoke in plain terms about what many people were feeling.
This is highly debatable. His derogatory comments about Travellers may have struck a chord with some, but hardly nearly a quarter of the, admittedly small, electorate.
In the same vein drawing a kick at those on social welfare is a hardy annual on the fringes of politics.
Where he certainly did strike a chord was in how, as a prospective public figure, he spoke in plain English about matters of public policy. That is simply not done anymore.
In public life, it is now nearly mandatory to deliver every utterance in a form of language that is far removed from how people actually communicate in what you might call the real world.
This was touched on in the recently published Disclosures Tribunal report. Judge Peter Charleton noted the convoluted and PR-driven manner in which communication was undertaken between high-ranking public servants.
“It adds to the sense of public distrust in the key institutions of State,” Judge Charleton wrote. “Public service is not about public relations. Plain speaking by those who know what they are talking about is the only acceptable way to address the Irish people.”
In politics, the situation is much worse. Saying what you feel and feeling what you say is regarded as naive or even reckless.
People like plain speaking. In a world where politics and business has become obsessed with PR, the person who steps out of that bubble gets noticed.
This is applicable now as it always was. Go back to 1984, when John Waters interviewed then leader of the opposition, Charlie Haughey.
“I could instance a load of fuckers whose throat I’d cut and push over the nearest cliff, but there’s no percentage in that,” Haughey told the journalist.
Haughey thought he would be slaughtered for exposing a primal instinct. It turned out that people were reassured that a senior politician had a pulse.
Would anybody in politics today speak so candidly? If so would he or she get slaughtered by the media in today’s environment?
One recent example of how politics has been captured by PR is available in the person of Leo Varadkar. When he began in politics, Mr Varadkar was regarded as a breath of air. He was candid. He called things as he saw them. As a result he was, at times, controversial but he didn’t rein in his natural impulse to speak out.
When he got into government he retained the maverick streak for a while. Then, on assuming the leadership of the party, he wrapped himself in cotton wool and produced the now infamous Strategic Communications Unit.
The unit quickly began to drown in its own spin, attracting controversy and feeding into the notion that Mr Varadkar was now prioritising spin over substance. The plain-speaking Leo of old began to come across as somebody who had acquired the zeal of the convert as far as spin was concerned.
The Strategic Communications Unit is no more, but its dedication to spin can be seen in every breath drawn by every government figure before a camera.
As Judge Charleton observed, this kind of stuff contributes to mistrust in public institutions.
The seduction of spin in politics would be bad enough if people were collectively living high on the hog, but when many feel left behind in the economy, the failure to communicate plainly and honestly exacerbates alienation.
Donald Trump exploited that situation expertly in campaigning for the US presidency in 2016. Following his election, many voters suggested that one of his great strengths was he sounded “authentic”. Mr Trump is about as authentic as the fake tan which matches his hair colour. But that doesn’t matter to voters. What matters is that he sounds authentic compared to most other politicians. He speaks in ordinary language, using plain English, unscripted and, at times, emotional. As such he was able to present himself as the anti-patter, anti-politician politician.
During the recent presidential election campaign here, Peter Casey hit on the same nerve with a section of the electorate. For those who feel left behind by the economic recovery he was speaking plainly. His comments were crude, exploitative and factually inaccurate. What mattered to many who voted for Mr Casey, though, was that he sounded authentic.
Mr Casey is no Donald Trump. He won’t make any impact on national politics, not least because he doesn’t really know anything about politics. But one lesson that can be extracted from his five minutes of fame (or infamy) is that there is a want out there for politicians who speak plainly and are not afraid to address difficult issues.
Going down such a road would not be easy in today’s environment. Doing it in a manner that is not exploitative would take a bit of work. But a continuation of the current trend to wrap everything up in PR speak is going to further erode trust in politics. You can’t put it more plainly than that.
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