Leo Varadkar became Taoiseach, or Prime Minister to you non-Irish types, on 14 June 2017. He hasn’t done much in the seven months since.
The more Fine-Gael-inclined among you may object that nothing can get done quickly in politics. And, well, sure. It’s not straightforward. So, let’s explore why he’s been a disappointing Taoiseach and why some people think he’s good at his job.
Across a loose and disunited coalition of web pages sometimes referred to as ‘Irish left Twitter,’ Varadkar has been consistently mocked and derided for his public persona. Our Taoiseach seems determined to present himself as the Prime Minister in Love Actually. This is bad, not only because Love Actually is fucking nonsense garbage bullshit but also because it costs €5m a year.
It must be said that €5m a year, in the context of a government’s total budget, is fairly small. The spin unit is occasionally characterised as eating up money that could be put towards the homeless crisis. The gap in that narrative is that Varadkar’s first budget put €1.83bn into housing. Adding the spin unit budget to that would barely round it up.
Despite that, it’s pretty ludicrous to have such an elaborate and frantic PR setup. The new strategic communications unit has brought Varadkar brand identity and design, digital media services like videos and photo shoots, marketing services, and research into how the public views the government. Presumably, the research is finding folks exasperated by all the research.
Imagine going to film school and ending up as one of the five or so guys who shoots Leo Varadkar going for a run. You may have seen the videos. These are good people doing professional work all in the service of making Varadkar look good so that someone in however many years’ or months’ time will put a ‘1’ next to his name.
An expensive re-election campaign with no election in sight would be merely embarrassing if Varadkar’s government were putting so much effort into anything else.
Recall the huge housing budget figure quoted above. The housing crisis isn’t quite what it was but don’t try to say it is no more. Why is that the case if Fine Gael keeps throwing so much money at the problem? It has recently emerged that the Gresham Hotel in Dublin will be cutting off its emergency accommodation for the homeless at the end of the month. Apparently, there’s no room at the inn. The Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE) is working to find new accommodation for these people and families. It’s clear the DRHE are doing fine, kind work but the instability of the situation indicates a lack of energy and creative problem-solving higher up the chain of command.
Consider a similar situation in the health service which Leo used to oversee. The expenditure is nearly €20bn. Why, then, are nearly 500,000 people stuck on outpatient waiting lists? At the time of writing, 592 patients are waiting on trolleys. Only one-third of nurses have got the flu vaccine despite the outbreak. Health Minister Simon Harris, Varadkar’s embattled successor, has been dealing with the latest winter health crisis. Varadkar himself has offered an apology but there’s no end to the crisis in sight.
Part of the problem is a lack of activity and energy. These problems were never going to be solved overnight. But, if Varadkar poured a proportionate level of time, resources, and lateral thinking into housing and the health service as he did into photo-shoots and platitudes, maybe we’d be getting someplace. While it would be incorrect to say he has totally dodged the issue, he has tried to downplay the housing crisis. After all, he says, we’re not any worse than most other European countries and it’s not like several similar countries can have similar problems.
It would be unfair to characterise his first few months in office as totally uneventful. After all, the government nearly collapsed.
Let’s not dive into that story or we’ll be here all day. Suffice that while loyalty can be a virtue, loyalty to a minister was pretty misguided in this case. In the standoff, Fine Gael eventually blinked. Ideally, there’d have been no standoff at all. If Ministers can’t do their job then they have to be thrown out of the airlock.
To give the dog a small bone in the hopes he might accidentally swallow and choke on it, the abortion issue is slowly, slowly, slowly moving in the right direction. After languishing in committee hell for over a year, it seems the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment actually will be happening next year and seems likely to be for free, safe, and legal abortion such as the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) have been pushing for. Varadkar, though anti-choice, doesn’t seem to be obstructing this even though, from his point of view, Enda Kenny pulled the pin on a grenade and handed it over. All the real praise in this situation must be given to everyone at ARC, though.
Those are the positives. Did you miss them? You might have blinked. So far, Varadkar has proven himself more concerned with re-election than with governing.
Of course, if you happen to want a leftist Taoiseach, you’ll be disappointed for a while yet. The political geography of the country has made that nigh-on impossible unless there’s some grand sea change. But that’s a different story.