The wages of spin: Has any­thing changed in 100 days?

Irish Examiner - - Forum -

Leo Varad­kar has a lot of help in shap­ing his im­age. The tax-funded re­sources ded­i­cated to ‘spin­ning’ on his be­half are con­sid­er­able.

In the Dáil be­fore the sum­mer re­cess, Mr Varad­kar con­firmed de­tails of his ex­pan­sive op­er­a­tion dur­ing a de­bate with Micheál Martin, Bren­dan Howlin, and Gerry Adams.

He con­firmed that the Gov­ern­ment In­for­ma­tion Ser­vice is com­prised of the Gov­ern­ment press sec­re­tary (Fear­gal Pur­cell, whose salary is €115,431); his soon-to-be re­place­ment Nick Miller is also there; the as­sis­tant Gov­ern­ment press sec­re­tary Sarah Meade (€82,587); two as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal of­fi­cers, one of whom is as­signed to the Pravda-es­que web­site Mer­; four press of­fi­cers at higher ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer level, three com­mu­ni­ca­tions and me­dia as­sis­tants at ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer equiv­a­lent grade as­signed to Mer­rion, and one cler­i­cal of­fi­cer.

The Taoiseach has also de­cided to es­tab­lish the Strate­gic Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Unit un­der John Con­can­non, who is on an as­sis­tant sec­re­tary grade which com­mands a salary of be­tween €122,313 and €139,728, while an­other of­fi­cial as­signed to the unit, An­drea Pap­pin, is on an as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal higher grade of be­tween €83,519 and €102,212.

Then, of course, he has his in­ner team of ad­vis­ers — chief of staff Brian Mur­phy, pro­gramme man­ager and for­mer PR man John Car­roll, and Trin­ity aca­demic-turned speech­writer Pa­trick Geoghe­gan. Their salaries have not yet been dis­closed but, all in all, it is quite the op­er­a­tion.

Mr Varad­kar’s 100th day as Taoiseach next Fri­day is a mile­stone.

An im­por­tant mile­stone, as the first 100 days are of­ten said to be the most pro­duc­tive of any term.

So we must ask our­selves the ques­tion. Just what has changed since the de­par­ture of Enda Kenny and the ar­rival of Mr Varad­kar into Gov­ern­ment Build­ings?

Elected in a blaze of in­ter­na­tional me­dia cov­er­age around his sex­u­al­ity, his age, and his eth­nic­ity, he was por­trayed as a vi­sion of just how far lit­tle old Catholic Ire­land had come.

Yet, from the off, Mr Varad­kar was dogged by scan­dal around the na­ture of the de­par­ture of the for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral Máire Whe­lan.

It was a scan­dal that was Enda Kenny’s in the mak­ing.

But since then, it has been a rocky pe­riod and one in which the Taoiseach has been sub­ject to wide and per­sis­tent crit­i­cism. Slammed for pri­ori­tis­ing style over sub­stance, Mr Varad­kar’s de­ci­sion to es­tab­lish the Strate­gic Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Unit has given crit­ics of Fine Gael a golden op­por­tu­nity to por­tray him as a vain dilet­tante.

Rather than it be­ing seen as a nec­es­sary move to bet­ter co-or­di­nate the com­plex mes­sage of 15 sep­a­rate Gov­ern­ment de­part­ments, it has been al­lowed to ac­quire myth­i­cal status akin to Gar­rett Fitzger­ald’s ‘Na­tional Han­dlers’ back in the 1980s.

Mr Varad­kar has been crit­i­cised for at­tend­ing Pride march af­ter Pride march, with con­tro­ver­sial broad­caster Ge­orge Hook tak­ing him to task for daring to go to Canada at the time of a hous­ing cri­sis. Hook, be­fore his lat­est trou­bles, used his High Noon show to ber­ate the Taoiseach for “swan­ning around Canada”.

Mr Hook crit­i­cised him for at­tend­ing a gay pride pa­rade in Canada, and took is­sue with Mr Varad­kar’s visit af­ter speak­ing about a sit­u­a­tion in Dublin where tents be­long­ing to home­less men were taken. “I don’t want to hear he’s gay,” said Hook. “I don’t want to hear he’s in love. I don’t want to hear his boyfriend has gone to Amer­ica. I think the Taoiseach is in­creas­ingly be­com­ing a pub­lic re­la­tions cre­ation rather than a leader of a coun­try that ac­tu­ally faces some crises. I think he should be progress in deal­ing with the hous­ing cri­sis was a le­git­i­mate con­cern, the op­por­tunis­tic crit­i­cism of Mr Varad­kar from all sides was bizarre.

Mr Varad­kar also drew the ire of so­called pro-lif­ers, who took is­sue with him be­ing “led” by Cana­dian prime min­is­ter Justin Trudeau on the is­sue of abor­tion. Wendy Grace, a well-known con­ser­va­tive ad­vo­cate, penned a piece which said she used to ad­mire Mr Varad­kar and his trait of stooge.” The truth of it is that Mr Trudeau was asked about his view on abor­tion by Fi­ach Kelly of the Ir­ish Times at a press con­fer­ence and he re­sponded by say­ing that giv­ing women a choice is, in his view, a fun­da­men­tal hu­man right. Be­cause Mr Varad­kar didn’t ob­ject, pub­licly any­way, he is ac­cused of aban­don­ing un­born chil­dren of Ire­land. Again, the truth was a ca­su­alty here. He, as a leader who is known to be con­ser­va­tive, is com­mit­ted to hold­ing a ref­er­en­dum on the eighth amend­ment, which is a Pro­gramme for Gov­ern­ment com­mit­ment. He is stick­ing to a deal made last year. Speak­ing at his party’s think-in in Clon­mel this week, Mr Varad­kar ex­panded on his de­sire to cre­ate a ‘Repub­lic of Op­por­tu­nity’.

The key slo­gan of his elec­tion cam­paign, his speech on Wed­nes­day in Clon­mel was a first at­tempt to flesh out what that ac­tu­ally means. In truth, it sounds like a PR-driven slo­gan in search of a pol­icy plat­form to jus­tify it, but as of now, it rings as hol­low as ‘Keep­ing the Re­cov­ery Go­ing’.

We have heard a lot about those who get up early in the morn­ing and go to work and the need for them to be re­warded, mod­estly, in the bud­get, through tax cuts.

In­creases in spend­ing will be pru­dent and re­spon­si­ble and would not mark a re­turn to the boom and bust days of a decade ago.

But we know with just €300m ex­tra, any changes will be mod­est at best. Even the ham­fisted man­ner of his men­tion of Nama as a pos­si­ble so­lu­tion to the hous­ing cri­sis begs the ques­tion: How com­posed and to­gether is our new leader?

There was no men­tion of Nama in the script of his speech in Clon­mel and the im­port of its men­tion was be­ing played down by han­dlers shortly there­after.

It has caused some to ask, is he mak­ing it up as he goes along?

Away from the pub­lic re­la­tions, the one area where Mr Varad­kar de­serves credit is for tak­ing a bolder and more ag­gres­sive stance with Bri­tain on Brexit. His stance, co­or­di­nated with that of Si­mon Coveney, has taken hold in Brus­sels and we have seen mount­ing pres­sure on Down­ing St to de­liver a work­able so­lu­tion to Brexit which does not en­dan­ger the is­land of Ire­land.

So far, his tougher stance has been vin­di­cated, but let us see where we are the far side of the key sum­mit in Oc­to­ber. De­spite this hard­en­ing of po­si­tions by a Dublin ad­min­is­tra­tion, there has been lit­tle else to sing about from what we have seen so far.

We have seen far too lit­tle from the Gov­ern­ment to jus­tify the hype we have heard for so long about the man.

“Slammed for pri­ori­tis­ing style over sub­stance, Mr Varad­kar’s de­ci­sion to es­tab­lish the Strate­gic Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Unit has given crit­ics of Fine Gael a golden op­por­tu­nity to por­tray him as a vain dilet­tante

Pic­ture: Adam Scotti

Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar re­ceived crit­i­cism from ‘pro-life’ ad­vo­cates, who took is­sue with what they saw as him be­ing led by Cana­dian prime min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, left, on the is­sue of abor­tion. Be­cause he failed to ob­ject pub­licly to Mr Trudeau’s...

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