Taoiseach ac­cused of Wal­ter Mitty com­ments on home­less

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - NEWS - By John Lee john.lee@mailon­sun­day.ie

LEO Varad­kar’s maiden Fine Gael con­fer­ence went from bad to worse with a gaffe which saw him ac­cused of mak­ing a ‘Wal­ter Mitty’ re­mark ‘down­play­ing’ the home­less cri­sis.

It fol­lowed a tele­vised con­fer­ence key­note speech on Fri­day which was de­scribed by op­po­nents – and Fine Gael del­e­gates who at­tended it – as ner­vous and light on pol­icy.

But it was when at­tempt­ing to defend his sug­ges­tion that the mi­nor­ity Gov­ern­ment’s plan to tackle home­less­ness was work­ing yes­ter­day, that the Taoiseach stum­bled more se­ri­ously.

He told re­porters – in a trun­cated press con­fer­ence – that Ire­land has ‘one of the low­est lev­els of home­less­ness’ by in­ter­na­tional stan­dards. His re­sponse to ques­tions about the wors­en­ing cri­sis was de­scribed as ‘liv­ing on an­other planet’.

The lat­est fig­ures show that 8,374 peo­ple ac­cessed emer­gency ac­com­mo­da­tion in Septem­ber and more than 3,100 of these were chil­dren.

On Fri­day night, Mr Varad­kar used his resched­uled speech to del­e­gates to crit­i­cise ‘cyn­ics’ who say the cri­sis can’t be solved. He also de­fended FG’s plan to tackle the is­sue, ar­gu­ing that it is work­ing.

How­ever, at a press con­fer­ence at the Slieve Rus­sell Ho­tel, Mr Varad­kar was chal­lenged on how he could say the plan is work­ing, given the record num­bers of home­less peo­ple here.

He told re­porters: ‘Ire­land has one of the low­est lev­els of home­less­ness. We’re ac­tu­ally a coun­try by in­ter­na­tional stan­dards, com­pared with our peers, that has a low level of home­less­ness.’

He added that sta­tis­tics can be pro­vided to back this up and that ‘it’s a good thing’ that Ir­ish lev­els of home­less­ness com­pare favourably to other coun­tries.

‘But what’s bet­ter than that is we don’t think that’s good enough, and we want to con­tinue to re­duce home­less­ness,’ he said.

How­ever, a re­porter pointed out that the fig­ures are high by pre­vi­ous Ir­ish stan­dards.

‘Ob­vi­ously, home­less­ness and the num­ber of peo­ple in emer­gency ac­com­mo­da­tion has in­creased in the last num­ber of years, but by in­ter­na­tional stan­dards home­less­ness in Ire­land is low.

‘But that’s not good enough. I want to make sure that we turn the tide on it. And I think we’ll do that in the com­ing months and years.

‘What planet is the Taoiseach liv­ing on?’

‘We’ve al­ready seen, in Dublin, the num­ber of peo­ple who are in emer­gency ac­com­mo­da­tion is now fall­ing, and we know what works. We just need to ex­tend that now to the rest of the coun­try and in­ten­sify it.

‘Yes, there are ma­jor chal­lenges with hous­ing and home­less­ness, and, no, they won’t be solved overnight. But we have a plan, the plan is work­ing, and we won’t stop un­til we suc­ceed.’

This view was sav­aged last night, how­ever, by An­thony Flynn, CEO of In­ner City Help­ing Home­less.

‘The Taoiseach has stated by in­ter­na­tional stan­dards our rate of home­less­ness is very low when, in fact, by in­ter­na­tional stan­dards we do not doc­u­ment the lev­els of home­less­ness to the same [de­gree].

‘Monthly fig­ures are only in­clu­sive of emer­gency-funded ac­com­mo­da­tion pro­vided by the Gov­ern­ment. We fail to in­clude those who are in tem­po­rary sup­ported ac­com­mo­da­tion; sofa surfers; those who do not di­rectly ac­cess emer­gency ac­com­mo­da­tion be­cause of safety con­cerns; and pri­vate­ly­funded home­less op­er­a­tions.

‘This is a Wal­ter Mitty re­mark from a Fine Gael-led Gov­ern­ment who failed to even put the hous­ing/ home­less cri­sis on the agenda of their na­tional con­fer­ence.

‘Con­sis­tent rises in those pre­sent­ing as home­less have been preva­lent for a long time now. [There is an] in­crease in chil­dren in emer­gency ac­com­mo­da­tion, and the high­est-ever recorded num­ber of rough sleep­ers... what planet are the Taoiseach and Min­is­ter for Hous­ing liv­ing on?

‘[They are] not liv­ing on the same planet as those who are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness, or those who are

pro­vid­ing front­line ser­vices.’

A spokesman for the Peter McVerry Trust re­acted to Mr Varad­kar’s state­ment by say­ing: ‘Peter McVerry Trust is dis­ap­pointed that the Taoiseach has at­tempted to down­play the record high lev­els of home­less­ness in Ire­land.

‘Since Leo Varad­kar be­came Taoiseach on June 14, we be­lieve 2,300 pre­sen­ta­tions of home­less­ness have taken place across Ire­land. That’s 15 peo­ple per day. In fact, this year home­less­ness is set to in­crease by 25% – the worst year yet.

‘It would seem the Taoiseach was at­tempt­ing to down­play the cri­sis and that will be dis­ap­point­ing to ev­ery­one on the front­line and peo­ple in home­less­ness.’

Sinn Féin’s spokesman on hous­ing, Eoin Ó Broin, ar­gued against the sta­tis­tics Mr Varakar re­lied on.

‘This isn’t true,’ he said. ‘The Gov­ern­ment only counts those in emer­gency ac­com­mo­da­tion and rough sleep­ers. Oth­ers in­clude all home­less peo­ple: sofa surfers, those who are in­vol­un­tar­ily shar­ing in un­suit­able con­di­tions.

Mr Varad­kar’s speech came in for crit­i­cism from del­e­gates as well. He ran over time for the main speech and ap­peared wooden and ner­vous.

The main room in which the main con­fer­ence speech was de­liv­ered was rather un­suit­able for the oc­ca­sion. The chairs were not can­tilevered, and many had dif­fi­culty see­ing and hear­ing Mr Varad­kar.

One del­e­gate from Dublin said: ‘Leo is nor­mally a very good com­mu­ni­ca­tor, but he seemed ner­vous, which I sup­pose is nat­u­ral for your first speech as a leader.

‘I’ve read that Mar­garet Thatcher was al­ways ner­vous at her con­fer­ence speeches.’

On RTÉ’s Claire Byrne ra­dio show, so­ci­ol­o­gist Ni­amh Houri­gan said the con­tent could have come from a speech by for­mer Tory leader, David Cameron.

She spec­u­lated the speech was a tough task given his low poll among or­di­nary mem­bers dur­ing the party lead­er­ship bat­tle.

Mr Varad­kar was de­fended on the pro­gramme by Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Richard Bru­ton, who seemed to ac­cept the speech did not reach stylis­tic heights.

‘I’ve been lis­ten­ing to crit­i­cisms of Leo, say­ing he is all style and no sub­stance. Now the very peo­ple who of­fer those crit­i­cisms say we are ob­sess­ing about style.

‘It is just so ironic... when we pro­duce a 45-page doc­u­ment set­ting out a strat­egy and a road-map for the fu­ture... that peo­ple are talk­ing about style and whether he was wooden.’

Mr Varad­kar was happy with his speech, how­ever, telling the MoS: ‘I think it went well: great feed­back from the mem­bers.’

Mr Varad­kar was also ques­tioned about FG pro­pos­als on so­cial wel­fare which would see ben­e­fits be­ing linked to the ‘level of con­tri­bu­tions’.

Mr Varad­kar ex­plained: ‘Bear in mind it’s al­ready the case in Ire­land that PRSI pay­ments are re­lated to ben­e­fits. What we’d like to move to­wards is a sys­tem we had in the past called payre­lated ben­e­fits,’ he said.

‘And a sys­tem that is now the norm across Eu­rope, which is that if you lose your job, for ex­am­ple, [or] if you be­come sick, or go on ma­ter­nity or pa­ter­nity leave, in­stead of just get­ting the same amount, there would be a link be­tween the amount you paid in and the amount that you get.’

‘Home­less­ness set to in­crease by 25%’

AP­PEARED NER­VOUS: Leo Varad­kar on the podium at his party con­fer­ence in Ca­van this week­end

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