Taoiseach accused of Walter Mitty comments on homeless
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