Si­mon v Leo

If you own a house and have health in­sur­ance, this may be an in­ter­est­ing po­lit­i­cal con­test. Si­mon’s more dy­namic in of­fice. Leo’s a bit more in­ter­est­ing. But if you are at the mercy of the rental mar­ket and post- aus­ter­ity Ire­land, it makes no dif­fer­ence

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - by Fintan O’Toole

The play­wright Tom Mur­phy has al­ways in­sisted that the most im­por­tant ques­tion about any drama is: what is at stake? As the long-her­alded Leo and Si­mon Show be­gins its run at last, we know that there will an en­ter­tain­ing drama to fill the news pages and keep the air­waves abuzz.

It will be, in its own way, ab­sorb­ing and even com­pelling. But the Mur­phy ques­tion hov­ers un­easily over the ac­tion: what is at stake?

For po­lit­i­cal in­sid­ers, of course, the ques­tion is ab­surd. The an­swer could not be more ob­vi­ous: it’s be­ing taoiseach, stupid. It’s the big one, the grand prix, the chance to stand at the sum­mit and be mas­ter of all you sur­vey in the con­fined but charm­ing land­scape of Ir­ish politics.

At the very worst, the win­ner al­most cer­tainly gets to be taoiseach f or a f ew months, un­til Fianna Fáil de­cides to pull the plug.

At best, given the youth of the con­tenders and Fine Gael’s rel­a­tively se­cure place in a frag­mented po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, Leo Varad­kar or Si­mon Coveney could go on to dom­i­nate Ir­ish politics for a decade or even two.

This should feel like a gen­er­a­tional shift. Varad­kar is just 38. He has In­dian her­itage and is openly gay. Any one of th­ese three at­tributes would have seemed ex­traor­di­nary in any pre­vi­ous prospec­tive taoiseach. His very pres­ence as the favourite go­ing into the con­test ought to make us acutely con­scious of the scale and speed of so­cial change since he was born in 1979.

Si­mon Coveney is ad­mit­tedly a more tra­di­tional fig­ure – in some re­spects a typ­i­cal dy­nas­tic politi­cian, who in­her­ited his seat af­ter his fa­ther’s tragic death in 1998. But he is still a young man – if he be­comes taoiseach, he will do so shortly af­ter his 45th birth­day.

So why is the sense of a gen­er­a­tional shift so muted? Which­ever of them wins, it seems safe to say that it is not go­ing to feel like the as­cent of John F Kennedy in the US in 1960, of Tony Blair in the UK in 1997 or of Em­manuel Macron in France ear­lier this month.

If there is a wave of youth­ful op­ti­mism, it will make at most a gen­tle lap­ping sound in a shel­tered cove. The con­test will add to the gai­ety of the na­tion for a fort­night, but out­side the po­lit­i­cal bub­ble, most peo­ple will find it hard to an­swer that nag­ging ques­tion: what is at stake?

Hot and both­ered

In truth, this is not the World Poker Cham­pi­onship – it’s a game played for five cent pieces across Fine Gael’s kitchen ta­ble. Peo­ple can get very hot and both­ered at fam­ily card games, and things can even turn quite nasty. But in the end they just don’t mat­ter very much. This is not a strug­gle for the soul of Ire­land – it’s not even a strug­gle for the soul of Fine Gael.

To ac­knowl­edge this is not to dis­par­age ei­ther man – both are ami­able, ar­tic­u­late, in­tel­li­gent and po­lit­i­cally skilled enough to have got this close to the top. But for there to be some­thing at stake, there would have to be very clear dif­fer­ences be­tween them: dif­fer­ences of ide­ol­ogy, ex­pe­ri­ence, vi­sion and demon­strated ca­pac­ity to deal with Ire­land’s long-term so­cial crises.

The truth is that the dis­tances that sep­a­rate them have to be sur­veyed with a mi­cro­scope rather than a theodo­lite.

They are both male. Both are pro­fes­sional politi­cians who never even flirted with youth­ful rad­i­cal­ism: Varad­kar joined Fine Gael in school; Coveney had it in the blood and worked on his fa­ther’s elec­tion cam­paigns as a child.

Both grew up in the era af­ter Mar­garet Thatcher and Ron­ald Rea­gan had shifted the dom­i­nant po­lit­i­cal dis­course far to the right and made the so- called ( and mis­called) free mar­ket an ar­ti­cle of faith.

Both came from com­fort­able fam­i­lies and at­tended ex­pen­sive pri­vate schools: Varad­kar at King’s Hos­pi­tal in Dublin; Coveney at Clon­gowes Wood. (Though one of the few in­ter­est­ing as­pects of his youth is that he was ex­pelled from Clon­gowes dur­ing his tran­si­tion year for what seems to have been rather mi­nor rule-break­ing.)

Both ex­ude an air of com­pe­tence and con­fi­dence while hav­ing the po­lit­i­cal nous to sup­press any sense of en­ti­tle­ment or ar­ro­gance. Both are broadly lib­eral in the so­cial as well the eco­nomic sense: Coveney ran Fine Gael’s cam­paign in the same-sex mar­riage ref­er­en­dum; Varad­kar gave it a huge boost by talk­ing pub­licly about his own sex­u­al­ity for the first time.

Coveney has made more cau­tious noises about abor­tion, but there is lit­tle ex­pec­ta­tion that ei­ther man would de­vi­ate greatly from the path of re­form­ing the law as nar­rowly as pos­si­ble.

In gen­eral, Varad­kar has more suc­cess­fully pro­jected him­self as a straight talker – but there is not much sign that his straight talk­ing has re­ally changed the poli­cies or di­rec­tion of the two gov­ern­ments of which he has been a mem­ber.

Most im­por­tantly, Varad­kar and Coveney have each had a chance in min­is­te­rial of­fice to con­front one of Ire­land’s great so­cial prob­lems: re­spec­tively the health ser­vice and the hous­ing cri­sis.

Health and hous­ing are two of the things that mat­ter most in a de­cent so­ci­ety – they shape peo­ple’s lives. If one or other of the con­tenders could rea­son­ably be said to “de­serve” to be taoiseach, it would be be­cause he had shown the drive, the imag­i­na­tion and the moral pas­sion to cre­ate real change.

Th­ese are the fiery cru­cibles in which the qual­i­ties of lead­er­ship should be forged. But in nei­ther case does the ev­i­dence point to any­thing all that hot.

Varad­kar was min­is­ter for health for al­most two years, up to May 2016. This was

Coveney is a more tra­di­tional fig­ure – in some re­spects a typ­i­cal dy­nas­tic politi­cian, who in­her­ited his seat af­ter his fa­ther’s tragic death in 1998. But he is still a young man

not a full term, and he in­her­ited a sys­tem whose chronic dis­or­gan­i­sa­tion had been ex­ac­er­bated by the acute symp­toms of dras­tic cut­backs in pre­vi­ous years.

But he had two ad­van­tages: he knew the sys­tem well, hav­ing worked as a ju­nior hos­pi­tal doc­tor; and he came to the job when there was was a mod­est but mean­ing­ful loos­en­ing of the purse strings.

The sim­ple ques­tion is: did his suc­ces­sor Si­mon Har­ris in­herit a health sys­tem that was sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter than it had been in 2014? Bet­ter, that is, not just in de­tail, but in its over­all shape, di­rec­tion and co­her­ence? It is not dif­fi­cult to guess how Har­ris, who spent the win­ter al­most drowning in health crises, would an­swer that ques­tion in pri­vate.

Varad­kar did have one no­table struc­tural achieve­ment: the ex­ten­sion of free GP care to 270,000 chil­dren un­der the age of six, an en­hanced and bet­ter- funded ser­vice for the 150,000 chil­dren un­der six who al­ready had a med­i­cal or doc­tor visit card, and free GP vis­its for an ex­tra 36,000 peo­ple over 69. Th­ese mea­sures were al­ready in train when Varad­kar came to of­fice but he de­serves credit for see­ing them through.

How­ever, th­ese changes were them- selves sup­posed to be just the start of Fine Gael’s flag­ship so­cial pol­icy: end­ing the two-tier health sys­tem by bring­ing in uni­ver­sal health in­sur­ance.

Varad­kar’s pre­de­ces­sor James Reilly had a plan in place. It was highly prob­lem­atic and needed some se­ri­ous re­think­ing. But Varad­kar sim­ply tore it up. He aban­doned the plan and had noth­ing con­crete to pro­pose in its place. Why not? Be­cause he wasn’t will­ing to ar­tic­u­late any view at all on the most fun­da­men­tal is­sue: how should health care be paid for?

This is not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion. In a long speech on the health ser­vice to the McGill sum­mer school in July 2015, he even­tu­ally got to the point – and then evaded it: “How do you col­lect the money? Do you take it from tax, from so­cial in­sur­ance, from health in­sur­ance, or from out- of- pocket pay­ments, or some form of com­bi­na­tion? I am ag­nos­tic. I see no com­pelling ev­i­dence to favour one col­lec­tion sys­tem over an­other.”

This in it­self seems ex­traor­di­nary – hav­ing spent most of his life in medicine and politics, he has no opin­ion on the area where the two most cru­cially over­lap. But it also ex­em­pli­fies one of his per­sis­tent habits – the ten­dency to talk about po­lit­i­cal is­sues, even ones within his own re­mit, as if he were com­ment­ing from the out­side on ab­stract propo­si­tions.

Coveney has had less time in of­fice to get to grips with the other great so­cial cri­sis: hous­ing and home­less­ness.

And at least he has pub­lished a plan, Re­build­ing Ire­land, even if was largely based on the strat­egy pub­lished by his pre­de­ces­sor Alan Kelly in 2014.

Some of it, like the prom­ise to fast-track the build­ing of 30,000 homes, is very wel­come. The prob­lem is that the plan does not seem at all ad­e­quate ei­ther to the scale of ei­ther the im­me­di­ate cri­sis of home­less­ness or the long- term dys­func­tion­al­ity of the Ir­ish hous­ing mar­ket.

So far, un­der Coveney’s watch, home­less­ness has con­tin­ued to rise. In March,

Varad­kar is just 38. He has In­dian her­itage and is openly gay. Any one of th­ese three at­tributes would have seemed ex­traor­di­nary in any pre­vi­ous prospec­tive taoiseach

there were 7,472 peo­ple home­less – in­clud­ing a shock­ing 2,563 chil­dren. He promised the use of ho­tels to ac­com­mo­date fam­i­lies, which amounts to an as­sault on the rights of those chil­dren, would end by July 1st. ( More than 700 fam­i­lies are liv­ing in ho­tels in Dublin city.)

This was to be achieved through the con­struc­tion of four rapid-built hous­ing com­plexes by the end of June. It is now clear that only one of them will be ready on time. There are three ob­vi­ous mea­sures that would at least staunch the flow of peo­ple into home­less­ness: fix rent in­creases to the rise in the con­sumer price in­dex; in­crease se­cu­rity of ten­ure; and close the gap be­tween pub­lic rent sup­ple­ments and mar­ket sup­ple­ments. (A snap­shot study by the Si­mon Com­mu­ni­ties this week found that 88 per cent of prop­er­ties avail­able to rent are be­yond the reach of peo­ple de­pen­dent on State hous­ing ben­e­fits.) None of th­ese mea­sures are part of Coveney’s plan.

Like­wise, even if the plan de­liv­ers on its prom­ise to build 37,000 so­cial houses over six years, this will be noth­ing like enough. The cross- party Dáil hous­ing and home­less com­mit­tee last year iden­ti­fied, from ex­pert tes­ti­mony, a need for 10,000 new so­cial houses a year: Coveney’s plan is 40 per cent short. And this fail­ure in turn be­trays an ide­o­log­i­cal in­sis­tence that only the mar­ket can solve the hous­ing prob­lem – even though it has never done so in the his­tory of the State.

Unam­bi­tious tweaks

Their re­spec­tive records on health and hous­ing sug­gest that ei­ther Varad­kar and Coveney, if they get the big job, will be pretty much what we’re al­ready used to: pur­vey­ors of cau­tious, piece­meal, unam­bi­tious tweaks to the sta­tus quo.

And how peo­ple feel about that de­pends very much on how they see the sta­tus quo. If you own a house and can af­ford to buy your way out of the worst as­pects of the health sys­tem, it prob­a­bly feels okay. You’d like some­one steady and pre­sentable, ar­tic­u­late and pro­fes­sional, a calm pres­ence in the face of all the un­cer­tain­ties cre­ated by Brexit.

If that’s how Ire­land seems to you, the lead­er­ship race is pretty much a beauty con­test. Si­mon seems a bit more dy­namic in of­fice; Leo is bet­ter at talk­ing like an or­di­nary per­son and giv­ing the im­pres­sion that he’s not re­ally a politi­cian, even when he’s ac­tu­ally in power.

Si­mon is more so­cially smooth; Leo’s back­ground and sex­u­al­ity make him a lit­tle bit more in­ter­est­ing. You may as well fo­cus on th­ese small dif­fer­ences be­cause the stakes are not that high – nei­ther of them will frighten the horses.

But if you are at the mercy of the rental mar­ket and the A& Es and all the ran­dom cru­el­ties that post-aus­ter­ity Ire­land has to of­fer, the sta­tus quo may seem to need more than well-mean­ing tweaks.

And the beauty con­test may not feel all that grip­ping.

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