Leo Varad­kar What does he stand for?

The Irish Times - - Comment & Letters -

Be­ing young, ar­tic­u­late and me­dia-savvy has ad­van­tages in a grey po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. But it also car­ries risks, as Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar is dis­cov­er­ing. Dur­ing the silly sea­son, photo op­por­tu­ni­ties with for­eign lead­ers sparked crit­i­cism that his ap­proach em­bod­ied style over sub­stance. It is an is­sue he must con­front. Just what are his plans, and what ef­fect will they have on dif­fer­ent parts of so­ci­ety?

Dur­ing his first 100 days, Varad­kar con­cen­trated on nec­es­sary house keep­ing: shoring up re­la­tions with Independents in Gov­ern­ment; reaf­firm­ing a con­fi­dence-and-sup­ply ar­range­ment with Fianna Fáil and re­ward­ing his sup­port­ers. There were few speeches on fis­cal or so­cial pol­icy, other than echoes from a suc­cess­ful lead­er­ship cam­paign, when he promised to favour those who “get up early in the morn­ing”.

The Taoiseach has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing hard-edged and con­ser­va­tive on eco­nomic is­sues. He has shown ad­mirable de­ter­mi­na­tion in seek­ing a soft post-Brexit Bor­der. But de­tail is fre­quently lack­ing and pol­icy brush strokes are too broad. Three guid­ing prin­ci­ples out­lined to party mem­bers this week pro­vide an ex­am­ple: ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing chil­dren, is to be given an equal op­por­tu­nity; all parts of the coun­try are to share in re­cov­ery and pros­per­ity and a sec­ond chance is to be of­fered to those who need it. Who could quib­ble with that egal­i­tar­ian man­i­festo? Quite what it means and how to pay for it are not ad­dressed.

De­liv­er­ing equal op­por­tu­ni­ties for chil­dren – a vi­tally im­por­tant aim – would re­quire very large so­cial and ed­u­ca­tional in­vest­ments, par­tic­u­larly in de­prived ar­eas. As for spread­ing pros­per­ity, that project would re­quire a re­vised spa­tial strat­egy and con­sid­er­able re­sources. At present, the bud­getary sit­u­a­tion does not al­low for such out­lays. So what are Varad­kar’s im­me­di­ate ob­jec­tives? En­cour­ag­ing growth and en­ter­prise and cut­ting the tax rate for mid­dle-in­come earn­ers are reg­u­larly men­tioned. Is that it?

Hav­ing shelved Fine Gael’s com­mit­ment to abol­ish the uni­ver­sal so­cial charge by of­fer­ing to amal­ga­mate it with PRSI over a num­ber of years, he recog­nised that health, hous­ing and in­fras­truc­tural prob­lems will not be solved by this Gov­ern­ment and passed the wor­ri­some par­cel to Min­is­ter for Fi­nance Paschal Dono­hoe. Fur­ther in­sur­ance was sought by ask­ing Min­is­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion Richard Bru­ton to put flesh on the bones of his vi­sion for “a Repub­lic of Op­por­tu­nity”. Th­ese were clever po­lit­i­cal moves. But they show Varad­kar to be as much a cap­tive of his party as its leader.

At a time when Fine Gael has to ex­pand its elec­toral ap­peal if it is to re­sist the chal­lenges posed by both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, clar­ity on party pol­icy is lack­ing. The Taoiseach ex­hib­ited drive and imag­i­na­tion in be­com­ing leader of Fine Gael. Now he must set out what kind of so­ci­ety he wants and how it can be funded.

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