Conor Pope: A letter to Fianna Fáil TD Seán Fleming

Minister’s call for people to shop around amid rising cost of living could hardly be more tone deaf

Dear Seán,

We’ve never met but I couldn’t help but notice when you barged onto the Pricewatch patch this week and started making all sorts of headlines after telling people how they needed to shop around to ensure they would be able to make ends meet in the face of the highest spike in prices in decades.

Now, I mean no disrespect but, seriously? Shopping around is my thing. It’s been my thing for years. So I’m not going to lie, I was miffed by your mini home economics lecture delivered on Drivetime although in truth, my annoyance didn’t last long.

Almost as soon as you started speaking to presenter Sarah McInerney on Monday evening about what people might be able to do to counter inflation, it was clear things were not going to go well.

While what you had to say was nowhere near as brazen as the lecture delivered by Charlie Haughey in the early 1980s when he chastised everyone except himself for living way beyond their means or as ridiculous as the claim made by Leo Varadkar that his was the party for people who get up early in the morning, it was still pretty tone deaf.

In fact, it could scarcely have been more tone deaf, something that was immediately clear to McInerney. She gave you more than one chance to stop digging the ridiculous hole you were digging for yourself and she could scarcely hide her exasperation as you talked. But you ploughed on despite her incredulous pauses, deep sighs and direct challenges.

“Rather than just complaining and [asking] ‘what’s the Government going to do for me?’, you can actually have a serious impact on your own finance, but it involves people having to do some work themselves,” you told the nation.

“If you move around you can get better prices, and that’s in our own hands,” you said and pointed out that weekly shopping bills could be reduced if people were “careful” about where they shop.

Here’s the thing Seán, there is a time and a place for sage advice, the like of which you were dispensing, and you got both wrong.

You were being asked why the Government was moving so slowly to introduce measures that might help people out of a desperate situation and instead of answering that question in a way that might offer anything by way of hope to many thousands of people, you started sounding like some class of poor man's Marie Antoinette, urging people who are struggling to stay warm and put food on their tables to eat cake.

From Aldi.

There are savings on the table for many people but there are many others who have been stretched as far as they can be stretched, people with absolutely no wiggle room when it comes to cutting back

You could almost hear the Opposition mercilessly cackling as you told people – or, to use another word for them, voters – what they needed to do. Labour and Sinn Féin practically fell over each other as they raced to put the boot in.

You deserved the kicking and I say that as someone who is on your side, at least when it comes to the business of finding the best value for money.

For more than 15 years on the pages of The Irish Times I have been banging on about the need for people to shop around and I fully intend to do more of it in the days ahead. Because I know that for many people there are ways they can save themselves hundreds – if not thousands – of euro each year by just being a bit more canny.

But there is a big but here and one that you seemed to forget.

Yes, there are savings on the table for many people but there are many others who have been stretched as far as they can be stretched, people with absolutely no wiggle room when it comes to cutting back.

There are hundreds of thousands of people who don’t have the luxury of shopping around when it comes to health insurance for the very simple reason that they can’t afford health insurance.

There are many thousands more who can’t shop around for cheaper gas or electricity because they are saddled with huge legacy bills or tied to pay-as-you-go meters which often charge far more than the discounted rates that are available to people such as you and me.

And they can’t shop around for food anymore because they are already put to the pin of their collar and already buying the cheapest food options they can find.

Now you did apologise and you apologised fast. Would that the Government of which you are a member acted with such haste when it came to rolling out the financial supports that so many people desperately need.