Miriam Lord: Leo uses UN rankings to shield himself from Dáil attacks
UN index that rated Ireland third-best country to live in in the world is Taoiseach's answer to questions about poverty and homelessness
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris: a St Vincent de Paul report, Growing Up in the Cold, found 140,000 children are living in substandard, cold and damp homes. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
In a display of iron discipline, the Taoiseach lasted the best part of an hour before succumbing to the inevitable. He did very well to resist temptation for so long.
At Leaders’ Questions, Leo Varadkar was faced with attack after attack on his Government’s record in fighting poverty and homelessness. The rise in fuel poverty and the number of children living in emergency accommodation was highlighted.
He fought his corner with statistics about improved outcomes and said that “consistent poverty” had been “falling dramatically” in recent years with 40,000 children lifted out.
But a report issued on Tuesday by the St Vincent de Paul called “Growing Up in the Cold” found that 140,000 children are living in substandard, cold and damp homes. The details were brought to his attention by Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin and Bríd Smith of People Before Profit.
Then Michael Harty from the Rural Independents Group brought his attention to the projected figure for children in emergency accommodation this Christmas – 4,026. And how the overall number of homeless people is rising.
“If we could do it quicker, if there was a cheque I could sign, if there was a button I could press, if there’s a lever I could pull, we would have done it by now,” said the Taoiseach.
But he said over a seven-year period no houses were built because “our housing market was destroyed, our construction industry was destroyed, our banks were bust and our government was bust”. It will take “many years” to get back on an even keel.
With Christmas so close, the plight of these children and families is, as he said “heartbreaking”.
On to questions on promised legislation and a downbeat Taoiseach was hauled over the smoky coals by the Fianna Fáil leader for his recent pronouncements on the nationwide banning of the aforementioned fossil fuel.
Stop foostering and just do it, demanded Micheál Martin, the man responsible for bringing in the cigarette smoking ban and who was a new TD in 1990 when Mary Harney banned smoky coal in Dublin.
How come Mary could do it? And what about Denis Naughten, until recently Leo’s minister for the environment, “who is going around the place saying if he was still there this definitely would have happened”. Now there is just talk of holding consultations about banning coal, turf and wood.
“This Government seems to lack the bottle to go in there and take on the vested interests and go and do this in the interest of good human health,” charged Micheál, the man who drove the ciggies out of Irish pubs.
Every so often, the Taoiseach slides in little digs about his relative youth in comparison to the veteran Fianna Fáiler. “It isn’t 1990 anymore, that was 30 years ago and things have changed since then. We now know that turf briquettes and wood are just as bad if not worse than smokey coal,” he condescended.
It’s only a matter of time before he starts throwing the “OK Boomer” thing at Micheál.
The Taoiseach had been 50 minutes in the chamber taking a buffeting. He finally cracked, informing the Leas Cheann Comhairle he wanted to “go off topic” and “acknowledge the fact that the UN today published its UN development index which shows that Ireland is now the third-best country to live in in the world according the UN”.
That would be UN so.
“This isn’t my opinion, that’s the opinion of the United Nations . . . It’s come from the UNDP . . .”
“Not the EPP?” they smirkingly inquired on the Fianna Fáil side.
“You’re some man for one man,” sneered Barry Cowen.
“A UN agency itself,” repeated Leo. “And I look forward to the Prime Time special dedicated to explaining to the country exactly how we managed to get to fourth place in the entire world.”
Down a notch
Unless he was trying to be very cleverly sarcastic about that programme’s attention to accuracy, he had personally demoted us down a notch.
After he was done in the chamber, Leo could have nipped across to Leinster House 2000 and passed on the message himself. RTÉ’s top brass was being grilled there by the communications committee.
The smoky coal issue is not going to go out any time soon. It has all the hallmarks of a slow burner.
Danny Healy-Rae, who had been gently smouldering in the chamber, spontaneously combusted when the Taoiseach discussed possibly banning all types of solid fuel.
“I am asking you not to stop the burning of turf or timber and many people in rural Ireland, and in Kerry indeed, are very glad and proud to come home to a fire of turf or timber on a cold, wet evening,” he said. “Elderly families and children, and elderly children, elderly children, people, work hard all summer to save turf and to store timber.”
“Don’t forget the dogs in the street,” drawled Barry Cowen.
“This is the House of Contradictions,” bellowed Danny, “because we are talking here, and Richard Boyd-Barrett and Eoin Ó Broin and Bríd Smith say that children are cold and that there’s energy poverty. I’m asking you, are you going to stop the people of rural Ireland from burning turf or timber?”
Eoghan Murphy looked across at him.
Because if this happens there will be a lot more energy poverty and cold people. “They are entitled to cut turf and timber,” he continued, the decibel levels still climbing.
Banned from burning
The Leas-Cheann Comhairle was losing patience. He told Danny if he didn’t shut up he wouldn’t be called for the rest of the week.
He didn’t. Not when people have been cutting turf for generations.
Right so. Pat “the Cope” Gallagher served him with a one-week ban.
The Taoiseach soothed nerves by stepping in to assure everyone “neither I nor the Government are proposing that people be banned from burning turf or wood in their own private homes”.
However, such a move “would probably be a natural extension of the policy that is being proposed by the leader of Fianna Fáil”.
A chorus of indignant squawking rose from the Opposition. Leo was delighted.
Yes, he continued, Fianna Fáil’s eagerness to slap bans on burning solid fuel “is part of their growing anti-rural agenda. They opposed the massive broadband plan, they want to reprofile the roads projects and now they want to ban the burning of turf. This is an anti-rural party.”
How dare he? How dare he? The Fianna Fáil benches erupted.
“The anti-rural party?” cried Offaly TD Barry. “You couldn’t find your way to a bog.”
Anne Rabbitte of Galway East was beside herself.
“Have you ever been to a bog? Have you? Have you?”
The Leas Cheann Comhairle battered the bell.
“Deputies, restrain yourselves!”
Leo sat back and said nothing.
His smile said it all: Third-best?
Never mind the UN, sometimes this country is the best.