Miriam Lord: Reeling from all the spin

Assembly of the guilty when spinning yarns about hospital costs continue to unravel

What’s the big deal about it anyway? That’s the impression Leo gives every time questions about the national children’s hospital come up. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

What’s the big deal about it anyway? That’s the impression Leo gives every time questions about the national children’s hospital come up. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

 

Won’t be long now before Bob comes to the rescue, freeing Leo from the daily drudge of the same questions about the national children’s hospital from the same Opposition dimwits who don’t want to listen to his answers and won’t give him respect.

That would be Bob, also known as Brexit Omnibus Bill. Omnibus Bill will be formally introduced to the nation on Friday and his arrival should shunt most of the unwanted hospital attention away from the Taoiseach for a while.

What’s the big deal about it anyway? That’s the impression Leo gives every time the subject comes up.

As he sees it, we have a simple Over-Under building situation: his critics say the cost of the hospital has massively overrun, he says the cost of the hospital has merely been underestimated. It’s the same thing, just approached from opposite directions.

Why will nobody listen to him? He knows absolutely why: spin.

The Taoiseach seemed very frustrated on Tuesday when he took to the floor for Leaders’ Questions, having to give answers he has given more than once already about how the project is turning out to be far more expensive than originally thought. It’s not as if the vast sums of money people are complaining about have even been spent yet, he pointed out, again.

And when it is spent (and more besides), that cash will represent only a small billion or so drop in a multi-billion euro ocean, or envelope, as they like to call these things around Government Buildings.

He cannot fathom the fuss.

Tetchy Taoiseach

In the face of this cussed unwillingness to accept his assurances that the Government has nothing to do with getting this magnificent hospital off the ground apart from allocating funds at a studied remove and marvelling over what an enduring monument it eventually will be to no politicians, ahem, in particular, the Taoiseach appeared very tetchy. As the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin voiced his misgivings, followed by the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and then by a mile-a-minute Mattie McGrath, Leo sounded increasingly fed up with the entire issue.

He rounded on an Opposition which, he charged, is interested only in “spin . . . yarns” and “conspiracy theories”.

And to think he was in Lisbon (for the benefit of the Opposition dimwits and media dullards, that’s the capital of Portugal) just a few days earlier from where he tweeted matter-of-factly about having “Caught up with Portuguese PM Antionio Costa over the weekend for a good talk” on the impending European elections, the “ever-closer” relationship between Ireland and Portugal and the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.

Micheál, Mary Lou and Mattie may have been annoyed about the children’s hospital, but the political correspondents lobby was furious about the lack of transparency surrounding this bi-lateral in Lisbon, having received no notification of the meeting or subsequent information about what the two leaders discussed. This was viewed as a disappointing breach of long-standing protocol and a worrying precedent.

Communications

But there isn’t much you can tell the Taoiseach which he doesn’t already know, particularly when it comes to communications, an area in which he holds a particular interest.

So when Micheál Martin took a swipe at the Government’s determination to “control the message around the overspend” as opposed to controlling the cost overruns, it didn’t play well. The Fianna Fáil leader believes the Government became so obsessed with the PR value around launching this much-needed hospital that it completely overlooked the building management costs.

He pointed to all the publicity involved – “the Government was good on the hard hats, it was good on the yellow vests. It was good on the videos, YouTube, you name it; there was no lack of communications around this hospital right from the get-go,” he said. Even before the detailed design was worked out, it was a case of “get it on the ground, get boots on the ground, get it working from the public relations perspective”.

Conspiracy theories

But the Taoiseach had a good answer. There are no politicians or no political advisers on any of the boards or committees overseeing the development. “I think, once again, this sounds like one of your conspiracy theories, deputy Martin.” Wearily, he turned to the Ceann Comhairle and sighed about how Opposition members repeatedly “put out a yarn, perpetuate it for days in the media and when they are about to be found out, they shout you down”.

Micheál came back with a zinger.

“Taoiseach, you’re correct – the politicians weren’t on the board . . . they weren’t in the sub-committees. But they were in all the photographs, they were in all the videos, they were in every communication presentation for this hospital.”

As for yarns, noisy TDs across the floor were not going to be taking any lectures from Varadkar’s Government about spinning the news. In that regard, the Dáil chamber is an assembly of the guilty. Then Micheál reminded Leo about the individual who was in charge of the Department of Health when a very rosy estimate was advanced of how much the children’s hospital would cost.

“When you’re talking about yarns, Taoiseach, the biggest yarn we heard in the last three years was in 2016 when you, as minister for health, said it’s €650 million all in! . . . It’s now €1.7 billion and climbing. So don’t talk to anybody here about yarns, Taoiseach, because people are quite frankly fed up with yarns and fed up with the public relations and fed up with the spin. They want substance and they want facts.”

And the argument spin spun again, this time with the Fine Gael leader accusing the Fianna Fáil leader of spin and the Sinn Féin leader saying that the Minister for Health was spinning every bit as much as his boss whereupon the Taoiseach accused Mary Lou of spinning “all over the country” and Mattie McGrath called him a “spinning machine”.

Leo says the cost overrun at the hospital is now being cited by Opposition TDs as the reason why local projects are being shelved or delayed, when the reason is completely unrelated. Which is entirely believable.

“What is happening in here,” he railed, “is pure cynical spin from the Opposition.”

You’d miss the innocence of Brexit.

Bring on Omnibus Bill and Bob.

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