Varadkar upbeat as rural canvassers report support for broadband plan
With two weeks to elections timing of major spend in rural Ireland good for Fine Gael
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week at press conference on broadband plan. Photograph: Tom Honan
Up against it after a weekend of damaging comment and revelation, the Taoiseach came out fighting when Dáil questions about the National Broadband Plan pummelled in at him on Tuesday.
By Wednesday, he looked positively relaxed when the Fianna Fáil leader raised the same issue, this time asking if the Taoiseach would accede to the Fianna Fáil request for an inquiry by the Oireachtas communications committee.
Bring it on, was Varadkar’s attitude. Varadkar’s brio in swatting away the questions cheered Fine Gael backbenchers whose confidence in their leader has been dented a bit by recent gaffes and an unflattering opinion poll at the weekend.
Behind that, however, is a growing sense in Fine Gael that despite heavy political and media criticism of the broadband plan, it is being received quite well in rural Ireland.
All political parties have the benefit of a stream of intelligence flowing back to headquarters from all parts of the organisation. It is especially fast-flowing at election time when hundreds of canvass teams are knocking on doors every evening and filing back reports on completion.
TDs also act as a medium of communication between the grassroots and the party leadership. TDs and Ministers returned from their constituencies happy that the commitment to spend €5 billion – including €3 billion of public money – laying fibre-optic cable to every home and business in the country was being well received by voters two weeks before the local and European elections.
At the pre-Cabinet meeting of Fine Gael Ministers on Wednesday morning, the mood was upbeat (“bullish”, said one person present) about the public reaction to the broadband plan. There is some concern in Dublin, says another source. But it’s pretty good around the country.
Another senior TD said Fine Gael now had something to sell on the doorsteps in rural Ireland when asked what it is was doing for rural Ireland. For months, Fine Gael has been worried about its standing in rural constituencies where TDs and party activists were sensing a growing coolness towards the party which was identified with its conspicuously metropolitan leader.
Varadkar himself has voiced private concerns about it to those close to him. One TD from another party personalises it around Minister for Transport Shane Ross, whose tightening of drink-driving laws was heavily criticised by some rural TDs.
“Ross is losing Fine Gael voters everywhere,” the TD said, with some relish. This is unfair to Ross, no doubt. Fine Gael, after all, backed the changes in the drink-driving legislation. And nobody in rural Ireland actually says they want to drink and drive (well, not much anyway). But it has become a totemic signal for those who feel rural Ireland is in decline, and the Fine Gael-led Government is doing nothing about it.
Now Fine Gael TDs and councillors and candidates feel they have something to put against that.
“And the fact that the broadband plan is opposed by Dublin-based officials and commentators is doing it no harm at all,” says one rural TD gleefully. There are reasons to believe this analysis. One of them is that privately, many Fianna Fáilers say similar things. The party has been careful in its criticisms of the plan – as have others – to underline its support for the rollout of rural broadband as soon as possible.
Micheál Martin has said the Government should not sign the contract – but the party is clear that it is not going to press the nuclear button and threaten to bring down the Government. The nature of the nuclear button, of course, is that you can only press it once. This isn’t the time, and it certainly isn’t the issue.
“Of course, it’s popular,” says one Fianna Fáil source somewhat ruefully. “That’s why they did it before the election.”