In campaign mode in recent years, Fine Gael has often been nasty. From its Trumpian attack videos slamming the party it is in government with, to the election-time red alerts about working-class people voting, it has dragged political discourse into the gutter. It’s hard to look like the adults in the room when you act with such petulance, but on it goes. We will begin to see a hardening of this messaging, a self-destructive drive to rile up the party’s depleting base, instead of uniting people and reaching out to the floating voters it abandoned by creating the Fine Gael housing disaster. When one is at fault, a classic defence mechanism is to lash out, blame other people, and obsess over those calling you out. Isn’t it funny that the Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, was once viewed as a good communicator?
Newstalk, in particular, has always been a refuge for Varadkar. To celebrate the station’s 20th birthday in April, the guest who joined Communications Clinic managing director and radio presenter Anton Savage was, naturally, Varadkar himself. On the show, Savage played Varadkar’s first appearance on the station, as a Young Fine Gaeler, advocating for a Yes vote in the Nice Treaty referendum. “I’m kind of wondering if we should legislate for this right to be forgotten,” the Tánaiste joshed when he heard the clip, to laughs from Savage.
There followed a 20-minute softball chat allowing Varadkar to riff in a simplistic manner without any degree of insight. “What you have with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is more of the centre,” Varadkar said on party political ideologies in Ireland, followed up, unchallenged, with the Leo-fact that Ireland never really had a party of the right, a fiction spun by both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to absolve themselves of their collusion in the oppressive right-wing theocratic deal between Church and State that moulded this country for a century.
As minister for health, he sometimes lambasted the state of the country’s health service on the airwaves, despite the fact that the buck stopped with him
Savage asked the Tánaiste for his favourite Newstalk memories, “It’s been very valuable to have an alternative, if you like, to RTÉ when it comes to news and current affairs. There’s been some really good documentary programmes. Patrick Geoghegan’s one on history is really great, one I try not to miss.” Varadkar failed to mention that he in fact hired Geoghegan as a speech writer.
“I think in the morning, I’ve always felt the Newstalk programmes, whether it’s now, or before with Chris [Donoghue, now one of Simon Coveney’s advisers] and Ivan [Yates, who has acted as a communications adviser to Fianna Fáil] were a little bit more optimistic, a bit more chirpy, maybe for a younger audience, which I think was a good balance. Down the years, a lot of good people provided some very good programmes. One that springs to mind — and I know the end was controversial — with George Hook, he did bring a different form of broadcasting and a different view.” Hook was suspended from Newstalk in 2017 for comments he made about a rape case, later returning to present a weekend programme.
In a column in the Irish Examiner in 2018, Terry Prone, Savage’s mother, joined the dots between Donald Trump, Leo Varadkar and failed presidential candidate Peter Casey’s communications tactics as all embodying that old cliche that they “tell it like it is”. This is how Varadkar built a media profile for himself. He was seen as a “straight talker”. Varadkar continued honing this method to the point that even when he was a minister discussing issues under his brief, he frequently came off as a commentator. As minister for health, in particular, he sometimes lambasted the state of the country’s health service on the airwaves, despite the fact that the buck stopped with him.
No one cares about macho bluster and performative spats in the Dáil. People have real problems
The thing about “telling it like it is” is that you need to know what the “it” is. Fine Gael is profoundly disconnected, and Varadkar’s leadership and personification of that disconnection has been electorally disastrous for his party. And it continues with his failed tactics of attacking the most popular party in the country. The electorate knows what Fine Gael is against (Sinn Féin), but is mystified as to what the party itself stands for. The main charge levelled at Fine Gael, existentially, is that it doesn’t “get it”. So what is “it”? Well, “it” is everything: how people live, what they want, what their values and desires are, what their vision for the future is, how they want things to be, and how they relate to politicians who are meant to understand where they’re at and what they need and want.
Because so many of Fine Gael’s policies have failed so badly, and because it doesn’t have any ideas that actually chime with people, its “telling it like it is” capacity has evaporated. Instead, it will continue to resort to the failed and alienating tactic of attacking Sinn Féin, which ironically is also Sinn Féin’s favourite thing, because it bolsters its popularity immensely. But no one cares about macho bluster and performative spats in the Dáil. People have real problems. This tripling down on attacking Sinn Féin only plays to those within the deflating Fine Gael bubble. Presumably, because the Fine Gael fanboys on Twitter think it’s great, and because Fine Gael appears pathologically incapable of self-examination, this echo chamber will give the party a false sense that it is doing a great job, without realising that it’s not just the message that has failed — it’s the messengers.