Inside Politics: the Government is seeking to control the message
Communications are key to politics, but they are not more important than policy choices
Leo Varadkar: he is sometimes awkward and uncomfortable in situations which require gladhandling of strangers, but he is at home in a hospital
On Thursday afternoon, after attending the National Emergency Planning Centre in Government Buildings for briefings on the worsening weather situation (and the now obligatory, solemn-faced warnings to “stay safe”), Leo Varadkar changed into casual clothes and made his way across Merrion Square to the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street.
It was an expedition that tells us much about the way the first social media Taoiseach does political communication.
No media were informed, no photographers were there, no journalists tagged along. It was a private visit, arranged at quick notice.
The Taoiseach knew that many healthcare workers had been working above and beyond the call of duty during the cold snap. By its nature the business at Holles Street can’t be postponed until next week. Some of the midwives had been at work since Tuesday, grabbing a few hours sleep when they could in the hospital. And then the Taoiseach wandered in to thank them. He posed for pictures and selfies, met the staff, held the babies.
People with knowledge of the Taoiseach’s 90-minute visit describe a fair bit of swooning amongst the doctors, midwives and nurses (new mothers are less inclined to swoon in my experience). The excitement flashed around the staff’s social networks.
Varadkar is sometimes awkward and uncomfortable in situations which require gladhandling of strangers, but he is at home in a hospital. From accounts of the reaction given to me, it would be fair to characterise the reaction thus: He’s So Amazing.
Goes with the job
This was nothing to do with politics. Except, of course, it has. Everything that the Taoiseach does is about politics. That goes with the job. Varadkar has taken some time to get used to this. But he understands it more and more.
Particularly, Varadkar gets political communication to a generation of voters that get their news online, mostly through social media networks. His attitude is often: why should I talk to journalists when I can talk directly to their readers?
Yes, he understands that the furniture of traditional political discourse – the political correspondents’ briefings and press conferences, the RTÉ interviews, the speeches, the Dáil exchanges – is still central to getting his message across. But he also knows he can get around all that sometimes.
In Holles Street nobody was asking him about understaffing, or facilities that are falling apart, or the hospital’s legal action against the Minister for Health.
One staffer accompanied him with an iPhone, snapping pictures and later tweeted them. Leo with the staff. Leo with the newborn great grandson of Garret FitzGerald. It was all done entirely on his terms, with him or his staff choosing the image, the message and the medium.
In a way that is also what Varadkar’s administration was trying to do with its ill-starred advertising campaign on the Project Ireland 2040 planning framework and national development plan. It did not work out so well.
The Government shipped political and media flak on the controversial “advertorial” inserts in local newspapers all week, with Dáil exchanges between Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin reaching a raw level of personal confrontation.
“The Taoiseach’s problem is that he does not like it when hard words are said about things that he and his Government get up to,” the Fianna Fáil leader said on Wednesday during questions to the Taoiseach. “The Taoiseach does not like it, and he then gets overly partisan and nasty. There is a bad streak there.”
(Read into that what you will. It looks to me like a relationship that is on the rocks).
But despite the Taoiseach’s steadfast insistence that nobody had done anything wrong – or it they had that Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen had done it too – on Thursday afternoon (about the time that Varadkar was touring Holles Street), the Department of the Taoiseach informed journalists that the Taoiseach had ordered a review of the Strategic Communications Unit (SCU).
Varadkar recommended to Martin Fraser, the secretary general of the department, that the SCU observe strict rules when buying the sort of advertising that has caused such controversy in the past fortnight.
The irony of Varadkar recommending to Fraser that strictures are put on the SCU – as if the whole thing was Fraser’s idea rather than the other way round – was not lost on civil service insiders.
Filter of the media
What the SCU was seeking to do with the promotions of the national development plan was what Varadkar much more deftly – albeit in a much more limited context – was doing in Holles Street: control the message, communicate on his terms, speak to people without the critical filter of the media.
That may be understandable: all governments think they don’t get a fair crack from the media. But it needs to be policed too.
Because government has the power of action and initiative, it usually dominates the political agenda. Our system wisely requires checks on that power – whether it be media scrutiny of its actions or civil service rules on the use of public resources for political purposes.
This requirement is as old as states are. When the ancient Romans granted a general a triumphal procession into Rome after some foreign victory over the barbarians, a slave would stand beside him in his chariot whispering continuously to him: “memento homo”. Remember you are just a man.
The message is important, and communications are key to politics. But they don’t matter more than the substance of what the government does, the policy choices it makes.
This country faces enormous challenges and big choices in the times ahead. Ultimately Varadkar will be judged on how he responds to those challenges and on the choices he makes. The tweets might help him explain it all, but they won’t win anything on their own.