Something changed last week. The mood shifted. With the initial shock of the pandemic’s arrival on our shores dissipating, a grim numbness has taken hold. Alongside the remarkable collective spirit shown across Ireland, an unease about the scramble to confront the virus on multiple fronts is growing.
At one point, our caretaker Taoiseach dispensed with caring for a moment, standing at a podium and delivering a seemingly off-the-cuff remark. “I have heard stories of people who have asked their employers to lay them off because they’d be better off on the €350 payment than maybe working 20 hours a week for €11,” he said, “you know, do the maths yourself.” Leo Varadkar then caught himself, but decided on another little dig. “I would just say to anyone who’s thinking that, we are all in this together, and nobody in any walk of life should seek to be better off, or seek to make a profit out of this crisis.” We are all in this together? It didn’t sound like it in that moment.
The Taoiseach was speaking out of both sides of his mouth: let’s band together while I re-enforce divisions. Varadkar is accusing people with very little of being cheats, and not for the first time. His strange obsession with the fantasy of large-scale welfare fraud is a social vista of his own composition, full of blanks, within which he paints the less well-off as scroungers.
The wheels often come off Varadkar's train when he's experiencing a surge of popularity and support. He gets comfortable, and then says something obnoxious
Giving people who have lost their jobs and work a kicking at this time is unconscionable. Lives have fallen apart over the past month. Does Varadkar know the numbness of traipsing across town to get an emergency payment form printed? Or the ache of serious sit-down conversations about how bills will get paid? Does he understand the impossible choice of whether to ask for a mortgage freeze and emerge from this period with more debt, or deciding to somehow pay the mortgage and still come out of this period with more debt? Does he feel the shudder that accompanies a large grocery bill total at the till?
Does he know the defeat of boarding up a shop, or pulling the shutters down on a thriving business and telling your staff you don’t know when they’ll have jobs again? Does he get the build-up of nerves before ringing a landlord to tell them there’s no money for rent? Does he understand the careers on pause? The opportunities lost? The humiliation?
At a time when the half-in-half-out Taoiseach implored people to ignore fake news, to follow only quality news sources, to stop spreading unsubstantiated rumour, he spun an anecdotal tale without offering any evidence to back it up. “I have heard stories.” Where? WhatsApp? One would think the gravity of the crisis would snap him out of a pattern that contributed to Fine Gael’s downfall in the most recent election.
The wheels often come off Varadkar’s train when he’s experiencing a surge of popularity and support. He gets comfortable, and then says something obnoxious. It’s a particular type of foot in mouth that leaves other mouths agape; an unprompted remark, almost always Tory-like, and at odds with the temperature of the room. There is a lot of chatter about masks at the moment, and last week, Varadkar’s slipped, and he reverted to type.
We must remember that twice in a decade, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments left our society inadequately prepared for crises. It doesn’t matter how unprecedented those crises were. We emerged from the Celtic Tiger with very little to show for ourselves as a society in terms of public infrastructure where it matters most, across health, public housing, decent rural transport, childcare. And this decade, while the Government spun yarns about a booming economy, the gaps became chasms when a crisis hit. The next time it has to be different. And the only way it can be different is if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are as far away from the decision-making processes as possible. For now, Fine Gael should remember that they are in charge by an accident of post-electoral stasis.
Last week, there was often a worrying vagueness to responses from ministers about whether we are doing everything necessary and everything right. Pat answers abound. There are questions about the supply of PPE, who should be wearing it, whether we should all be wearing masks, the alarmingly high rate of infection among health workers, a brutal crisis in nursing homes, and the low number of tests being carried out. Nobody is asking journalists to sharpen their knives for the sake of it, but the public needs to be protected from the virus, not from knowing the failings of the response to it.
People in Ireland want our political leaders to do a good job. We’re depending on them. Not so long ago, Varadkar stood, rocking on his heels in a count centre, absorbing the kicking the Irish electorate gave his party for being disconnected, arrogant, and out of touch. And yet, when this crisis coalesced, people put aside party politics, ideologies, resentment, and “sides”, and got behind the caretaker government.
We praised the speeches, delivered as if from disaster films, and the politicians making them. We stood at our doors and applauded health workers. We are absorbing the shock. People in Ireland have shown maturity, resolve, and non-partisan support for those leading the response. We don’t want things to go sour. We don’t need division. Don’t make this any harder than it already is.