Una Mullally: Varadkar yet to realise not everybody in Ireland is middle class
His remarks about parents helping with house deposits reveal a lack of awareness that for many people “lots of us” is actually “lots of them”
Nobody is asking the Taoiseach to abandon his middle class values. He can’t change the facts of his socio-economic background, nor the fact that both he and the Minister for Housing went to private schools. It’s not their fault they are privileged. But they have to get that. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES
Polls showing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s approval rating is now at 60 per cent swiftly smooths over the rough edges of his comments in the Dáil this week about house buying. “It has always been the case that a person needs to raise a deposit to buy a house,” Varadkar said, “People do it in many different ways. Sometimes people go abroad for a period and earn money. Others get money from their parents. Lots of us did.”
The reactionary attacks on the Taoiseach for these remarks are easy and predictable, especially when the public is so sensitive to this topic of housing, and suspicious of Varadkar’s attitude towards the poor. Let’s not forget his tone deaf approach to so-called “welfare cheats”. But although the current Taoiseach is enjoying boom-time-Bertie levels of popularity, what those remarks revealed were two things; the Taoiseach’s tendency to expose a curious empathy vacuum, and the insinuation that people always got on with things (“it has always been the case”) which frustratingly denies the context of past and present.
If there’s one thing that Irish people absolutely abhor - especially in the context of the lingering trauma of the economic crash - it’s anything that even hints at a Marie Antoinette-ism. Varadkar’s strength used to be that he “told it like it is”, but as Taoiseach, he has to learn that there’s a certain way to couch things so as not to get everyone’s backs up. There is a time for telling it like it is, and there is a time for strategically copping on, and trying to reach out to those who are broke and struggling instead of wondering why they can’t just do what “everyone” does. “Everyone” is never “everyone”, it’s nearly always a reference to an ingroup, the social group someone identities with psychologically. In this case Varadkar’s ingroup is “lots of us”. Who is that us, exactly?
Nobody is asking the Taoiseach to abandon his middle class values. He can’t change the facts of his socio-economic background, nor the fact that both he and the Minister for Housing went to private schools. It’s not their fault they are privileged. But they have to get that. They have to see that for many people “lots of us” is actually “lots of them”.
In many ways, it doesn’t matter if a conclusion is factually correct - some people get money from their parents in order to buy a house - it’s how you tell the story. Remarkably, when Varadkar clarified to The Journal that he didn’t actually get money from his parents (he took out a 100 per cent mortgage), he also said, “lots of people get help from their family when raising a deposit for their first home. There’s nothing wrong with any of it, it’s not a mark of privilege.” Clang! Taoiseach, it is a mark of privilege. You know something is a mark of privilege when the people with more stuff can do something the people with less stuff can’t.
Like many people who can’t afford a house, I often wonder how people my age (34) can. In most cases, it’s revealed that their parents gave them a dig out. But what the Taoiseach’s ‘it was ever thus’ remarks also raise is this idea that a younger generation complains more about what was the norm for their parents. Was it ever thus? Are people just annoyed about Varadkar telling it like it is? In the broader discourse, there is a good deal of inter-generational tension and resentment. The gist of it being that young people feel hard done by and consider their parents’ generation as one which sold them down the river. They see them as architects of the economic systems that discriminate against young people; corrupt financial systems and the end of job security. On the other side, there are complaints from older people that youngsters are entitled and incompetent when it comes to saving.
People have always got money from their parents to buy houses. But only some people. The same kinds of people. Wealthy people. I wanted to test this assumption with someone of my parents’ generation. Is the discourse surrounding housing really a generational issue, or is it a wealth issue? So I phoned my mum, Patricia. “It’s only wealthy people who can hand over deposits to their kids, and they always did it,” she said, “There was always a crowd with money. Money gives you choices. When you haven’t got any, you’ve very little choice… It’s the same with everything; connections, schools, parents. If you’re not in the loop, you’re out of it.”
What about those older people who said ‘we managed, so why don’t the young people just get on with it and do what we did?’ “There’s no comparison,” my mum said, “The house prices are crazy now. The other difference back then is that rents were much, much cheaper. Way cheaper. There was no rent inflation. After we got married, we lived in a place in Drumcondra where there was one bathroom for ten people.” They were subsequently evicted from the flat. “I lived in all sorts of dumps of places, on Clonliffe Road, Phibsboro, Drumcondra, Home Farm Road, in bedsits. I lived in a hostel on Parnell Square… the rents people are paying nowadays, you just cannot save if you are renting. You just cannot.”
Ultimately, Varadkar’s “ever thus” chimes with the “lots of us”, and that’s why his words sting so much to those who don’t have the privilege of having parents who can hand them money, “Varadkar is right in one way, that is what happens,” my Mum said, “But he’s coming from a middle-class background. If you’ve never gone through poverty or scrimping and saving, you can’t understand it.”