Varadkar’s homeless comments reveal his true colours

The Taoiseach has betrayed a lack of empathy that is matched only by his contempt for our intelligence

The Simon Community Rough Sleeper Team, serving food and hot drinks to homeless people and rough sleepers on St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin.Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

The Simon Community Rough Sleeper Team, serving food and hot drinks to homeless people and rough sleepers on St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin.Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

 

Controversy has erupted after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stood over his claim that “Ireland has one of the lowest homelessness (rates) by international standards compared with our peers.” He continued by saying, “[I]t is a good thing in Ireland, that we have a low level of homelessness compared to our peer countries”, quickly followed by, “but what’s better than that is we don’t think that’s good enough, and we want to continue to reduce homelessness in the years ahead.”

By talking about possibly the greatest injustice Irish society has seen in decades in such non-human terms, the Taoiseach has betrayed a lack of empathy that is matched only by his contempt for our intelligence.

Is seems we have been reading the wrong data set all along. Three thousand homeless children is actually the new normal. What we thought was a problem really isn’t a big deal because everyone else is doing it and Fine Gael are going to make a good thing even better. All we need to do is lower our expectations and not get too excited about anything, lest the left gets wind of an opportunity to be populist.

This bald attempt to divert attention away from the inhumanity of homelessness is just another episode that reveals Varadkar’s penchant for loose double-talk. Who can forget the now-infamous ‘early mornings’ comment which came around the same time as the ‘welfare cheats’ campaign, both textbook tropes in the demonisation of poor people.

Coming down on them like a tonne of bricks, he raised all welfare payments by a fiver. In light of the budget, his earlier comments were shown simply to be an exercise in maintaining a veneer of authority over the needy.

Leo Varadkar also tried to dazzle us with double-talk during his maiden speech as Taoiseach, where he almost literally had nothing to say to deputies on the other side of the house, except to threaten their speaking time on the basis of ‘proportionality’, insisting again that the ‘centre’ was holding. But Varadkar is not technically right when he says democracy is about proportionality, because of course he already knows that each member’s mandate is equal. What Varadkar knows but isn’t saying is that parliamentary democracy is essentially about majority, and the glaring reality is that the majority traditionally held by of those in his political circle is in trouble.

A rough analysis of the last three elections reveals that the share of the vote enjoyed by Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour, Ireland’s traditional centre, translated into seats in the Dail, is in decline, while the share held by Sinn Fein, the Independents, Solidarity & People Before Profit, and others in their various iterations, has grown from approximately fifteen in 2007, to thirty-three in 2011, to fifty-three in the 2016. While Varadkar is busy trying to shut down opposing voices by obscuring facts behind layers of double-talk, the democratic sands are noiselessly shifting beneath his feet.

People are becoming increasingly uncomfortable about homelessness, especially when the banks are reportedly making super profits, and the left are making some hard-won gains. People understand that a problem of this magnitude cannot be fixed overnight but playing mind games may have the opposite effect that the Taoiseach desires. By trying to spin gold from hay, the Taoiseach’s attempt to control the narrative on homelessness may still yet backfire.

If we have learned one thing in the recent history of democracy, it is not to underestimate an electorate, and if there is one thing we have learned about the Irish electorate, is that they could very much be relied upon to hit the streets again, in defiance of a ‘republic of opportunity’ in which welfare cheats cheat us all - but bankers cannot hurt us.

Áine Carroll has a Masters in Equality Studies (UCD) and is currently a social care worker.