Less A Brand New Story, More The Story Of A New Brand


From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the launch of social housing units in Dublin last November; Derek Mooney

One of the nicest things about the run up to Christmas are those chance encounters with former colleagues and old acquaintances as you frantically rush around town looking for those presents you claimed you ordered online six weeks earlier.

I had a few of those, but two may be of interest to you. Both involved high level civil servants, from different departments, who I knew from my time in government. After catching up with each on the whereabouts of mutual friends, we got to talking politics.

Both reported that there was virtually no real policy work going on within government and that ministers, specifically the Fine Gael ones, were focused exclusively on PR
, ferreting out any possible item of good news that may be in the pipeline and getting it announced ASAP, courtesy of the Strategic Communications Unit, with the maximum fanfare and hoopla.

According to them (and note that these were separate encounters) the general consensus among their colleagues was that the Taoiseach and the Fine Gael ministers were now in full campaign mode which, they assumed, pointed to a general election before the summer, possibly well before it.

This last point was probably less of a firm prediction and more a pious wish.

When ministers go into campaign mode, difficult decisions get put on hold. Government goes into stasis. Problems stack up. Nothing gets done, but lots of things get talked about. Ministers become commentators on policy, more interested in posing questions and flying kites than answering any. It is a situation that can be tolerated for a few weeks, but it is not sustainable for much longer, sustainable by departments and statutory bodies, that is.

Yet is what we have been seeing for the past few months, plenty of fine talk and snappy presentations about what may happen, but very little action. Look back over the newspapers and news reports of the past month. How many times have you seen Leo Varadkar and Eoghan Murphy in hi-viz jackets and hard hats looking and pointing at handfuls of new houses and apartments, while the homeless statistics deteriorate with an unprecedented 3,300 children homeless at Christmas?

If fine words and noble intentions alone were enough to solve the housing crisis, then Simon Coveney should have had it resolved months ago. Back in March the former Housing Minister was solemnly telling us that he would end hotel use by homeless by July. He didn’t and his successor is not doing any better. When Murphy was appointed in June last the Taoiseach said:

“Rebuilding Ireland is working but it may not be enough and so I am tasking him [Minister Murphy] to review it within three months and to consider what additional measures may be required including consideration of a greater quantum of social housing build… ”

That was over six months ago. The Minister was given three months to come up with an additional plan, recognizing the the previous Fine Gael one was not doing it, and told it should include social housing new build. Yet three months after his new plan we see that Councils have only used one in three of the units identified by Nama as available as social housing. Indeed, local authorities have refused over 4,000 units and failed to take up almost 400 more that they had identified as suitable for social housing.

It is a similar story on Health. There we have another great electioneer, who is adept at getting out the message, but less sure footed when it comes to knowing what is needed in the long term.

It is not that they are indifferent to the problems, but rather that they subscribe to the political view that you can change the political reality by creating your own political narrative and then imposing it as the settled and agreed view through “strategic communications”.

It is not quite Kelly Conway’s “alternative facts”, but it comes pretty close. But it works because it plays to something within us. As Jonathan Gottschall observed in his book The Storytelling Animal, we use narrative to make sense of a chaotic and unpredictable world, to imbue events with moral significance, and to define our own selves.

It is what the Taoiseach and his senior Ministers have been doing for the last few months. Driving home the image of a virtually problem free society, thanks to the new and vital “Leo” brand. The government is also sold to us as new and vital… not an easy sell when it contains the likes of Ministers Flanagan and Ring.

Lately, we have the hard selling of Fine Gael and Leo draped in the tricolor, gently humming “A Nation Once Again” as it rebuffs and rebukes the Brits. No matter that the headlines are potentially damaging to North South relations that took decades to build, they suit the current government’s current needs, and that’s all that matters for now.

And it does seem to be working, if the last few polls are correct. Fine Gael appears at last to have secured the “Leo bounce” that eluded it in his first six months. But, has it really? Could it be that this is not so much a brand new story as it is the story of a new brand?

Might those polls just be reflecting the absence of a clear competing narrative that offers a better story, one based on ideas and experience? It is not that Leo’s story is better, it is just that it is the only one on offer, for now.

Whatever about the cause, the fact is that all this one-sided narrative spinning is being done at the expense of real governing. The country is being put on hold while Fine Gael tries to reverse the result of the 2016 election.

So, if the election is to take place this year, then it is better that it takes place as early as possible so that the phony campaign can be brought to an end and we can have more decision taking and less announcement making.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday morning. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney


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22 thoughts on “Less A Brand New Story, More The Story Of A New Brand

  1. dav

    I’m sure 2018 will be the year that leo tries to convince us that homelessness is the price we must pay for a “vibrant” economy and shure don’t the homeless deserve what they get….

  2. barelylegal

    poor ould Derek on the outside lookin in at the pigs with their snouts in the trough

    must be uncomfortable viewing

    1. GiggidyGoo

      Maybe so. But what he is writing above is something that he doesn’t need to write about – it’s very clear to us what FFG are up to. The one poll that could guide us is one that FF and FG are afraid of.

      1. Taunton

        I assume you mean an election, where the most likely outcome would see FG returned as the largest party and FF as the second largest.

        1. GiggidyGoo

          That’s the conclusion one would draw from the polls, but as i pointed out here last week, polling companies have people registered with them, so they go to the same well for opinions, adding in some new people. A poll of 1000 people is equivalent to taking the opinions of approx 8 people coming out of an all ireland and concluding that those 8 spoke for the rest of the attendees.
          And polls have been way off the mark for some years now.

          1. jusayinlike

            The “polls” displayed on the front page of the SINDO where Leo showed up at the Xmas party..

          2. barelylegal

            interesting theory but what do you think the real sampling error is?
            seems that the key to understanding your perspective is turnout and since the key activist groups against the water charges fiasco were bribed off, how exactly do you think that voter apathy can be tackled in any meaningful way in the absence of a unifying opposition theme?

  3. ReproBertie

    Timmy Dooley was on Sean O’Rourke this morning talking about the government being all spin and no action. Is this the official FF line for January?

    Personally I believe an election will change very little and we’ll end up with another FF/FG coalition but maybe the FF lads are missing the ministerial mercs and want to play musical ministries.

    1. Frilly Keane

      Probably a +1 ReBert
      but I suspect Timmy Dooley is not in the tent all that much

      and wouldn’t be surprised if he was upta sum;ting

      as a by the by
      Mooney hasn’t told us an’ting new, its all months out’ve date
      but I wouldn’t dare criticize it

  4. Cian

    It starts by saying that the government is doing nothing constructive: “…was virtually no real policy work going on within government and that ministers, specifically the Fine Gael ones, were focused exclusively on PR”

    but as ‘evidence’ says “local authorities have refused over 4,000 units and failed to take up almost 400 more that they had identified as suitable for social housing.”

    There is a huge difference between “the government” and the “local authorities”. I’m not sure how you can blame Leo when, say, Dublin City council refuses 48 NAMA homes?

      1. Cian

        Who? Leo?

        What has that got to do with Derek’s article? Where he alleges that some guy told him that the government have been on a do-nothing-constructive-just-PR for the last few months?

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