From top: *Sam, a five-year-old homeless boy who was photographed eating from a piece of cardboard in Dublin last October; outreach worker caring for an elderly homeless woman last week; managing director of RTÉ News Jon Williams greeting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at RTÉ yesterday; Mr Varadkar giving an interview on RTÉ’s This Week yesterday
RTÉ’s David McCullagh interviewed Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on RTÉ Radio One’s This Week.
During the interview, Mr Varadkar said he has decided on a date for the general election but didn’t disclose the date.
They went on to discuss problems in the health service and homelessness.
The Taoiseach, several times, said that problems in both sectors are driving or spurring him on to be better.
He also said that Fine Gael have only had two years to invest in public infrastructure, despite being in Government for the past nine years.
From the interview…
David McCullagh: “Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, what are you thinking now about the election?”
Leo Varadkar: “Well, first of all, good morning and good afternoon, and thanks very much for having me. As you know, it is the responsibility and the duty of the Taoiseach, or it is the prerogative rather of the Taoiseach to request dissolution of the Dáil and that’s a duty I take very seriously.
“I’ve always said that it should only happen when it’s the right time for the country and it’s been my view for a long time now that the right time would be the summer of 2020.
“But I have to acknowledge that circumstances have changed. We have a deal on Brexit. And in many ways that was the big job of this government, our magnus opus, to secure a deal on Brexit.
“We have the institutions up and running in Northern Ireland which the Tánaiste [Simon Coveney] and I have put a huge amount of work into, particularly the Tánaiste and also the arithmetic in the Dáil has changed and that’s the reality of that.
“So I have made a decision but there is some unfinished business to do which I want to get done and also there is some respect and protocol around this and I would like to speak to the Cabinet, to the views of the Opposition.
“So as things stand, the Cabinet will meet on Tuesday [tomorrow] and the Dáil will reconvene on Wednesday.”
McCullagh: “Ok, you have made the decision but you’re not going to tell us?”
Varadkar: “That’s correct.”
McCullagh: “Ok, the Dáil arithmetic, I mean there is a confidence motion down in [Health Minister] Simon Harris for February 15th, February the 5th I should say. Do you accept now that you’re not going to be in a position to win that vote?”
Varadkar: “I haven’t really run the numbers yet? We’ve…”
McCullagh: “Well I have, thankfully. You had the majority of three in the confidence vote on [Housing Minister] Eoghan Murphy. Dara Murphy’s gone, that’s down to two.”
McCullagh: “Thomas Pringle wasn’t at that vote, he presumably will be at the next vote, that’s down to one. John McGuinness now says, of Fianna Fáil, he’s going to vote against you. That’s down to an even number. And it appears from the newspapers that Noel Grealish is going to at least abstain. That means that you lose that vote unless something changes.”
Varadkar: “Yeah well there is, as you know, division within Fianna Fáil and that obviously is a factor that I’ve to take into account as well. The leader of Fianna Fáil has always said to me that they’ve honoured the confidence and supply agreement to date but it does appear that the division within their own party may make it impossible for them to do that. That’s for them to answer, not for me.”
McCullagh: “When you met Micheál Martin, did you ask him, as you did in the letter you sent him before Christmas, for members of Fianna Fáil to positively vote for the Government in a confidence motion?”
Varadkar: “You know, I didn’t actually, because he made his views on that very clear publicly before we met so I didn’t feel the need to go through the ritual of it but…”
McCullagh: “Did you ask him for assurances about John McGuinness?”
Varadkar: “I did ask him for an assurance that he would be able to lead and deliver his own party and it seems from the news today that he wouldn’t. Or, at least, if John McGuinness is to be believed, that he wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Varadkar: “Which is unfortunate because any Taoiseach and any party leader needs to be able to have their own party behind them.”
McCullagh: “Well, indeed. We’ll perhaps discuss that with Micheál Martin next week. But do you accept that if you lose a motion of confidence in one of your ministers, that’s the end of the Government?”
Varadkar: “Legally and constitutionally, that’s actually not the case. The motion would be in the minister and not the Government. But a Taoiseach that can’t appoint their own Cabinet, is a Taoiseach in name only.”
McCullagh: “On the trolley figures, 2019 was the worst year since figures began and the first couple of weeks of this year have been even worse. 760 on trolleys. [Former Health Minister and Progressive Democrats TD] Mary Harney declared a national emergency some years ago when it hit 500.
“And you said in September 2015, if the situation didn’t improve, heads would have to roll. Simon Harris said in January 2017 that under-performing managers would be replaced.
“Voters might form their own opinion of whose heads should roll.”
Varadkar: “I think they will form their opinion but hopefully they will give what we’ve to say some consideration. And I’m acknowledging that what we’ve done in health isn’t enough. We have made some good progress around affordability for example, cutting prescription charges for people, medical cards, for people who don’t, free GP care for kids under six.
“And people over 70, carers, those with profound disabilities, we have a plan to extend that further to all children and other groups too. And also reducing waiting times both for operations and, in fact, waiting times to see a specialist have now been falling for four months in a row.
“But, you know, what we’ve found with health is, it’s not something you can turn around quickly. It’s actually going to take years.”
McCullagh: “Well you’ve been in office for nine years.”
Varadkar: “Yeah, that is true but we haven’t had nine years to invest in health and housing and education. We’ve only had about two years to do that. And that’s because we had to get the economy fixed first. We had to get people back to work, we had to get our public finances in order.
“It’s only in the last two years that we’ve eliminated the budget deficit and I think most fair-minded people will acknowledge that. That there was a job to do first, around getting our economy back on track. We shouldn’t take that for granted. That can be undermined.
“And we can go backwards if we go back to the people who created the mess in the first place. And it’s only in the past two years that we’ve been able to invest in public infrastructure and public services and I’m determined to drive that on over the next five years, if I’m given the opportunity to do so.”
McCullagh: “Before Christmas you were asked if you were ashamed of your record on housing and you said you weren’t. Now people looking at that photo before Christmas of a homeless five-year-old boy eating his dinner off a piece of cardboard on the street, or hearing that an 81-year-old woman was found this week homeless on the streets of Dublin. They might think shame is the only reaction?”
Varadkar: “Well certainly I was very, very concerned to hear that story in the last couple of days about the 80-year-old woman. I did check into it by the way. And the facts were not as they were reported. And in fairness RTÉ has acknowledged that.
“She was in her early 60s, has some mental health issues and was discharged to a social care worker with a housing plan. So I’m afraid that was one of those examples where an individual case was put about in the media that actually turned out not to be the case.
“There is a housing plan in place for her and I think that’s the most important thing, that she is being looked after.
“And I want to say to the staff in St James’s Hospital, who felt very hurt by the story, because the implication was that they had somehow allowed an 80-year-old woman out on the streets, that, that you know, that shouldn’t have happened to them, they did their job and did it well.”
McCullagh: “What about the homeless five-year-old boy eating his dinner off a piece of cardboard?”
Varadkar: “That was shocking, shocking photograph and one that I found very upsetting too. I remember, at the time, we tried to find out who that child was, because we wanted to make sure that he was looked after, that perhaps he could be moved into a family hub or perhaps we could make sure there were no child protection issues.
“We still haven’t been able to find that child unfortunately. So, individually, that’s the situation with that particular case.
“But they are very sad stories and they’re stories that drive me on because they remind me of how much more we need to do.”
“And also the positive stories remind me as well. Bear in mind, since I’ve become Taoiseach, the number of new houses built in Ireland has trebled from about 7,000 a year to 20,000 a year…”
McCullagh: “Which is still 14,000 below what the Central Bank says we need every year.”
Varadkar: “Well I actually think we need to get to 40,000 a year, so I think we need more than the Central Bank thinks.”
McCullagh: “When can we hit that?”
Varadkar: “Well having trebled it in the past two-and-a-half years, I think I can double it in the next two-and-a-half years, if I’m given the chance to do so. We haven’t done enough on housing, we can do more. And some of that is working, by the way.
“The fact we built more houses last year than any year, for a decade, is the reason why houses prices are levelling off. And that really matters, particularly when it comes to people who want to buy their first home for the first time.
“And one thing that I always remember, and I’ll never forget it, is the experience of turning the key in my own door, going into my own apartment, sitting on my own couch and turning on my own TV.
“And I want home ownership to be a reality for everyone in this country. We’ve made some good progress, both with the Help to Buy scheme and the Rebuilding Ireland home loan and I want to build on that.”
McCullagh: “And yet Taoiseach, with respect, people are listening to this and they’ll know the figures. There are still 10,500 homeless people, there are still 3,752 children without that roof over their head, without that sofa, without that TV that you’re speaking of. And they’re simply saying that this government is not moving fast enough to deal with that problem.”
Varadkar: “And, you know, I share that frustration. A lot of people are frustrated at the pace of progress and I am too. And when I see those figures, and I see them every month, I’m reminded by the work we still have to do and it’s the kind of thing that spurs me on….”
Listen back in full here