From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (left) and Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy; Donal O’Shea at the launch of new social housing units last year; Donal O’Shea
The legacy of this Fine Gael government has been brought into sharp relief in the weeks since their annual party think-in.
Though politics has always to some extent been an exercise in messaging, this government has seemingly decided, or understood, depending on your level of cynicism, that messaging is all that is required in modern politics.
No longer are tangible actions necessary or even desirable; it is enough to throw a launch, which is itself the precursor to another launch, which is itself the precursor to a photo-shoot with a minister playing dress-up on a construction site.
As long as your initiative isn’t set to conclude, or even begin, for a suitable length of time, you can now accept the kudos for your ambitious long-term strategies while remaining insulated from the headaches associated with actual delivery.
Though it may be verging on equine cruelty to continue beating the dead horse that is Leo Varadkar’s now defunct Spin Unit, its impact was still evident during the media blitz that followed the party mind-meld in Galway.
Fresh from their summer breaks, Leo and Eoghan came out swinging; ready to bravely face down the “left wing” councils that were apparently bringing the capital’s housing market to its knees.
Emergency powers, we were told, would be brought into effect if required.
What these powers might entail was not clear, but they seemed to suggest a break from the inertia that had characterised the previous three years of governmental housing policy.
Would this be the start of compulsory purchase orders and punitive taxes on unproductive vacant properties, rent freezes, or perhaps a shift in stance on the sale of loan portfolios by state-owned banks?
Alas, it appears that these powers will be limited to combating creeping ‘communism’ in Dublin’s local governing bodies, and diverting attention from the calculation at the heart of the government’s approach to this crisis; negatively impacting the value of property in this country is more detrimental to Fine Gael’s electoral ambitions than 10,000 Irish people being without a home.
Further evidence of Fine Gael’s penchant for choreographed PR offensives could be seen in their response to the North Frederick Street eviction and the accompanying footage.
With the now infamous photograph of masked Gardaí seemingly running cover for balaclava-clad private security forces spreading across various social media platforms, the national airwaves quickly became inundated with talking heads seeking to frame the events within specific parameters.
Leading the charge was Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan, who appeared with Sean O’Rourke to discuss the urgent need for a ban on recording Gardaí in the line of duty.
The fact that we’re only a year removed from the Jobstown trial, in which a judge instructed jurors to disregard the testimony of Gardaí due to discrepancies and consistent inconsistencies that contradicted video evidence was apparently not relevant to the discussion.
What followed this opening salvo was an impressive exercise in reality manufacturing, aided in no small part by a compliant and credulous media.
Capital “S” Serious and capital “R” Reasonable pundits lined up to decry the dangers posed by these anarchist squatters.
Public order offences, arrests, threats to Gardaí, and private property rights dominated the conversations. Hospitalised protesters quietly disappeared from view.
That these viewpoints bore no relation to the footage captured by those present at the eviction was beside the point. Once you can control the terms of engagement, repetition will take care of the rest. After all, who could possibly place themselves in opposition to improving Garda safety?
While polling suggests that Fine Gael’s calculated inaction has yet to seriously impact their popularity, the events at North Frederick Street may prove to be an inflection point.
Images like those taken at the eviction have a certain emotional resonance that can’t be deflected as easily as impersonal statistics and figures.
Brand management and marketing are all well and good, but as the water charges and repeal movements showed, direct citizen-led action has an impact that can’t be ignored for long.
Donal O’Shea is an Irish freelance writer, currently living in Chicago.
Top pic: Rollingnews