From top: Sinn Féin rally at the Rochestown Park Hotel, Cork last month; Eamonn Kelly
In an article by the acting taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in The Sunday Independent (March 1) there was a strange bookending to his innings as taoiseach.
Back in 2016, as Minister for Social Protection, Leo Varadkar launched his bid for leadership of the Fine Gael party, which resulted in him becoming taoiseach, with the now widely discredited welfare cheats campaign.
Here an “enemy” was identified and accused of availing of monies under false pretenses. The accusation was made without a scrap of evidence, and was rejected by former social welfare inspector, Bernadette Gorman, who described the campaign as “Tory” in nature and as “class warfare”.
Ms Gorman told RTÉ’s Today with Seán O’Rourke show:
“In my book it is all about his aspirations to be leader,” It is a hate campaign. Never was there a campaign like it coming after a period of austerity.”
The acting taoiseach on Sunday did something similar, again accusing a target group of appearing “to live way beyond their means” and calling for an inquiry into their finances.
Again, the strategy appeared to be to target an “enemy” for smearing, in the hope that the target group would be rejected by the larger society. This time the target was Sinn Féin.
The Medium Is Not the Message
Everyone, even those people who invested their trust in Leo Varadkar as a leader of sound judgement, must be more than a little surprised by how petulant and childish he has been in defeat.
His call for investigations into Sinn Féin’s finances on the grounds that they appear to be living beyond their means is verging now on the absurd.
But the most absurd part of it all, and Fianna Fail are equally guilty of this, is that both parties have chosen to ignore the message sent to them by the electorate and have instead embarked on separate campaigns to smear Sinn Féin.
What neither seems to realise is that Sinn Féin, while they were the greatest beneficiaries of the electorate’s dissatisfaction with the outgoing government, were actually little more than the medium by which the electorate’s message was delivered.
By constantly harping on about Sinn Féin, and by now trying to smear that party, the acting taoiseach is essentially ignoring the wishes of the electorate, which was pretty much a core complaint of that portion of the electorate that voted against Fine Gael in the first place. That they were not serving the people or listening to the people.
The message was a call for greater equality of outcome, which would mean amending neo-liberal policy in order to put people first.
But Fine Gael have turned a deaf ear to that message and have decided instead to smear the messenger; namely, Sinn Féin.
FG also have a pattern of scare-mongering, which goes nicely with their pattern of scapegoating. Back in February 2016, the Business Post reported a Fine Gael strategist saying of the electorate:
“We’ll scare the shit out of them for the last 10 days.”
The then taoiseach Enda Kenny warned of “consequences” if the Fine Gael-Labour coalition was not returned in preference for a Fianna Fail-Sinn Féin coalition.
“I do not want to see the flight from this country of either capital or jobs or lack of investment coming in here.”
The current strategy seems similar in terms of the scapegoating and the scaremongering, this time with Sinn Féin cast as the villains that will bring the country to ruin, as well as being now the alleged “cheats” in receipt of money they’re not entitled to.
In its desperation Fine Gael is flinging all it has at the problem. Tellingly, all it has to fling is scapegoating and scaremongering.
While Irish America is stunned by FG and FF’s efforts to keep SF out of government, as are Northern Unionists, what many don’t appear to realize is that this has little to do with Sinn Féin. FF and FG are simply resorting to tactics they have always used.
Ultimately, the real target is the electorate.
It is as if they regard the electorate as a dumb mass to be easily tricked to go this way or that way, much like a mindless herd of cattle to be shunted around the place by threat, connivance and deception.
Now with this election, the usual scare tactics and demonisation have flailed around and found nothing to work on except Sinn Féin’s past, the very thing the entire peace process was designed to move on from. The very thing that Varadkar’s self-righteous Brexit posturing was trumpeting.
But more than that, this focus on Sinn Féin shows that the fundamental disrespect for the electorate still remains. Because it was the electorate that voted for change. But that has been ignored, as if it is of no importance.
RTÉ still refers to Leo Varadkar as “the Taoiseach”. He is in fact an acting taoiseach, and ought to be referred to as such by the state broadcaster. The electorate voted him out.
To not refer to him as the acting taoiseach is just more of the same disrespect. As if the election never happened. As if the electorate doesn’t matter. As if his resignation a couple of weeks back was just an empty gesture.
Whatever about leveling false allegations of cheating against defenseless welfare recipients, 70% of whom were old-age pensioners or disabled people, this time Leo Varadkar may have made an error of judgment in attempting the same strategy with a political party of equal weight to his own by casting charges of “cheating” at them.
Welfare recipients, for obvious reasons, had no option but to take the slur on the chin. People of equal social status and political power may prove to be more proactive in their response. While the electorate, because they are the real intended dupes, may prove less inclined to join in the scapegoating this time around.
Eamonn Kelly is a freelance Writer and Playwright.
Previously: Eamonn Kelly on Broadsheet