Leo Varadkar’s resting smirk face can sometimes get him into trouble, coming across as glib or out of touch at precisely the wrong moments. But the Tánaiste’s habitual air of a man who knows where the good biscuits are hidden was vanquished during Leaders’ Questions on Thursday as he fielded criticism about the Government’s planned measures to offset the cost of living.
“No matter what we announce today it’s not going to be enough,” he predicted, his beatific grin replaced by a pained grimace.
He was responding to the fact that Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty was wholly unimpressed by the package, even before knew what was in it. It would not scratch the surface, Doherty prophesied. "You're tone deaf to where people are at."
I suspect the Government understands exactly where people are at. Sure, some high earners are doing well. But too many others are freezing cold and fed up, disgruntled and dismayed by the scale of rapidly rising prices. None of the one-off specials landing in the Government’s middle aisle were going to cut it.
At any other time in the life of any other government – let alone one coming out of a pandemic saddled with a €234 billion national debt – this would have been greeted as an early spring bonanza: €200 off the energy bills of every household; 20 per cent off public transport; €125 for those on the fuel allowance; changes to the drugs payment scheme, the working family payment and school transport fees. Plus a bonus bank holiday and €25,000 to retrofit our homes.
The verdict from the Opposition was that all of this is an Elastoplast over the gaping wound in our rapidly deteriorating finances. The lone-parents advocacy group Spark characterised it as "too little to too many and very little to those who are struggling the most".
It was “not as much as people would like or as much as many people would need,” acknowledged Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath.
Too little to too many and not as much as many need: that became the theme of the week as one good news initiative after another failed to cheer a disgruntled public. Take the heads of the Right to Request Remote Working Bill, which went before an Oireachtas committee. It would offer clarity on remote working and be "a real opportunity to change the norm", promised Varadkar.
Thirteen reasons why an employer can say no later, plus a list of onerous requirements on employees, left everyone distinctly underwhelmed. It should be renamed Thirteen Reasons You Can’t Have Remote Working, suggested Sinn Féin employment spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly. All it gave people was “the right to be in a bad mood about not having their request granted”.
This was meant to be a good news story, said a bemused Ollie Crowe, a Fianna Fáil Senator.
But it’s okay that employees are not happy because, Varadkar assures us, employers’ group Ibec doesn’t like it either.
The fact that the bar is set at making everyone equally unhappy is a sign of the times.
The home retrofitting scheme was another example of a bold moonshot that barely made it off the launch pad before the grumbling started. The €8 billion scheme offers grants up to €25,000, provides for a one-stop shop for applications and is an important part of the climate change strategy. But to taxpayers stuck in the rent trap the idea that their hard-earned funds were going to be used to boost the value of other people's homes seemed like a joke in such bad taste even Jimmy Carr would baulk at it.
For reasons best known to himself Fianna Fáil Junior Minister Sean Fleming decided this would the right moment to channel history's great champions of frugality – Charlie Haughey, Marie Antoinette and Kirstie Allsopp. As the British TV presenter and property guru was holding forth on how young people could afford a house if they would just stop spending money on their "EasyJet, coffee, gym, Netflix" lifestyles, Fleming was on RTÉ Radio scolding those complaining here. They needed to be more "careful", do some work themselves and shop around. He later apologised, but the impression that the predominantly middle-aged, middle-class decision-makers in this country have no idea what it is like to struggle had once again been reinforced.
Does the public care that much of the current crisis is being driven by factors outside the Government’s control?
Not really. The fact that inflation is up 5.1 per cent in the euro area or that US is suffering the fastest pace of price rises in 40 years is cold comfort when your own housing and energy costs are up 29 per cent. According to a Red C survey for St Vincent de Paul , 9 per cent of renters are in arrears; nearly one in three are worried about eviction. On Morning Ireland a single parent said she was paying €200 a month on home heating oil despite only using it for two hours a day. "It's modern-day poverty really."
As the Government is all too aware, it can’t win. Nothing in the package of supports will mask the reality of runaway inflation, the perception of a widening chasm between the well off and those facing “modern-day poverty” and the one issue to which every radio vox pop returned: the housing crisis.
Until housing is fixed, nothing is fixed. As Ministers were out explaining the cost of living package, an ad on Daft was going viral on Twitter. The ad was for a granny flat in Dublin renting for €900 per month. It was described as an “en-suite”, meaning that the shower cubicle is in the kitchen – handy, I suppose, if you’re running late and need to make your coffee and shampoo your hair at the same time.
This week provided proof positive, if any were needed, that housing remains the measure against which everything this Government does will be judged.