Never mind the actual problems here at home – the housing crisis, with a now added student accommodation crisis, which we should have seen coming. And the ongoing health crisis, with record-breaking trolly numbers, and a Minister finally admitting what we’ve always known : that the health unions are a huge impediment to HSE reform. But no-one in politics wants to tackle that.
No, never mind all this. Instead, we have the trendy Taoiseach back from meeting his New Best Friend Justin Trudeau in Canada and announcing that he wants to double Ireland’s global footprint and tell the world how great we are.
It’s as if the worse things get at home, the more Varadkar faces the other way and looks abroad. Leo likes abroad, just as Enda did. He feels the love there, as Enda did, without the pesky complications of domestic opinion. Leo got giddy during his first ‘Love Actually’ meeting in Downing Street and in Belfast (which we must consider ‘abroad’, and still in the UK, alas) our smoothie Taoiseach attended Gay Pride events and told the backward Northies to embrace same sex marriage.
This is painless gestural stuff, like the Canadian leader Trudeau telling us to embrace abortion. But it’s a bit odd : shouldn’t these politicians be running their own countries rather than telling those in other countries to pass laws on contentious subjects?
Its as if being in Government is a plaything for Leo, to be enjoyed and availed of to push out crowd-pleasing gestures or big policy initiatives which cost public money and, crucially, are not demanded or required. Beyond a few quangos nobody seriously thinks we could (or could afford) to increase the State pension every year, but Leo has declared that ‘this is something he wants to do’.
Many of us thought Varadkar would be the very opposite, given the considerable problems the country faces. We expected a cautious, incremental Taoiseach, quietly getting stuck into detail and long term blockages, such as the health service which he presided over as an ineffectual Minister. At least, his current Minister of State for Health, the straight-talking Jim Daly TD, has called out the unions for being part of our slow-motion health system.
But for Leo, its the big schemes, photo ops and grand plans such as to double (double !) the number of Irish Embassies and Consulates abroad.
This is an extraordinary ambition for a country that he is still emerging from austerity and is tight on resources. Usually, an Embassy is opened very cautiously and after much deliberation – not to mention negotiation with the host country – but our new can-do Taoiseach wants to lash them up everywhere.
Granted, there is an ostensibly laudable reason which is increasing investment, tourism and trade opportunities. But who honestly thinks that the IDA is not already doing an excellent job on inward investment, or that our tourism agencies are not doing an equally fine effort in bringing in visitors which are now at record numbers?
Indeed, the problem now is finding accommodation for inward investors or even for tourists. Maybe we should sort out those problems first before we start banging our drum for more. Maybe we should create better conditions for those already living here.
So is this a clever plan to cash in on some notional idea about the popularity of the Irish overseas – Leo perhaps confusing his own reception abroad with that of his country – or is it a costly ‘rush of blood to the head’ plan that will eat up more State resources, and more personnel, and embark on a strategy that’s hard to reverse?
I worked at the Department of Foreign Affairs so I’m familiar with this caution. The State is usually parsimonious about opening Embassies, and with good reason – we have opened in places where it ended up that there wasn’t much work to be done. With Celtic Tiger exuberance, we opened up missions in Asia and we were also obliged, through EU obligation, to create Embassies in all the EU States. We also opened offices in Edinburgh and Cardiff as part of the Good Friday Agreement – necessary to ‘cement peace’ perhaps but not exactly a priority.
And in reality many of these Embassies don’t have a whole lot to do, especially in an era of instant communications and one to one Government contact. The world of diplomacy, with its arcane rituals and formalities, has been overtaken. The Swedes, for example, have shut their Embassy in Dublin. After the crash, An Bord Snip (remember them?) recommended the closure of 20 overseas missions to cut costs, from75 missions in 2011 down to 55.
At least Varadkar has at least said that his Embassies expansion will be focusing on trade and investment, post Brexit, and this is a good thing. But do we need more Embassies for this? We already have specific overseas agencies to do the job.
The Taoiseach may also be confusing Ireland’s rosy cultural image – which he is feeling personally – with a motivation for why foreigners actually invest here, which is not really about the Cliffs of Moher and the poetry of W By Yeats but about the hard realities of low tax, EU access and the English language.
A similar argument used to be made by the former Labour leader Eamon Gilmore about our high overseas aid – which also required a beefing up of Embassies, incidentally. He said that somehow our positive humanitarian image from this aid-giving would encourage investment in Ireland. But there is absolutely no evidence for this.
Also, it should be borne in mind that the European Union is itself developing a diplomatic service, the EU External Action Service, with which it hopes to eventually supplant or even replace the Embassies of its member countries. This is an ambitious but little known plan which has been knocked back in recent years, with the Euro crisis, but now that Macron has been elected in France and Merkel is sure to follow suit in Germany, we can be sure that this part of the EU integration project will be revived and strengthened.
One wonders how much consultation our ideas-happy Taoiseach made with the cautious mandarins in the Department of Foreign Affairs, indeed, Finance about his ambitious plans. The same officials would have agonised about the closure and then reopening of just one Embassy, that to the Holy See, in a gesture that now looks silly.
One suspects that Varadkar consulted little. Instead, this is a Taoiseach who loves spending State money and is keen to increase the State’s role everywhere, it seems. He is also a leader who loves ‘the abroad’, as Victorians used to call it including going there. Meantime, the problems in housing and the health service are mounting at home.