It’s a truth rarely acknowledged in Irish politics that, well, the truth is rarely acknowledged in Irish politics.
Families are ‘hardworking’, even those who aren’t. All pensioners are lonely and impoverished. The middle classes are ‘squeezed’, even when they demonstrably are well able to afford two cars and three holidays a year.
Pandering to the public is the great art of the Irish politician. They owe this inability to state the bleeding obvious to our uniquely sensitive electoral system, which can see them lose their seats rapidly if their utterances give offence to a particular demographic or even to the wrong village in their constituency. Poor Michael Finucane of Limerick West lost his seat by one vote, back in 2002.
This pandering tends to be associated with Fianna Fáil, rightly or wrongly. People vote on the basis of being told what they want to hear. We love to be told our problems will be fixed with money, and we particularly like being told that somebody else is going to pay for them to be fixed.
So when Leo Varadkar stood up in the Dáil the other evening and said that people who wanted to buy houses could borrow from the bank of mum and dad, emigrate for a couple of years to fund a deposit, or move home for a couple of years to save on rent, there was outrage.
Keyboards across the country went up in flames as people outdid each other in hyperbole about how poor we all are.
Because the one thing we really, really don’t like being told is that we have enough money to pay for things. Sure we’re broke! We’re barely squeezing by! There isn’t a bob in the country and it’s nearly as bad as Somalia the way things are going. We’re barely making ends meet and there is no way in hell we are one of the twenty richest countries in the world.
And that’s the case for a lot of people. Averages are skewed by the Collison brothers and JP McManus and all the other billionaires.
Many people are struggling. But many more are not struggling – not really.
Because we don’t have a royal family and posh horsey types don’t own the ground most of us live on (although there’s still a bit of that in certain places), we have this bizarre idea that there is no such thing as class in Ireland.
If you went to third level, if you did the J1, if your family went on foreign holidays before Ryanair existed, if you have a second property… you’re middle class. And you’re probably pretty comfortably off.
Yes, maybe your family had to sell a field, sacrifice the second car, or the foreign holiday for a few years, in order to send the kids to college. Or to save up for their deposit. But there was a way of doing it. There was money there. It just had to be redirected.
So Leo’s comments, coming from and directed at his middle class base, are perfectly legitimate. Most people who vote for Fine Gael are middle class.
And most of the people I know who have found somewhere permanent to live in the last ten years have done one of the things he advised. They’ve got help of some kind from their parents, whether that was a couple of thousand euro towards their deposit that’s been saved in anticipation of this day over a long period of time, a site on the farm, or a spare bedroom while they saved on rent. Or they have gone abroad to earn the kind of money that is difficult to earn here.
Capitalism sustains itself through inherited wealth. That’s capitalism in action.
The problem is the people who don’t fall into his middle class base. They’re not the type of people who’ll be writing thinkpieces about this for the papers.
They’re the people we see living in hotel rooms on Prime Time because their low paying jobs will never ever allow them to buy somewhere to live and the middle classes have priced them out of the rental market – often with assistance from the bank of mum and dad. They won’t have parents with disposable assets or spare bedrooms, or the leeway to scrimp and save and send them to college, so they won’t have the kind of qualifications that allow them to earn top dollar abroad.
And Leo very rarely thinks about those people because a) they don’t vote for Fine Gael and b) he’s never met them, really. Maybe in his constituency clinics and maybe during his medical training. But he doesn’t know them, and he genuinely doesn’t understand that his advice will never apply to them.
There are a few solutions to this problem. And they are all completely outside of the control of the people who need them.
The blindingly obvious one is for the Government to get back to building social housing. Another is to introduce a real affordable housing scheme that would allow people who will never, ever be able to put together a €30k deposit to secure ordinary homes that are now priced well beyond the reach of even your average Winning Streak winner.
But who’s going to pay for it, the squeezed middle? Well, no. We can’t afford to pay any more tax. Why? Because we’re too busy saving up to pay for our children’s deposits. And so the wheel turns.