This piece appeared on Broadsheet.ie on April 2nd. 2019:
No matter how I try, I just cannot get worked up about Leo Varadkar’s hand written letter to Kylie Minogue.
I can see how some folks may see it as a bit cringey, but I also know that if I had been in Leo’s position back in 1989 when Frank Sinatra was playing Lansdowne Road with Sammy Davis Junior and Liza Minnelli, I would not have stopped at just writing a fan letter.
I would have happily agreed to replace Amhrán na bhFiann with The Best Is Yet To Come and offered to make Italian our first national language just to get an invite to the after-show party in the Horseshow House. I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky lucky… (Where did this come from?).
So what if Leo Varadkar likes Kylie? Maybe he just can’t get her out of his head? (Stop it!) Would there be the same chirping if the letter was to an artiste considered more “serious” or even “political”? What if the letter was to Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison or the Chieftains?
In their defence, some of those most agitated by #KylieGate have not been bothered by the letter or its recipient as much as they have been annoyed by the clumsy attempts to stop it being released under FoI.
Theirs is a concern I can understand. Their issue is not that a letter was written or sent, but rather that some people in government buildings thought it would be better this all be kept from public view and that we not find out that this Taoiseach likes celebrities.
Hopefully this decision was made on the hoof and was not informed by some last-minute polling: would knowing that the FG leader was a Kylie fan make you more or less likely to vote FG? Will you vote on Better the Devil you know? (That has to be the last one)
We know Leo likes celebrity. There is nothing new in this. We saw his “love actually” thrill at visiting Downing St and his Trudeau socks moment. We also know that he and his handlers love spinning around (Ok, this was definitely the last one) with clear views of the image of Varadkar they want to portray. It is of the young dynamic, energetic and fit young leader.
Do his handlers fear that his being seen to spontaneously write innocent fan letters takes away from the image they have crafted? If so, they will not be the last to realise that you can only handle political leaders so much, especially ones who like the limelight. Eventually the real person pops out, as it has here – and that is no bad thing.
All of which brings me to my real point. Rather than getting needlessly agitated over a harmless letter, we should be focused on all the important letters the Taoiseach hasn’t written.
Letters such as the one he should have written to Finian McGrath over the weekend sacking the Disabilities Junior Minister for accusing the Gardaí of political policing, claiming they were being over the top in enforcing new drink driving laws. It was reckless outburst that was, as Jim O’Callaghan TD pointed out on Sean O’Rourke yesterday, about McGrath looking for publicity and trying “to explain the unpopularity of Independent Alliance ministers.”
But Leo cannot write that letter because this would also require him to write to Minister Shane Ross to tell him to cop himself on and try sorting out the problems in his own department, (be grateful I didn’t shoehorn a lame “locomotion” gag in here) and stop interfering in other ones, as with his judicial appointments bill.
Varadkar should be writing to his Housing Minister instructing him to stop arranging photo-ops and instead keep his shirt and jacket on and tackle the crisis in the housing and rental sectors. He could open this letter by telling his Housing Minister that he needs a housing policy that works, one that does not allow homelessness to climb beyond 10,000.
But he doesn’t write this letter because he knows Minister Murphy does have a housing policy. It is a Fine Gael policy and he is implementing it assiduously. It is housing price maintenance policy. It’s not that Fine Gael doesn’t care about homelessness but rather that they care more about ensuring house prices are sustained for the benefit of urban FG voters and the banks alike.
It is also why Leo Varadkar doesn’t write a letter to Simon Harris instructing him to deal with the ongoing crisis in the public health system.
Leo knows, just as well as Minister Harris, that over 45% of the population have private healthcare insurance and core Fine Gael voters are in this cohort. Fine Gael’s pollsters are doubtless reassuring both Simon and Leo that their voters are not so concerned by waiting lists, trolley crises or public hospital bed shortages.
Leo could also do with writing a stiffly worded letter to his Junior Minister for Defence who has presided over a worrying decline in personnel retention and Defence Force morale. The problem with writing to the Minister of State is that he would only refer if back to his boss, the Cabinet Minister for Defence, who is An Taoiseach.
There are many more letters the Taoiseach could and should be writing, including to his Agriculture Minister, Michael Creed to take action on the collapse in beef prices; to his Communications Minister, Richard Bruton instructing him to get to grips with rural broadband now and to his successor as Social Protection Minister, Regina Doherty telling her to speed up the decision making process for the 80,000 plus pensioners awaiting verdicts on their outstanding entitlements to pension increases.
But these letters never emerge under Freedom of Information because they are never sent.
So, with all these letters that the Taoiseach should, but somehow cannot, bring himself to write, we should not be outraged when he puts pen to paper that it is to connect someone he admires, likes and maybe even hopes will pay some attention to him.
What’s the harm? As Kylie herself said back in 1989: it wouldn’t change a thing.