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Lise Hand: Most voters in the real world don’t give a monkey's if Leo Varadkar smoked hash

The bleak first week of the election campaign meant any moment of lighter drama was welcomed by all, writes Lise Hand.

Image: RollingNews.ie

THE FIRST WEEK of the general election campaign was grim.

If there had been any planned razzmatazz by any of the parties it had been swept away in the avalanche of dark news – a homeless man suffering severe injuries after he was accidentally scooped up in his tent during a city council clean-up of Dublin’s canal, and 17-year old Keane Mulready-Woods murdered and his body dismembered by out-of-control criminals in Drogheda.

Maybe because of this sombre cloud, any moment of lighter drama was going to be given a céad míle fáilte by everyone.

The unexpected arrival centre-stage of the pensions gap as a campaign issue certainly offered not a whit of light relief – people could see no fun side to being obliged to sign on from the retirement age of 65 to either 66 or 67 when they become eligible for the State pension.

The politicians – not all of them, to be fair, noted with alarm that anger was rising with remarkable speed over the pension gap.

Sinn Féin had read the public mood correctly in advance and arrived into the campaign with a policy that had prepared earlier. 

However, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were left scrambling at the start of the week to devise cunning plans before an irate Grey Army were minded to re-arm and take to the streets once again.

Never mind farmers or teachers or students or bus-drivers. They can wave placards and roar and shout until they’re hoarse outside the gates of Leinster House. But our elected representatives harbour a visceral fear of incurring the wrath of Ireland’s elders.

For never in the history of political u-turns was one executed with such rapidity as that performed by the Fianna Fáil-led government in 2008 when thousands of rowdy pensioners availed of the free travel to stage a full-throated demonstration against a proposed budget measure to means-test some medical cards.

Inevitably, the proposal died a faster death than a Star Trek crew member in a red shirt.

So it was a dour week. Anyone pining for a bit of diversion was pinning their hopes on the first televised leaders’ debate on Wednesday night.

NO FEE VIRGIN MEDIA ELECTION DEBATE 10 Source: Maxwell photography

Leo Varadkar versus Micheál Martin. It wasn’t quite Conor McGregor taking on Donald Cerrone in Vegas, but for political nerds this was a top-billed rumble in the jungle with the Taoiseach’s office as the winner’s purse. 

But for much of the Virgin Media debate, it was more a Barney in Ballymount; the two leaders spent much of the bout dancing around each other, landing glancing blows but no knockout punch.

And then it happened. Host Pat Kenny sent a haymaker flying into the two men by brusquely asking them if they had ever taken illegal drugs.

Micheál Martin, so famously clean-living that he’s notorious for critiquing the fry-laden plates of colleagues and journalists in the Leinster House canteen while clutching his usual morning repast of fruit and granola, swiftly denied that his lips had ever been in the vicinity of a spliff.

Leo Varadkar, clearly thrown by the question, stammered out that he had addressed the issue truthfully years before in a Hot Press interview and then launched into the longest pause since a Harold Pinter play last graced a Dublin stage.

He was prompted by a clearly chuffed Martin to elaborate until Kenny took him off the hook. “The answer is that you did,” he reminded Leo who responded, “Yes, but it was a long time ago.”

The protracted pause sparked a collective sucking in of air through the teeth of anyone watching the debate. Oh dear. A bad look. Doubtless, his team and his supporters groaned while his opponents and detractors gloated. What a boo-boo. 

Perhaps during the excruciating silence, the thought may have popped into Leo’s head that this could end up as the most viral image of the campaign.

His fears were surely borne out the following day when the exchange made the front page of more than one paper, he also faced more questions about his past drug-taking in a press doorstep with the media and then was further closely grilled by Ivan Yates on Newstalk about what substances he had taken, and when.

Varadkar was unwavering in his response that he had smoked dope in college, but that was the extent of his drug-taking. The broadcaster pushed him further – had he tried cocaine, ecstasy, ketamine or LSD? 

It makes for uncomfortable listening, veering close to the classic ambush question: “When did you stop beating your wife?” The Taoiseach tried to keep his answers to yes or no – a wise move, as if he had replied in the vein of “No I have never taken cocaine,” as sure as a bag of chips following closing-time, the headlines the next day would have trumpeted ‘VARADKAR DENIES SNORTING COKE’.

And what a waste of another day’s campaign coverage that would’ve been. The only sliver of silver lining to be gleaned from the utterly grim events in Drogheda that had dominated the coverage during the opening days of the campaign, was that they had turned the spotlight on the serious drug-related problems besetting communities all across the country.

Serious discussions had been aired between politicians, activists, community workers and other groups about the complex causes of drug abuse and the bleak futures faced by people living in drug-ravaged areas, and how best the scourge can be tackled.

These were good discussions, focussed on the people. Various proposals were debated. But now the circus had arrived in town. Candidates suddenly found themselves being quizzed about whether they had ever taken drugs, instead of being interrogated about their party’s drug policies. 

Back in the real world, most voters don’t give a monkey’s if Leo Varadkar smoked hash at college. He was out on a canvass in Santry Friday and he was asked about hospital waiting lists, housing and public transport. The stuff that matters.

Lise Hand will be a regular contributor to TheJournal.ie for General Election 2020. Check out all her work here

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