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Mary Lou McDonald: Confusion, mixed messaging and punch-down policies - this government is out of touch with reality

The Sinn Féin leader says in a pandemic and now recession, the lack of clarity from Government is the last thing the country needs.

Mary Lou McDonald

YESTERDAY’S COVID-19 PLAN was meant to bring clarity and restore public confidence but it did anything but.

The government unveiled a five-stage plan… that seemed to most to have six stages. To navigate through this pandemic, we need public buy-in for the evolving measures that will continue to be required.

The number one priority to restore confidence is the need to fix testing and tracing, which has proved wholly inadequate. The public is understandably fed up by incoherent mixed messaging and clueless punch-down policies.

These are the most trying of times. People are understandably feeling weary and they seem to be getting it from all angles.

The confirmation that Ireland has reentered recession last week was Groundhog Day for so many still bearing the scars of the last recession, and the decade of savage austerity from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that followed.

The latest in a long list of tone-deaf proposals from a cabinet out of touch with the harsh realities now facing the public was the suggestion that two-for-one deals should be banned.

We are now edging closer to a winter season that will be extremely tough for many families feeling the strain of Covid-19 and all the uncertainty that it brings.

Instead of trying to make things that little bit easier for those households struggling, we have Eamon Ryan, the leader of the Green Party, looking to ban something as part of the new national waste policy that saves money for low-paid workers and those finding it difficult to make ends meet.

Why target ‘two-for-one’?

Banning two-for-one deals in our supermarkets would disproportionately affect those struggling the most.

It beggars belief that such a proposal would be raised at any time, but it is mind-boggling that the government would come up with this idea right in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis.

Deputy Ryan, on behalf of the government, also proposed levies on what he described as ‘cheap clothing’. Maybe he should stop and think about what that will actually mean.

It will inevitably mean that families on the breadline will struggle to clothe themselves and their children or will do so at the expense of other necessities.

The issue of consumer waste requires discussion and action. But not at the expense of people’s ability to live with dignity.

We must incentivise people to reduce consumer waste, not punish people whose financial situation limits new clothing and products they can afford to purchase.

That latest sucker-punch for the public came a week after a 3.4% price hike was announced by Electric Ireland. We simply cannot keep hammering people like this.

It is only 11 weeks since Micheál Martin named his Cabinet. In that time, the government has shown its true colours with a series of punch-down policies, while shifting from crisis to crisis. The signs were there from the start.

A win for the wealthy

In the same week that the government voted to award a third ‘super’ junior minister a pay increase of €16,000 on top of their already lucrative €124,000 salary, we had Leo Varadkar admitting that inspectors were collecting data of passengers at airports as a means to strip away their income supports.

My Sinn Féin colleague Deputy Louise O’Reilly was central to forcing a u-turn when the Data Protection Commissioner reaffirmed her concerns.

We then had a ‘Stay and Spend’ initiative that was regressive, unfair, and an insult to those on low pay.

Sinn Féin had put forward the idea of a staycation voucher which would have helped to get people back to work and which would be available to everyone, particularly those struggling.

It would have put money in people’s pockets – €200 per adult and €100 per child – and into the tills of businesses in the tourism and hospitality sector gasping for a lifeline. Instead, we got yet another botch job from this botch job government.

The hopes of a quarter of a million people working in the tourism and hospitality industry were dashed when the scheme excluded over 700,000 workers.

The stimulus fell far short of what was needed by the sector, and it excluded those on low pay, carers, the vast majority of pensioners, and people who lost work during this crisis; all people in desperate need of a break.

A litany of mistakes

Next, we had Minister Helen McEntee using Covid-19 emergency legislation for reforming the courts to sneak in a leg-up to vulture funds without any Dáil scrutiny.

Darragh O’Brien’s Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill was an attack on renters – so much so that Green Party TDs Neasa Hourigan and Joe O’Brien refused to support it.

It stripped vital protections from the vast majority of tenants at a time when they need them most, putting rent increases and evictions back on the table.

This government can be accused of a ‘let them eat cake’ approach. Or, in Marc MacSharry’s case, a ‘let them watch box sets’ approach.

Deputy MacSharry made bizarre and misguided comments where he accused public servants of using the pandemic ‘to do nothing’ and to ‘lie on the couch and watch box sets.’

This was a repeat of the divide and conquer strategy used by Fianna Fáil when they crashed the economy with the sole intent of creating division between the public and private sector. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

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People can see right through what is an insult to the thousands of public sector workers who have kept the state running in the most trying and testing of circumstances.

We have parents, relieved but apprehensive as their children returned to school a fortnight ago, baffled by the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly likening the risk involved in doing so to kids going on trampolines or driving a car.

Is there no end to this government’s confusion and the calamity? My colleague David Cullinane, Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on Health, rightly described regulations that would require restaurants and pubs serving food to retain records of all food orders for 28 days as ‘bonkers’. Such regulations were rightly met with derision.

The wrong approach

That is not what we need as we look to get through this pandemic. The threat of the virus is still very real, and we all need to work together and look out for one another to beat it.

But the actions and attitudes of this government to the people who have elected them to represent them have, far too often, provoked incredulity. And it is only early days.

People are tired, they are weary, they need a break. The government needs to realise this.

That is why I wrote to the Taoiseach at the weekend asking for him to intervene with Electric Ireland and the other utility companies to halt any price increases, and to withdraw the proposals to ban two-for-one deals immediately.

We must avoid a situation where families are unable to meet the costs of heating and lighting their homes during a winter that falls during in the middle of a pandemic.

You will not get public buy-in if the government continues to demonise the most vulnerable in society, while some of those in power flout their own measures with post-golf shindigs.

So my message to Micheál Martin is this: Stop confusing people, and start treating them with respect and dignity.

Mary Lou McDonald is a Dublin TD and leader of Sinn Féin.

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