While it would be unfair to place Leo Varadkar’s “picnic controversy” in the same scandalous category as that of Dominic Cummings, the Brexit strategist and government Svengali at the centre of a feeding frenzy in the British press, there is no doubt that the Taoiseach at the very least pushed the boundaries of what was permissible under the Covid-19 lockdown regulations when he and his partner met some friends for lunch in the Phoenix Park last weekend. In some ways it’s a credit to our low-key democracy that the head of government can enjoy a picnic and sunbathing in a major public park free of hordes of security minders and aides on a sunny afternoon, with just a couple of gardaí on hand to keep the curious at bay. However at a time when normal life across the island is far from normal, and at the behest of the authorities, the optics are rather poor to say the least. Especially for a politician with a noted – and rather expensive – obsession with PR.
Which makes the evident reluctance of the Irish media to address the matter all the stranger. Or perhaps not so strange given that the majority of our politicos and journos tend to swim in the same social and ideological waters. Turning on their own is not really the done thing. Especially when many senior people in the industry have been engaging in similar behaviour, including decamping to second homes in places like Clare, Kerry and Galway for the duration of the lockdown. Though in the case of the Fine Gael leader he did the latter in rather better style when he and his partner abandoned their apartment in leafy Castleknock to move into the Steward’s Lodge on the grounds of the Farmleigh estate, the salubrious State-owned demesne that normally hosts diplomatic meetings and visiting heads of state.
The online outrage this latest snippet of gossip has generated has been only matched by the fury of the Blueshirt apologists arguing that the Dublin West TD has every right to find comfortable accommodation for himself at a time of exceptional stress as he leads Ireland through the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus crisis. And sure, isn’t he paying for his stay, you shower of begrudgers? Albeit for only 50 quid a night in the equivalent of a five-star hotel as he scolds the citizenry about our dependence on emergency payments from the Government to put food on the table and keep the roofs over our heads while declaring the need for hundreds of thousands of employees to return to their subsistence wages.
I’m not saying that the above scandal is an illustration of one set of rules for the Irish 1% and another set of rules for the Irish 99%. But the higher you go in the country’s socio-economic structure, the higher the position you are born into, the more likely you are to find that the common set of rules that binds us all can bend enough to accommodate your particular needs and your particular wishes. Even during a time of global pandemic.