Not quite the trademark Vincent Browne grilling some had envisaged from the retiring veteran broadcaster and journalist, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar came through his TV3 Tonight Show appearance relatively unscathed writes Damian Dolan.
One claim by Mr Varadkar, however, that is sure to be revisited by the media is that “over 70% of people describe themselves as middle class”.
Probed by Mr Browne over the source of the statistic, Mr Varadkar could offer no greater substantiation of it beyond a “standard statistic that people talk about when you ask people”.
That came after a confusing attempt to define middle class in Ireland, after which Mr Varadkar extended his definition to the broader term “middle Ireland”.
“What it refers to is effectively two million people who work in Ireland now. People who feel they contribute a lot to society but don’t get much back,” said Mr Varadkar.
“It’s essentially the big centre of Irish society. I’ve never put figures on it. I would include people on the minimum wage.”
The political jousting continued with Mr Browne seeking clarification over the Taoiseach’s comment that he was elected to serve the middle class.
“Because I think they, the middle class, deserve more representation and there a group in society I want to give more attention to,” said Mr Varadkar, who clarified that by “people who get up early in the morning” he meant everyone.
“There’s a group of people who often feel they contribute a lot to the economy and a lot to society but maybe that they don’t get back as much as they should.
“These are the people who make everything possible in this country and they need to know that Government is on their side”.
Middle class or middle Ireland, it was all something of a sideshow in danger of detracting from confirmation by Mr Varadkar that subsidies for childcare were coming in September.
“Childcare is a huge barrier… and when I talk about the republic of opportunity, this is what I mean,” said Mr Varadkar. “More options for people to get out of poverty… and in my view you do it through employment.
— Leo Varadkar (@campaignforleo) July 26, 2017
“Adding an extra €5 or €10 a week in tax relief or increase welfare isn’t the way to do it in my view.”
In addition, Mr Varadkar said the government is working to increase social housing by 33pc to address Ireland’s shortage, and confirmed plans to implement fines against those who leave properties sitting idle.
However, he warned that the scale of the social housing problem means it will not be solved in the life of this government.
“The State is building houses but not enough. It has ramped up,” he said.
“We stopped building houses for far too long in Ireland for lots of reasons; we are now back in the space where the State is building houses again.
“There are 3,000 currently under construction now, compared to 1,000 the same time last year.”
While not ruling out increasing taxes to help fund his vision of a “republic of opportunity”, Mr Varadkar said a rise in employment would provide the extra funding needed.
“Tax revenues are up. Not as much as we thought they would be but they are up because there are more people working and there are more people earning more, and more people spending more in the economy,” said Mr Varadkar, whose government will soon confirm a ten-year capital investment plan worth approx €80 billion that would bring with it significant opportunity.
But the Taoiseach added: “I don’t rule out raising some taxes into the future.”
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