After delivering an inspirational but ultimately vacuous speech on the implications of the Coronavirus crisis, the caretaker 26 County Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been urged to take more practical action to protect lives and livelihoods across Ireland.
On the evening of a cheerless St Patrick’s Day -- with parades cancelled, pubs closed and even private get togethers discouraged -- Varadkar addressed a tired and emotional nation in a televised state broadcast.
The speech avoided any reference to his government’s singular failure to slow the virus up to this point, but called for support and unity in the face of what he warned was “a coming storm, a coming surge”.
Despite cynicism among republicans, it struck a chord for members of the public aching for leadership, direction and family values in a time of crisis.
But others sensed the event was mainly a PR exercise by an unpopular Taoiseach who was voted out of office in last month’s election. Television pundit Joe Brolly branded the televised address as an “insult of people’s intelligence” and that speech “wasn’t showing leadership at all”.
“You know, talking about the Mammys, Daddys and little children doing their homework. All this coy stuff, it has obviously been written by some speechwriter who has decided that this is a good opportunity for Leo to look prime ministerial,” he said.
Sinn Féin’s Paul Donnelly said the acting Taoiseach “told us absolutely nothing new” and that it was “a waste” of a serious national broadcast.
But there was a lot of praise for the quality of the writing, the work of official government speechwriter and historian Patrick Geoghegan.
The address read that it was ‘a St Patrick’s Day like no other, one we’ll never forget.’
It added: “Today’s children will tell their own children and grandchildren about the national holiday in 2020 that had no parades or parties but instead saw everyone staying at home to protect each other.
“In years to come, let them say of us, when things were at their worst, we were at our best. We’re in the middle of a global and a national emergency, a pandemic, the likes of which no-one has ever seen before.”
Praising overworked healthcare workers, it added: “Not all superheroes wear capes; some wear scrubs and gowns.”
There was a more mixed response to an attempt to invoke the spirit of the Blitz and the WW2 ‘Battle of Britain’ with a line inspired by former British PM Winston Churchill: “This is the calm before the storm, before the surge. And when it comes, and it will come, never will so many ask so much of so few. We’ll do all that we can to support them,” referring to health workers.
Barack Obama’s speechwriter Cody Keenan praised the speech which he said would be remembered.
“Tough, strong speech to give on Ireland’s national holiday. Reassuring, empathetic, directly addresses young people, the world, and fear itself. Brings everyone into the front lines. Well done. Will be remembered,” he wrote.
However, amid the high rhetoric, there was no announcement of support for those suffering financially and little hope that people can avoid becoming sick.
At the same time Varadkar has lowered expectations to the floor in terms of controlling the disease, repeatedly insisting it cannot be stopped and warning of 15,000 cases of the disease in Ireland within just ten days time.
By the time of writing on Friday evening, there were 643 cases in Ireland, 557 in the 26 Counties and 86 in the North. Four people have died, including one in the North and three in the east.
So far, one third of those who have tested positive have required hospitalisation. Almost 20% of cases are now due to ‘community transmission’ -- a person-to-person infection with no apparent source or cause. More than 20% of those infected are healthcare workers.
Dublin currently has by far the highest number of cases, almost half of the total, as a direct result of the number people travelling to the city from the disease epicentre in Italy. Monaghan is now the only county in Ireland not to have recorded a case.