Thursday 27 July 2017

Disco dancing days over, Leo's finally decided that he wants us, but should we want him?

Varadkar's moment of hesitation should reassure us that he's the man for the job, writes Donal Lynch

The forerunner for the top job, Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA Wire
The forerunner for the top job, Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA Wire

Donal Lynch

The ferocity of the Fine Gael leadership contest, which moved inexorably toward its climax last week, is all the more surprising because for the longest time it looked as though nobody in the upper echelons of the party particularly burned to take over from Enda. Least of all Leo Varadkar.

He was a young man who gave over his life to medicine and delayed coming out until almost middle age - understandably he didn't give the impression of yearning for yet another enormous responsibility. And so he made the most of his 30s, and managed to combine being a minister with an actual life, while Enda ossified into the role and everyone else waited in the wings.

Over the last 18 months something changed, however. It might be that Leo's brief, but well-documented, burst of partying and the blossoming experience of a new relationship helped him get life out of his system, clearing the way for the ambition which runs in his veins. It might have been that he realised it was now or never. It might have been that he couldn't stomach Simon Coveney or even Simon Harris as a boss.

Whatever the reason, the little boy who told his mother's friends he wanted to be a minister was always in there somewhere. This year he reassured the nation, as though we were guests in his mother's parlour, that he will always be a career politician. The qualms were gone. The disco dancing is probably a thing of the past, thanks to camera phones. And, almost inevitably now, he will get the biggest political job of all.

But now that Leo has worked his way through his reservations to want to be Taoiseach, should we want him? In a sense, the pros and cons of Leo are two sides of the one coin.

Read More: Varadkar sees himself as the 'Irish Macron'

To many conservative rural voters, he is style over substance, an elitist urbanite who has never performed spectacularly in any portfolio he has been given, an unnerving prospect given the uncertainty of Brexit, which will be the biggest immediate challenge for whoever becomes Taoiseach. The other side of the political spectrum were never really in love with him either. Despite being one of the leading lights of the marriage referendum, he never quite became an all-out darling of liberal Ireland. Though he once called himself "a socialist", his recent pivot to the right, on issues like abortion and welfare fraud, caused further dismay in what should probably be his core constituency on a national level. To those who want him as Taoiseach, the style is important. Leo's critics might see his coronation as part of an international trend of electing right-on pretty boys (Trudeau, Macron) to high office but, like it or not, politics is about symbolism and personal presentation too. We will have to see and hear whomever becomes Taoiseach fairly constantly and there's at least half the Dail who would certainly exhaust our cringe muscle if they had to speak for the nation.

Coveney might not be one of these gombeens, but there is no getting away from the fact that he would be yet another Taoiseach - making it three in a row if he won - who inherited his seat from his father. He is a child of privilege, whose agriculture portfolio was referenced in the slightly unfair description of him as being very much like cream - rich and thick.

Read More: '21,000 grassroots FG voices must be heard'

There is an argument that Coveney has performed more dynamically in his ministries than Varadkar has performed in his, but escaping unscathed from the health portfolio was no mean feat for Leo and the merchant prince from Cork hasn't really made much of a dint in the housing situation, despite all the noise to the contrary. A recent internal Fine Gael constituency review was critical of Coveney's performance in the post and seemed to play into the hands of the Varadkar campaign.

Leo, like Simon, is a former private schoolboy. But he is the child of an immigrant, who as a gay man had another layer of outsider status in his own country. These things perhaps shouldn't matter, but they do.

Less than a quarter of a century after decriminalisation, a gay Taoiseach would represent as seismic a moment for Ireland as the election of Obama did in America. He will also be the youngest ever Taoiseach, which is also hugely significant given where we are at as a nation, with young people struggling to get footholds which their parents took for granted. His young fogeydom, uneasy relationship with the Repeal movement and awfully misjudged welfare fraud campaign, will assuredly prevent his coronation from feeling like some kind of euphoric youth revolution. But at the same time, it does seem important to have a man in charge who is part of the first generation of Irish people who will be worse off than the previous one.

There's probably truth in the claims that he is personally awkward, sometimes aloof and not massively concerned with the mundane nitty gritty of constituency issues. But that is also why the nation should be cheering him to the finishing post; he's at a remove from the clientilism and parish-pump rank and file of the Dail.

The other side of his interpersonal style is that he is refreshingly blunt-spoken for a politician. Unlike Coveney, Varadkar had a real career before entering politics and the very fact that he had to reassure us, even now, that he is a career politician, is in itself reassuring.

It's perhaps this belated process of growing into his responsibilities and ambition that is the most humanising thing about Leo Varadkar.

While Bertie - the previous youngest Taoiseach - was rattling the gates of Leinster House as a teenager, Varadkar was as ambivalent as a normal person about his ambition. The author Douglas Adams once said that anyone who wanted to become president of America should automatically be barred from doing so. Leo wasn't sure about us and that should make us sure about him.

His previous hesitation to grasp the top job is proof that now he is the right man to do it.

Fine Gael parliamentary party endorsements for leader

The Fine Gael parliamentary party makes up 65pc of the total electorate.

That makes each of the 73 members' votes worth 0.9pc of the total ballot.

Of the remaining electorate, 230 party councillors account for 10pc, while the remaining 25pc is rank and file members.

Leo Varadkar
Simon Coveney

Total: 45

Total: 19

Ministers: 17

Ministers: 5

TDs: 16

TDs: 5

Senators: 11

Senators: 8

MEPs: 1

MEPs: 1

Richard Bruton -MinisterSimon Harris - Minister
Frances Fitzgerald - MinisterDamien English - Minister
Michael Ring - MinisterDara Murphy - Minister
Eoghan Murphy - MinisterDavid Stanton - Minister
Sean Kyne - MinisterMarcella Corcoran Kennedy - Minister
Joe McHugh - MinisterKate O'Connell - TD
Helen McEntee - MinisterMaria Bailey - TD
Charlie Flanagan - MinisterSean Barrett TD
Paul Kehoe -MinisterHildegard Naughton - TD
Patrick O'Donovan - MinisterPeter Fitzpatrick - TD
Regina Doherty - MinisterTim Lombard - Senator
Mary Mitchell O'Connor - MinisterJerry Buttimer - Senator
Paschal Donohoe - MinisterPaudie Coffey - Senator
Heather Humphreys - MinisterJames Reilly - Senator
Pat Breen - MinisterColm Burke - Senator
Catherine Byrne - MinisterJohn O'Mahony - Senator
Andrew Doyle - MinisterPaul Coghlan - Senator
John Paul Phelan - TDGabrielle McFadden - Senator
Noel Rock - TDDeirdre Clune - MEP
Tony McLoughlin - TD 
Alan Farrell - TD 
Michael D'Arcy - TD 
Tom Neville - TD 
Josepha Madigan - TD 
Pat Deering - TD 
Jim Daly - TD 
Brendan Griffin - TD 
Ciaran Cannon - TD 
Colm Brophy - TD 
Peter Burke - TD 
Fergus O'Dowd - TD 
John Deasy - TD 
Joe Carey - TD 
Neale Richmond - Senator 
Catherine Noone - Senator 
Paddy Burke - Senator 
Martin Conway - Senator 
Michelle Mulherin - Senator 
Maura Hopkins - Senator 
Ray Butler - Senator 
Frank Feighan - Senator 
Maria Byrne - Senator 
Joe O'Reilly - Senator 
Kieran O'Donnell - Senator 
Brian Hayes - MEP 
Undeclared
Enda Kenny - Outgoing Party Leader *Martin Heydon - Party Chairman *
Michael Noonan - MinisterMichael Creed - Minister
Bernard Durkan - TDSean Kelly - MEP
Mairead McGuinness MEP  

* Outgoing leader Enda Kenny and party chairman Martin Heydon will not make an endorsement

Sunday Independent

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