Sunday 22 October 2017

Fionnan Sheahan: From 'One to Watch' to Taoiseach - what will Varadkar do with power?

Leo Varadkar TD during the Fine Gael Leadership Election between Simon Coveney TD & Leo Varadkar TD at the Mansion House, Dublin.
Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Leo Varadkar TD during the Fine Gael Leadership Election between Simon Coveney TD & Leo Varadkar TD at the Mansion House, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank McGrath
Minister Leo Varadkar and Minister Simon Coveney at the Fine Gael Hustings for the leadership of the party
Leo Varadkar at the Mansion House minutes after being elected the new leader of Fine Gael
Leo Varadkar arriving at the Mansion House this evening (Image: Mark Condren)
Leo Varadkar at his ‘Taking Fine Gael Forward’ party policy paper launch in Dublin . Photo: Tom Burke
Simon Coveney minutes after Leo Varadkar was announced as the new Fine Gael leader
Leo Varadkar with his parents Ashok and Miriam
Leo Varadkar at the Mansion House minutes after being elected the new leader of Fine Gael
Simon Coveney TD with his wife Ruth during the Fine Gael Leadership Election at the Mansion House, Dublin
Simon Coveney embraces Leo Varadkar at the Mansion House, Dublin
Simon Harris TD at the Mansion House, Dublin
Leo Varadkar,TD,the Minister for Social Protection at the launch of his "Taking Fine Gael Forward" party policy paper as part of his Leadership election campaign held at the Irish Architectural Archive, 45 Merrion Square East, Dubli yesterday. Pic Tom Burke 24/5/2017
Fionnan Sheahan

Fionnan Sheahan

In hindsight, he probably wasn't a precocious snob, he's just innately shy.

My first interaction with Leo Varadkar was in the late 1990s, when we were both members of Young Fine Gael while in different colleges.

(I put it down to my reckless and misguided days of youth, a bit like Mary-Lou McDonald's time in Fianna Fáil and Joe Higgins's period in Labour. And, to be honest, I always found the Fianna Fáil lads to be better drinkers).

Yes, he did come across as an arrogant jock from Trinity College and was offputting. Actually, he's just not a 'hail fellow, well met' type who is comfortable with strangers.

'Leo and Lucinda' were a formidable team. Lucinda Creighton was the leader of the Trinity YFG crowd and Varadkar played second fiddle.

Their talents were spotted by Fine Gael party headquarters and the party's then national youth officer Joanne Harmon, who helped them advance.

Minister Leo Varadkar with President Michael D Higgins. Photo: Frank McGrath
Minister Leo Varadkar with President Michael D Higgins. Photo: Frank McGrath

The pair were involved on the European committee of Young Fine Gael, kind of the intellectual wing of the youth branch of the party - if that's not a misnomer.

At a national youth conference in Galway, my rebel colleagues and I from UCC decided to attempt a coup d'état on the YFG European committee - not out of any interest in EU affairs, just to kick out and annoy the Trinity brigade.

Pints in the bar got in the way.

Any gobshite can make a mark in college politics, where the stakes are so low. 'Yoof' politics is akin to under-age hurling. There's plenty of lads with minor medals who never make the senior grade.

Where Varadkar really made his mark was in the 2004 local elections. Creighton grabbed more attention for winning a seat in Dublin City Council. But Varadkar, almost unnoticed, got just short of 5,000 votes and almost two quotas in the Castleknock ward of Fingal County Council.

Not only was it among the biggest votes in the country, but meant he was a dead cert to be elected as a TD in Dublin West next time out.

At a meeting of the judges for the Magill Politician of the Year Award in Buswells Hotel the following year, I recall having to repeatedly pronounce his surname when mentioning him as a contender for the 'One to Watch' category, given his local elections performance.

In exasperation, a fellow judge called him "the foreign fellah" and he was put on the list with Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty, who won.

Is it a surprise 20 years later to see Varadkar on the brink of becoming Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach? Yes and no. Anybody who claims they can predict the future in politics is lying. But, yeah, he was always bright and did have the potential to go far.

In any walk of life, it's interesting to see a person of your generation rise to high office.

What he does with the power he is now about to attain is what really matters. And you have to say it is rather amusing to observe those of a liberal mindset suddenly realise Leo Varadkar is not of their ilk.

The assumption appeared to be that Varadkar was part of the right-on brigade. He's not, but it's wrong to characterise him as utterly right-wing. Through his Fine Gael leadership campaign, he has attracted accusations he will swing the party right.

When they came from left-wing politicians, he wasn't bothered.

When Simon Coveney threw it at him, he hit back saying it was "divisive and dishonest".

It's hard to see what Varadkar was objecting to. Nobody forced him to choose provocative language in his campaign.

He chose to talk of banning strikes by workers in essential services and expressed the view he wanted to represent "people who get up early in the morning".

How it came across and what he meant were different but perception does matter.

He has spoken of there being two sectors in society: those who expect everything for free and those who pay for those very services.

Varadkar says Fine Gael "should be a warm house for those who hold traditional views as well as those who hold liberal ones" on abortion. Yet he also believed "we need to ensure the politics of the moral civil war are consigned to history".

He has consistently said the Eighth Amendment is too restrictive, however, he doesn't support abortion on demand. And he comfortably describes himself over recent years as "pro-life".

His stance on abortion will be hugely influential on the timing and extent of the upcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment and what should replace it.

Although it would be a mistake to categorise him as a social liberal, you also can't say he is without a social conscience. His tax policies would benefit the coping classes by lowering the burden.

The question now is if he was campaigning in poetry and will govern in prose.

If Varadkar follows though on his rhetoric, he has the capacity to redefine politics in this country.

The squeezed middle could do with a champion. Is it Leo?

Irish Independent

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