Tuesday 17 October 2017

Leadership battle has 'put the fizz' back into Fine Gael

Simon Coveney minutes after Leo Varadkar was announced as the new Fine Gael leader
Simon Coveney minutes after Leo Varadkar was announced as the new Fine Gael leader
Simon Coveney embraces Leo Varadkar at the Mansion House, Dublin
Simon Coveney TD with his wife Ruth during the Fine Gael Leadership Election at the Mansion House, Dublin
Leo Varadkar with his parents Ashok and Miriam
Leo Varadkar at the Mansion House minutes after being elected the new leader of Fine Gael
Leo Varadkar at the Mansion House minutes after being elected the new leader of Fine Gael
Simon Harris TD at the Mansion House, Dublin
Leo Varadkar (left) and Simon Coveney. Photo: Arthur Carron.
Niall O'Connor

Niall O'Connor

In the sanctuary of the committee room on the fifth floor of Leinster House, the 73 members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party cast their ballots in the contest to elect their next leader.

Peering down upon the TDs and senators as they voted were the former leaders of Fine Gael, including party icon Michael Collins.

Over 90 years ago, Collins was present in the Round Room of the Mansion House for the inaugural meeting of Fine Gael’s predecessor Cumann na nGaedheal.

Today, in that very room, Fine Gael elected its youngest ever leader in Leo Varadkar.

And in just over a few weeks time, Leo is expected take charge of the most powerful political office in the land.

While the past two weeks have exposed a level of infighting and division within the Fine Gael tent, the leadership contest has nonetheless given the party a massive boost.

It was a spiky contest - but it should not have left any great enmity between the Varadkar and Coveney camps.  

The leadership battle has given Fine Gael members a sense of purpose.

It has made the party fizz.

The first of the four hustings in the Red Cow Hotel last Thursday was more like an Ard Fheis.

Over 1,000 members spilled through the corridors of the vicinity, given the clear impression that Fine Gael is still the largest and most popular party in Ireland.

As the hustings went up to Galway, so did the party’s poll rating.

It has caused Fianna Fáil TDs to feel nervous. Their party could have pulled the plug in February as the garda row escalated to unprecedented proportions.

But Micheál Martin held fire. It may be a move he will live to regret.

One man who will be watching proceedings today with a real degree of emotion is Enda Kenny.

His tenure as Fine Gael leader has come to an end. Despite the prospect of him being dragged out of the party kicking and screaming, Mr Kenny has been allowed to depart on his own terms.

He has stepped down with great dignity - many would have expected nothing less from the outgoing Taoiseach.

It's expected the Leo camp will celebrate into the night, knowing that their co-ordinated and well-oiled campaign was highly effective.

But the honeymoon period for the Dublin West TD could end quicker than he thinks.

He will shortly have to grips with the Brexit negotiations, the challenges in health and education.

And what about the future of the Garda Commissioner? Will Leo stand by Nóirín O''Sullivan, like his predecessor has always done so.

Does he have the temperament to be Taoiseach? That remains to be seen.

Does he have the gumption to cut loose in the winter and call a snap election, in order to seek a new mandate? Some of his supporters certainly believe he does.

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