Leo the Lion unleashes his star power to woo the troops
Published 23/07/2014 | 02:30
THERE'S a pub right across the road from the Highlands Hotel called Leo's Bar. Its proprietor is Leo McLoone Snr, father of the Donegal footballer who bears his name.
Though it wouldn't have been a total surprise to learn that the hostelry had been recently rechristened to welcome the brand-new Health Minister to Glenties.
For in the absence of the Taoiseach making the pilgrimage to Donegal, there's little doubt that the starry Leo Varadkar is to the MacGill talking shop what Niall Horan is to a stadium full of One Directioners.
Twice during the opening day on Monday, his name was invoked in his absence to approving applause.
"Leo the lion!" proclaimed political pundit Noel Whelan (applause).
"Leo's a straight talker!" declared management consultant Eddie Molloy (more applause).
Of course it could be that an audience comprising mainly of retirees were eager to hear his views on the perpetually thorny issue of medical cards for pensioners. But there's a bit of stardust (mixed with a whiff of sulphur) from the Fine Gael TD. He's young. He's tall.
And remarkably sometimes he opens his mouth and the unspun truth falls out, as rare as yellow diamonds.
Leo was once firm friends with another young Turk of Fine Gael, another rising star destined for the front bench.
And Lucinda Creighton almost made it, she was junior Europe minister when she parted company with Fine Gael over the abortion bill, almost exactly a year ago on July 11.
Lucinda was at the summer school yesterday as well. She was taking part in the morning session, alongside Independent Catherine Murphy, Sinn Fein's Pearse Doherty and Pat Leahy, political editor of the 'Sunday Business Post'.
And she's in a different place now than she was a year ago; she has a lovely four-month old daughter, Gwendolyn, who was making her MacGill debut and being minded by her daddy, Senator Paul Bradford.
Lucinda also has a new . . . not a political party, but what she carefully calls a "parliamentary group", the Reform Alliance.
It was a more mellow deputy who took to the stage this year than the spiky backbencher of four years ago who excoriated her party for being "Fianna Fail light" among other critiques – one of which landed her in a High Court tangle with a property developer.
And she still continued to lay out a few teasing breadcrumbs about whether a new political party was in the making, musing in her speech about how a party in Slovenia formed six weeks before a general election and took 36.8pc.
"We don't know when the next election is, I think that is probably sooner than people might have realised before the local and European elections.
"So people need to start thinking about getting organised and preparing," she said.
Does that include herself?
"Maybe," she mused.
But the evening session featuring Leo, Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, pictured, was undeniably the biggest box office of the day. By the 8.30pm kick-off time, the hall was stifling and stuffed to the rafters.
Micheal gave a measured speech about the shortcomings of the political system.
Mary Lou highlighted (correctly) the lack of diversity within elected life, which even the most cursory of glances around the Dail will underline how it's predominantly white, male and middle-aged.
The crowd were waiting for Leo the Lion. And he came out roaring. He gave digs to Fianna Fail and took skelps at Sinn Fein, excoriating the party for "refusing to trust the people with the truth about its past," he said.
"Its members defiantly proclaim that their president has nothing to answer for about his activities in the past, blindly insisting that there is no story to tell, even though such claims are increasingly hollow and hard to believe."
But there was much more to his speech than just landing a few political blows. Expanding on the theme of public distrust of politicians, he turned the theme on its head.
"I wonder if a bigger problem is that politicians don't trust the people?" he asked.
"Time and time again, politicians fail to trust people," he declared.
"We tell them that you can have a school in every village, a university in every large town. And worse still, even if is affordable, we do not trust people enough to tell them why it would not be a good idea. Routinely, in opposition, politicians promise the undeliverable and then, surprisingly, under-deliver."
It was a leaderly sort of speech, and unlike some of the turgid fare dished out at MacGill, gave food for thought.It's likely to make his boss, the Taoiseach, very thoughtful indeed.